On March 4, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his most famous speech, his second inaugural address to the American nation that had endured four hard years of civil war. In seven hundred and one words, the Union’s commander-in-chief hoped for the speedy passage of “this mighty scourge of war,” God’s retribution for “every drop of blood drawn with the lash,” and began to prepare the nation for the even greater challenges that would come with war’s end. Looking forward to the once-more united nation he and his fellow countrymen would rebuild, President Lincoln declared, “With malice toward none, with charity for all… let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and orphans; to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

President Abraham Lincoln delivers his second inaugural address.
President Abraham Lincoln delivers his second inaugural address.

But the reconciliatory spirit of Abraham Lincoln’s plan to reconstruct the post-war United States was only one approach of many proposed, debated, and pursued in the era immediately following the Civil War. At stake were the terms upon which the southern states would reenter the Union, the status of approximately four million African Americans previously held in slavery, the future of American labor, and the nature and definition of American citizenship and associated rights and privileges. A period in which Americans were actively working out the nature of the promise of American freedom, the era’s politics produced frequent bitter contest among various factions, as well as between policy makers and southerners who did “not care a damn” to be reconstructed in the first place. Even the history of Reconstruction has stimulated intense and sustained debate among scholars, recently inspiring a number of field-changing histories that take a more capacious perspective as to the scope, aims, periodization, and reach of projects that reconstructed post-war America into a more deeply united set of states. “Greater Reconstruction” is one such articulation of a broader historical approach to the themes and big questions of the traditional Reconstruction era, allowing historians, and anyone interested, a chance to gain a truly national perspective of the tumultuous post-Civil War period.

Textbook Reconstruction

Traditionally, historians have defined Reconstruction as the immediate post-war era, beginning either in 1863 with the Emancipation Proclamation or 1865 with the end of the Civil War. Divided into two stages – presidential (under Lincoln and Johnson) and congressional (think Radical Republicans) – Reconstruction classically draws to a close in 1877 with the final withdrawal of federal troops from the South, part of the informal compromise of 1877 that gave Rutherford B. Hayes the White House. This 1863/65 – 1877 timeline focuses on events in the American Southeast, particularly the terms by which the former Confederate states rejoined the Union, as well as the efforts by which Republicans tried to give African Americans the vote and a secure place in American society, in spite of the violence and legal discrimination that characterized race relations in the post-war South.

Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution (1988) remains the classic and best text on the subject, but represents only a small part of the scholarship on the history and meaning of the period. Determining the extent to which Reconstruction was a moment of radical change has energized and centrally motivated a century of intellectual debate among American historians. Emphasizing African Americans’ role as “active agents in the making of Reconstruction,” Eric Foner’s classic convincing argues that Reconstruction was a radical political effort in its serious and noble attempts to create an interracial American democracy. While early twentieth-century historians sympathized with the white South unfairly occupied by a vindictive northern political agenda, historians have more recently emphasized the fact that, despite its shortcomings, Reconstruction policy did give African Americans the constitutional right to vote, as well as some economic independence and political power.

Eric Foner on Historians’ Changing Views of Reconstruction

Suggested Reading: Reconstruction Classics

  • Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: HarperCollins, 1988). An abridged version of this book is available as A Short History of Reconstruction, 1863 – 1877 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988).
  • Eric Foner, “Reconstruction Revisited,” Reviews in American History 10, no. 4 (1982): 82-100.
  • Steven Hahn, A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration (Boston: Belknap Harvard, 2003)
  • Eugene H. Berwanger, The West and Reconstruction (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1981)

