Category: History

Reconstruction: America After The Civil War

With the end of the American Civil War in 1865, a period known as the Reconstruction era came to the forefront of American life. Initially beginning in 1863 with Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the era continued until 1877 when Ulysses S. Grant left presidential office.

The era focused on the civil rights of black people, the enfranchisement of freedmen, and the reforms expected in the former Confederate states. As well as gains for the black populace, the era featured a huge amount of violence with riots, massacres and lynchings a regular occurence, plus the establishment of the Klu Klux Klan.

An agent of the Freedmen’s Bureau adjudicates a dispute during Reconstruction (The Nation)

After watching Ken Burns: The Civil War I really wanted to learn what came next, but was unable to find any documentaries on the subject. And reading a Wikipedia entry will only get you so far…

A year or so later however, I was watching The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and a historian called Henry Louis Gates Jr was on the show to discuss a new PBS series he had produced called Reconstruction: America After The Civil War. This got me very excited!

I managed to find a PBS station to watch some of it, but then my access expired. This was very disappointing as it was a completely fantastic documentary, and it was just amazing to discover that there were black congressmen in the 19th century – it seemed so contradictory to everything I had learnt previously.

Recently I decided to try and find it on YouTube, and was very pleased to discover that some kind souls had uploaded all 4 episodes. I’m still to finish episode 4 at the moment, but the series is just as revelatory and educational as it was last year.

It is definitely one to watch if you want to learn how and why racism and white supremacy seem so firmly entrenched in American society.

There is also a book accompanying the series, and Stony the Road takes the reader from slavery, through Reconstruction, and to the 20th century. It’s on my reading list for sure.

The American Civil War

Following on from my previous post on Yugoslavia and Milosevic, another documentary we watched in 2018 was Ken Burns: The Civil War, focusing on the American Civil War of 1861 to 1865. Over 11 hours in duration, it is very very detailed, and not for the faint-hearted.

Using the power of photography as its base, the series graphically details each stage of the war, and really connects you to the stories of the politicians, soldiers and civilians involved in a conflict based on a man’s right to own slaves – or not.

And if you are wondering why it began in 1861, or the 12th of April 1861 to be precise, this date was only a few short months after the election of Abraham Lincoln on the 6th of November 1860. Lincoln ran on a platform “opposed [to] the expansion of slavery into the territories”, and with his election, the Southern States began to secede from the Union – the first being South Carolina on the 20th of December 1860. By the time of his inauguration on the 4th of March 1961, 7 states had already ceded, and less than 6 weeks later the first shots were fired.

Interestingly, Lincoln wasn’t opposed to slavery in its entirety at first, the full quote (shown partially above) should actually read as: “he opposed the expansion of slavery into the territories but did not favor the abolition of slavery in slave states”. Clearly, even a partial anti-slavery policy was enough for the Southern States to turn their back on the Union.

My key takeaway from the series was the ‘Lost Cause of the Confederacy’. This ideology teaches people that the war was not about slavery, but that it was about ‘states’ rights’. One could argue, however wrong, that such a nostalgic revisionist history of the war might help a group of people deal with the realities of being on the losing side of a war where between 620,000 and 750,000 people died, with much of the South’s infrastructure destroyed.

Oddly (you might think), this ideology didn’t gain much traction until the 1890s when the Civil War generation was starting to die out, and when the United Daughters of the Confederacy was formed. One of their keys aims was to erect monuments and memorials to Civil War generals, and their success with this, and other initiatives, helped to propagate the Lost Cause myth throughout the 20th century.

Learning about the Lost Cause helped me to understand recent events and protests about the use of confederate statues and flags in the Southern United States. One group views the objects as symbolic of oppression and the rise of white supremacy, the other group co-opts the objects into symbols of their ‘righteous fight’ against change, and their desire to recapture what once was.

If you would like learn more, and please do, the programme is currently available on Amazon Prime (it was on Netflix in 2018). And to whet your historical appetite, you can find the first episode on YouTube:

If historial fiction is more your bag, then I would thoroughly recommend Gettysburg. It is fantastic and harrowing and has a brilliant cast, and it is definitely not as jingoistic as the trailer suggests. Go watch:

Yugoslavia and Milosevic

In the early weeks after Rafe’s birth, Sam and I spent a lot of time watching historical documentaries. We found them much easier to focus on than a film or series (not quite sure why now), so we would watch portions of episodes at a time while looking after Rafe.

I remember watching the RAF at 100 with Ewan and Colin McGregor of all things, which was fun, but nowhere near as engrossing as The Death of Yugoslavia and The Fall of Milosevic.

The Yugoslav Wars are just at the edge of my memory as they started when I was little and I never followed their progression as I became a teenager. I barely registered a conflict just the other side of Italy, and it is only now thanks to the above documentaries that I know what happened.

I’m loathe to make any grand statements or conclusions about the conflict, instead I would urge you watch the documentaries if you can. Both are made by the same production team, the first won awards, and interview footage from the same was even used at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

If you don’t have the time, here is a 16 minute summary on the topic by WonderWhy:

I love history. I love how it gives me context and a sense of my place in the world. Learning about history empowers people to think about their thoughts, decisions and actions, and should hopefully encourage them to consider how they want to represent themselves in society.

To conclude, here are two quotes from people smarter than I:

The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.

GEorge orwell

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

George Santayana

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