Blight Civil War and Reconstruction

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Yale University: The Civil War and Reconstruction with David Blight

This course explores the causes, course, and consequences of the American Civil War, from the 1840s to 1877. The primary goal of the course is to understand the multiple meanings of a transforming event in American history. Those meanings may be defined in many ways: national, sectional, racial, constitutional, individual, social, intellectual, or moral. Four broad themes are closely examined: the crisis of union and disunion in an expanding republic; slavery, race, and emancipation as national problem, personal experience, and social process; the experience of modern, total war for individuals and society; and the political and social challenges of Reconstruction.

Complete course materials are available at the Open Yale Courses website: http://open.yale.edu/courses

This course was recorded in Spring 2008.


Introductions: Why Does the Civil War Era Have a Hold on American Historical Imagination?

Professor Blight offers an introduction to the course. He summarizes some of the course readings, and discusses the organization of the course is discussed. Professor Blight offers some thoughts on the nature of history and the study of history, before moving into a discussion of the reasons for Americans' enduring fascination with the Civil War. The reasons include: the human passion for epics, Americans' fondness for redemption narratives, the Civil War as a moment of "racial reckoning," the fascination with loss and lost causes, interest in military history, and the search for the origins of the modern United States.


Southern Society: Slavery, King Cotton, and Antebellum America's "Peculiar" Region

Professor Blight offers a number of approaches to the question of southern distinctiveness. The lecture offers a survey of that manner in which commentators--American, foreign, northern, and southern--have sought to make sense of the nature of southern society and southern history. The lecture analyzes the society and culture of the Old South, with special emphasis on the aspects of southern life that made the region distinct from the antebellum North. The most lasting and influential sources of Old South distinctiveness, Blight suggests, were that society's anti-modernism, its emphasis on honor, and the booming slave economy that developed in the South from the 1820s to the 1860s.


A Southern World View: The Old South and Proslavery Ideology

Professor Blight lectures on southern slavery. He makes a case for viewing the U.S. South as one of the five true "slave societies" in world history. He discusses the internal slave trade that moved thousands of slaves from the eastern seaboard to the cotton states of the Southwest between 1820 and 1860. Professor Blight then sketches the contents of the pro-slavery argument, including its biblical, historical, economic, cynical, and utopian aspects.


A Northern World View: Yankee Society, Antislavery Ideology and the Abolition Movement

Having finished with slavery and the pro-slavery argument, Professor Blight heads North today. The majority of the lecture deals with the rise of the Market Revolution in the North, in the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s. Blight first describes the causes of the Market Revolution--the rise of capital, a transportation revolution--and then moves to its effects on the culture and consciousness of antebellum northerners. Among these effects were a riotous optimism mixed with a deep-rooted fear of change, an embrace of the notions of progress and Manifest Destiny, and the intensification of the divides between North and South.


Telling a Free Story: Fugitive Slaves and the Underground Railroad in Myth and Reality

Professor Blight discusses the rise of abolitionism. Blight begins with an introduction to the genre of slave narratives, with particular attention to Frederick Douglass' 1845 narrative. The lecture then moves on to discuss the culture in which antebellum reform grew--the factors that encouraged its growth, as well as those that retarded it. Professor Blight then describes the movement towards radical abolitionism, stopping briefly on colonization and gradualism before introducing the character and ideology of William Lloyd Garrison.


Expansion and Slavery: Legacies of the Mexican War and the Compromise of 1850

In this lecture, Professor Blight discusses some of the conflicts, controversies, and compromises that led up to the Civil War. After analyzing Frederick Douglass's 1852 Fourth of July speech and the inherent conflict between American slavery and American freedom, the lecture moves into a lengthy discussion of the war with Mexico in the 1840s. Professor Blight explains why northerners and southerners made "such a fuss" over the issue of slavery's expansion into the western territories. The lecture ends with the crisis over California's admission to statehood and the Compromise of 1850.


"A Hell of a Storm": The Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Birth of the Republican Party, 1854-55

Professor Blight narrates some of the important political crises of the 1850s. The lecture begins with an account of the Compromise of 1850, the swan song of the great congressional triumvirate--Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun. The lecture then describes northern opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act passed as part of the Compromise, and the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe's classic Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1852. Professor Blight then introduces the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, the most pivotal political event of the decade, and the catalyst for the birth of the Republican party.


