One of the more confusing and misunderstood era’s of American history is the Reconstruction. Various schools of thought have analyzed this period from a number of perspectives but one thing they have all had in common is they have tended to treat African Americans as either victims, destroyers of society, or essentially objects that were swept up in the various political and social struggles of the era. Eric Foner in Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 challenges decades of historical thought on the Reconstruction by arguing that African Americans were central players in the Reconstruction. Foner, an author of numerous works on American history, brilliantly brings together an impressive array of sources and scholarship to create a work that in its depth, breadth, and insight sure to become a historical classic.
Foner uses 1863 and the Emancipation Proclamation as his starting point for the Reconstruction and 1877 as its finish. He does this to point out two major themes of his work; “grass-roots black activity and the newly empower national state.” For Foner these themes are critical in helping the reader understand how the Civil War did not free African Americans but allow them to start to take control of their own destinies and push a often recalcitrant America towards full abolishment of slavery. Foner early in his work discusses how African American’s built their own political and social communities often around churches. Many of these early black communities also rallied around leaders who often have served in ‘colored’ units during the Civil War. Foner also shows how African American’s embraced capitalism and the market economy to “master one’s own time, free from coercion of either an arbitrary master or the impersonal marketplace.” As such Foner convincingly demonstrates that African American’s wielded their new found personal power with vigor and effectiveness yet Foner’s book is not just about the black experience during the Reconstruction.
While Foner puts the black American at the for front of Reconstruction as agents of change he places their actions within the wider the stage of the Civil War, national politics, states struggles, the post war economy, and society. Foner uses the changes wrought by emancipation to also note the rise of upcountry yeoman who had little stake in slavery and found themselves often at odds with the larger confederacy. This new group of small farmers and close knit white communities during the Civil War found themselves suddenly politically empowered helping drive political movements in the Confederacy and even succession from it. Foner also looks deeply into the Republicans radical attempts to restructure the South to address the grievances of African Americans noting the difficulties, challenges, and conflict it evoked largely causing Reconstruction to fail. He also notes how the changes created in the South also reflected major changes in the North which generated its own, and often hideously violent, conflicts. These conflicts between labor and the emerging capitalist bourgeoisie, who were closely linked to the Republicans, Foner suggests helped, during the recession in the late 1870’s drive Republicans towards a conservative view and sympathy with white southern land holders.
While Foner’s book is not what most would define as military history it perhaps should be. As Foner notes revolution is often created through war and the actions of the Union during the Civil War helped birth emancipation and Reconstruction. As such Foner’s work deserves a place on any military historian’s book shelf interested in American Military History and its outcomes.