Reconstruction: America After the Civil War
Even the most high-toned historical documentaries rarely satisfy scholars. Ken Burns’s acclaimed series The Civil War featured a charismatic Shelby Foote spouting reactionary pro-Confederate mythology and gushing about Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Southern general who oversaw the massacre of black soldiers during the war and became the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. The period following the Civil War, known as Reconstruction, has been especially ill-served by filmmakers. In 1915 D.W. Griffith, one of the founding geniuses of American cinema, released his blockbuster epic Birth of a Nation. Griffith used dramatic images that were startlingly innovative for the time, but he also portrayed lascivious, half-civilized blacks taking over the South and subjecting it to a reign of violence, corruption, and incompetence until beleaguered white Southerners were at last “redeemed” by fearless Klansmen.
In 1939 another Hollywood epic, Gone with the Wind, though less brutal in its racism, nevertheless perpetuated the stereotype of Reconstruction as a tragic era when a “prostrate South” was put to the heel by an unholy alliance of greedy carpetbaggers, sinister scalawags, and “uppity” blacks just released from slavery and raised far above their station. It’s not as though Hollywood just made this stuff up. Leading historians of the day, notably William Archibald Dunning at Columbia University, were telling the same nightmarish story about Reconstruction under the guise of disinterested scholarship.
There were dissenters, none more formidable than W.E.B. Du Bois. In 1935 he published his flawed masterpiece Black Reconstruction, which, among many other things, excoriated the Dunning school for its egregious distortions. But it was not until the 1960s that the “revisionist” view of Reconstruction filtered into the academic mainstream, as distinguished historians—notably John Hope Franklin and Kenneth Stampp—published brief surveys that introduced a more balanced view of the period. They emphasized the surprisingly mild treatment of ex-Confederates, the impressive achievements of the Reconstruction legislatures, and the long-term significance of the constitutional changes of the era. Then in 1988 Eric Foner published his definitive account, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877, and with that the scholarly demolition of the Dunning school was complete.
When Henry Louis Gates Jr. set out to produce a documentary series on Reconstruction for PBS, he wisely invited Foner to serve as his senior scholarly adviser. Together they assembled many of the very best historians working in the field to guide viewers through four superb hours on the history and significance of Reconstruction. With Gates narrating, the documentary takes us from the origins of Reconstruction as slavery was destroyed during the Civil War all the way to the…
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