Dred Scott, Bleeding Kansas, and the Impending Crisis of the Union, 1855-58

Professor Blight continues his march through the political events of the 1850s. Blight continues his description of the aftermath of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, describing the guerilla war that reigned in the territory of Kansas for much of 1856. The lecture continues, describing the caning of Senator Charles Sumner on the floor of the US Senate and the birth of the Republican party. The lecture concludes with the near-victory of Republican candidate John C. Fremont in the presidential election of 1856, and the passage of the Dred Scott decision in 1857.


John Brown's Holy War: Terrorist or Heroic Revolutionary?

Professor Blight narrates the momentous events of 1857, 1858, and 1859. The lecture opens with an analysis of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. Next, Blight analyzes the Dred Scott decision and discusses what it meant for northerners--particularly African Americans--to live in "the land of the Dred Scott decision." The lecture then shifts to John Brown. Professor Blight begins by discussing the way that John Brown has been remembered in art and literature, and then offers a summary of Brown's life, closing with his raid on Harpers Ferry in October of 1859.


The Election of 1860 and the Secession Crisis

This lecture picks off where the previous one left off, with a discussion of the legacies of John Brown. The most important thing about John Brown's raid, Professor Blight argues, was not the event itself, but the way Americans engaged with it after the fact. Next, Professor Blight discusses the election of 1860, a four-way battle won by the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln. In the wake of Lincoln's election, the seven states of the deep South, led by South Carolina, seceded. The lecture closes with an analysis of some of the rationales underlying southern secession.


Slavery and State Rights, Economies and Ways of Life: What Caused the Civil War?

Professor Blight begins this lecture with an attempt to answer the question "why did the South secede in 1861?" Blight offers five possible answers to this question: preservation of slavery, "the fear thesis," southern nationalism, the "agrarian thesis," and the "honor thesis." After laying out the roots of secession, Blight focuses on the historical profession, suggesting some of the ways in which historians have attempted to explain the coming of the Civil War. Blight begins with James Ford Rhodes, a highly influential amateur historian in the late 19th century, and then introduces Charles and Mary Beard, whose economic interpretations of the Civil War had their heyday in the 1920s and 1930s


"And the War Came," 1861: The Sumter Crisis, Comparative Strategies

After finishing with his survey of the manner in which historians have explained the coming of the Civil War, Professor Blight focuses on Fort Sumter. After months of political maneuvering, the Civil War began when Confederates fired on Fort Sumter, in the harbor outside Charleston, SC. The declaration of hostilities prompted four more states--Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Arkansas--to secede. Professor Blight closes the lecture with a brief discussion of some of the forces that motivated Americans--North and South--to go to war.


Terrible Swift Sword: The Period of Confederate Ascendency, 1861-1862

Professor Blight discusses the expectations, advantages, and disadvantages with which North and South entered the Civil War. Both sides, he argues, expected and desired a short, contained conflict. The northern advantages enumerated in this lecture include industrial capability, governmental stability, and a strong navy. Confederate advantages included geography and the ability to fight a defensive war. Professor Blight concludes the lecture with the Battle of Bull Run, the first major engagement of the war.


Never Call Retreat: Military and Political Turning Points in 1863

Professor Blight lectures on the military history of the early part of the war. Beginning with events in the West, Blight describes the Union victories at Fort Donelson and Fort Henry, introduces Union General Ulysses S. Grant, and narrates the horrific battle of Shiloh, fought in April of 1862. Moving back East, the lecture describes the Union General George McClellan's abortive 1862 Peninsula campaign, which introduced the world to Confederate General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. The lecture concludes with Confederate General Robert E. Lee's decision to take the battle to the North.


Lincoln, Leadership, and Race: Emancipation as Policy

Professor Blight follows Robert E. Lee's army north into Maryland during the summer of 1862, an invasion that culminated in the Battle of Antietam, fought in September of 1862. In the wake of Antietam, Abraham Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, a document that changed the meaning of the war forever. Professor Blight suggests some of the ways in which Americans have attempted to come to grips with the enigmatic Lincoln, and argues that, in the end, it may be Lincoln's capacity for change that was his most important characteristic. The lecture concludes with the story of John Washington, a Virginia slave whose concerted action suggests the central role American slaves played in securing their own freedom.