Greater Reconstruction Rising

Absent in much of the classic literature on Reconstruction, however, is the history of western spaces and people, a surprising trend given the importance of western territory to the free vs. slave labor debates of the antebellum period. While Eugene Berwanger’s The West and Reconstruction stands as the first book-length history of the Reconstruction era West, scholars have recently made considerable strides towards writing and teaching a Reconstruction of truly national proportions. From this exciting growth area of scholarship arose “Greater Reconstruction,” a national framework for the period articulated by Elliott West in his 2011 text, The Last Indian War. Offering a history of the Nez Perce war as a way to understand the methods by which “America was remade in the middle of the nineteenth century,” West suggests a “Greater Reconstruction” framework for understanding American expansion and development from 1845 to 1877. The mid-nineteenth century was defined by two central events: the Civil War and American expansion into the Far West. However, rather than two simultaneous, but separate, turning points in American history, West convincingly suggests they were bound together, raising “similar questions and [leading] to twinning crises” which required solutions that “essentially remade the nation.” Thus, the Greater Reconstruction framework retains historians’ focus on the traditional aspects of Reconstruction, but extends the concept’s temporal and geographic parameters.

Thinking in terms of Greater Reconstruction allows historians to unite South and West (as well as East and West) on the basis of the regions’ three shared issues. Nineteenth-century America’s first challenge was mastering its expansive geography; as West puts it, “Could a large, and diverse nation, especially a republic, hang together?” As tensions North and South came to a head with civil war, westward expansion magnified the problem. By the post-war period, however, all sections were bonded by “a vigorous integration of regions into a national whole.” Second, the nature of the federal government’s relationship to its nation’s diverse regions had to be determined, a question quickly answered after the Civil War with increased centralized authority. Finally, the scope and nature of American citizenship had to be addressed, both as southerners attempted to reject theirs in 1860, and the inclusion new groups, particularly African Americans in the South and Indians in the West, became necessary. Greater Reconstruction emphasizes the expansion of federal authority across the nineteenth century, which united West and South into one nation but produced vastly different outcomes in each region.

Beyond 1877

While Elliott West’s definition of “Greater Reconstruction” begins the period with the territorial acquisitions of the Far Southwest in the 1840s and ends with the traditional 1877 marker, other historians have identified strands of continuity between western reform projects post-1877 and the policies designed to reconstruct the former Confederate South. The realities of civil war, which pulled the federal government out of its previous “state of impotence,” created “as Sen. George S. Boutwell later put it, a ‘new government,’ with a greatly expanded income, bureaucracy, and set of responsibilities.” Only after the Civil War could the federal government, endowed with greater power than ever before, practically handle its western “problems,” particularly the threat the autonomy of Native Americans and practicing polygamists posed to the creation of a homogeneous citizenry in the post-Civil War period.

“The Three Troublesome Children,” from The Wasp (1881).
“The Three Troublesome Children,” from The Wasp (1881).

Viewing the final Indian Wars of the late nineteenth century, the strategic dissolution of Indian Territory as a non-reservation space of preserved Native American sovereignty, and the vigorous attack on the Mormon practice of polygamy, slavery’s sister “relic of barbarism,” in Utah Territory in the late 1870s as “second reconstructions” has helped historians reveal the fact that federal political and “moral oversight” did not end with the desertion of Reconstruction in the South and that federal management was significantly more successful in the West than in the South.

Possible Alternative End Events for Reconstruction

  • 1877 – Nez Perce War, the last Indian War
  • 1878 – Reynolds v. United States, the Supreme Court upheld George Reynolds conviction of bigamy, allowing Congress to successfully pass laws dismantling polygamy
  • 1890 – Dissolution of Indian Territory to bring Oklahoma statehood, the abandonment of the commitment to an Indian Country in favor of a reservation and assimilation system.
  • 1890 – The failure of the Lodge Bill, a bill that would have authorized the federal government the power to enforce the rights of African Americans to vote, particularly in the South

Suggested Reading: Greater Reconstruction[ix]

  • Elliott West, The Last Indian War: The Nez Perce Story (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011)
  • Thomas J. Brown, ed. Reconstructions: New Perspectives on the Postbellum United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006)
  • William Deverell, “Redemptive California? Re-thinking the Post-Civil War,” Rethinking History 11, No. 1 (March 2007): 61 – 78.
  • Gregory P. Downs, After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War (New York: Harvard University Press, 2015)
  • Carole Emberton, Beyond Redemption: Race, Violence, and the American South after the Civil War (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2013)
  • Sarah Barringer Gordon, The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002)
  • Steve Hahn, “Slave Emancipation, Indian Peoples, and the Projects of a New American Nation-State,” The Journal of the Civil War Era 3, no. 3 (2013): 307–330.
  • Heather Cox Richardson, West from Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America after the Civil War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007)
  • Stacey L. Smith, Freedom’s Frontier: California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and Reconstruction (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2013)
  • Elliott West, “Reconstructing Race,” The Western Historical Quarterly 34, No. 1 (Spring, 2003), pp. 6 – 26.

Classroom Activity: Define Reconstruction

The Reconstruction era has long inspired vibrant historical debate and reconsideration. Have your students join the conversation by asking them to delineate what they consider the defining features of Reconstruction (time span, geography, phases, ideals, outcomes, consequences, major actors, etc.), as well has provide their reasons for their choices. This can be done before a lecture or discussion section. After you finish your Reconstruction unit, which hopefully includes an introduction to a Greater Reconstruction perspective, ask students to go back to their definitions. What might they revise about their earlier definitions? Have their parameters expanded or become more tightly defined? Have students make their additions in a different color pen/pencil or on another sheet of paper, so that they can visually see the changes they have made.

Reconstructing Reconstruction

The history of Reconstruction has its own significant and sizable history, but scholars are by no means finished debating its reach and impact. While some first though Eric Foner’s history of Reconstruction would be the last word on the subject, concepts like Greater Reconstruction have helped historians turn their attention westward. This new orientation is already producing exciting new histories of a well-worn era of study and may very well change our understanding of the successes and failures of Reconstruction writ large. Eric Foner best explains why historians keep coming back to the post-Civil War moment: “Citizenship, rights, democracy — as long as these remain contested, so will the necessity of an accurate understanding of Reconstruction. More than most historical subjects, how we think about this era truly matters, for it forces us to think about what kind of society we wish America to be.” Ideas like Greater Reconstruction help us better understand this critical moment in history, allowing us to appreciate the historical roots of our past actions and our future hopes for the American experiment.

Special thanks to Branden Adams (Stanford), José Argueta Funes (Princeton), Nicole N. Martin (Stanford), Evgenia Shnayder Shoop (UPenn), and Kevin Waite (UPenn) for their contributions in putting together a Greater Reconstruction reading list.

  1. Major Innes Randolph, “Good Ol’ Rebel Soldier,” http://www.civilwarpoetry.org/confederate/songs/rebel.html
  2. Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: HarperCollins, 1988), xxiv
  3. Elliott West, The Last Indian War: The Nez Perce Story (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), xviii
  4. America’s expansion into the Far West is marked, according to West, by “the annexation of Texas (1845), the Mexican War (1846 – 1848), and the acquisition of the Pacific Northwest, including Nez Perce country (1846); West, xix – xx
  5. West, xx
  6. Although “Washington’s answers for East and West were much the same… freed people and Indians would ultimately be citizens,” the responses of each group proved vastly dissimilar. For those who did not accept citizenship, particularly non-treaty Indians, “the government’s answer was what it had been for southern whites who had earlier tried to opt out of citizenship – military conquest.” Karl Jacoby, Shadows at Dawn: A Borderlands Massacre and the Violence of History (New York: The Penguin Press, 2008), xxi.
  7. Foner, Reconstruction, 12.
  8. Sarah Barringer Gordon, The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 14.p
Alexandra E. Stern has a Bachelor’s degree in American history with honors from the University of Pennsylvania (2013). She is currently a doctoral student at Stanford University, specializing in nineteenth century American history, with particular emphasis on the Civil War and Reconstruction. Her research focuses on the centrality of the nineteenth century’s “Indian Problem” to Reconstruction efforts in the West from the 1860s into the 1890s. In her spare time, she is an active equestrian and happy dog and horse owner.

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