Days of Jubilee: The Meanings of Emancipation and Total War

This lecture focuses on the process of emancipation after the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. The Proclamation, Professor Blight suggests, had four immediate effects: it made the Union army an army of emancipation; it encouraged slaves to strike against slavery; it committed the US to a policy of emancipation in the eyes of Europe; and it allowed African Americans to enlist in the Union Army. In the end, ten percent of Union soldiers would be African American. A number of factors, Professor Blight suggests, combined to influence the timing of emancipation in particular areas of the South, including geography, the nature of the slave society, and the proximity of the Union army.


Homefronts and Battlefronts: "Hard War" and the Social Impact of the Civil War

Professor Blight begins his lecture with a description of the sea change in Civil War scholarship heralded by the Social History revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Along with a focus on the experience of the common solider, women, and African Americans, a central component of this shift in scholarly emphasis was an increased interest in the effects of the war on the Union and Confederate home fronts. After suggesting some of the ways in which individual Americans experienced the war, Professor Blight moves to a discussion of the war's effect on industry and economics, North and South. The lecture concludes with a description of the increased activism of the federal government during the war, an activism that found expression in finance, agriculture, taxation, building railroads, and, most importantly, in emancipation.


"War So Terrible": Why the Union Won and the Confederacy Lost at Home and Abroad

This lecture probes the reasons for confederate defeat and union victory. Professor Blight begins with an elucidation of the loss of will thesis, which suggests that it was a lack of conviction on the home front that assured confederate defeat, before offering another of other popular explanations for northern victory: industrial capacity, political leadership, military leadership, international diplomacy, a pre-existing political culture, and emancipation. Blight warns, however, that we cannot forget the battlefield, and, to this end, concludes his lecture with a discussion of the decisive Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July of 1863.


To Appomattox and Beyond: The End of the War and a Search for Meanings

Professor Blight uses Herman Melville's poem "On the Slain Collegians" to introduce the horrifying slaughter of 1864. The architect of the strategy that would eventually lead to Union victory, but at a staggering human cost, was Ulysses S. Grant, brought East to assume control of all Union armies in 1864. Professor Blight narrates the campaigns of 1864, including the Battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor, and the siege of Petersburg. While Robert E. Lee battled Grant to a stalemate in Virginia, however, William Tecumseh Sherman's Union forces took Atlanta before beginning their March to the Sea, destroying Confederate morale and fighting power from the inside. Professor Blight closes his lecture with a description of the first Memorial Day, celebrated by African Americans in Charleston, SC 1865.

Wartime Reconstruction: Imagining the Aftermath and a Second American Republic

This lecture begins with a central, if often overlooked, turning point in the Civil War--the re-election of Abraham Lincoln in 1864. Although the concerted efforts of northern Peace Democrats and a palpable war weariness among the electorate made Lincoln's victory uncertain, timely Union victories in Atlanta and Mobile in September of 1864 secured Lincoln's re-election in November. This lecture concludes Professor Blight's section on the war, following Lee and Grant to Appomattox Courthouse, and describing the surrender of Confederate forces. The nature of Reconstruction and the future of the South, however, remained open questions in April of 1865.


Andrew Johnson and the Radicals: A Contest over the Meaning of Reconstruction

In this lecture, Professor Blight begins his engagement with Reconstruction. Reconstruction, Blight suggests, might best be understood as an extended referendum on the meaning of the Civil War. Even before the war's end, various constituencies in the North attempted to control the shape of the post-war Reconstruction of the South. In late 1863, President Abraham Lincoln offered his lenient "Ten Percent Plan." Six months later, Congressional Republicans concerned by Lincoln's charity rallied behind the more radical provisions of the Wade-Davis Bill. Despite their struggle for control over Reconstruction, Congressional Radicals and President Lincoln managed to work together on two vital pieces of Reconstruction legislation in the first months of 1865--the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery in the United States, and the Freedmen's Bureau bill.


Constitutional Crisis and Impeachment of a President

Professor Blight continues his discussion of the political history of Reconstruction. The central figure in the early phase of Reconstruction was President Andrew Johnson. Under Johnson's stewardship, southern whites held constitutional conventions throughout 1865, drafting new constitutions that outlawed slavery but changed little else. When the Republican-dominated U.S. Congress reassembled late in 1865, they put a stop to Johnson's leniency and inaugurated Radical (or Congressional) Reconstruction, a process that resulted in the immediate passage of the Civil Rights bill and the Fourteenth Amendment, and the eventual passage of four Reconstruction Acts. The Congressional elections in 1866 and Johnson's disastrous "Swing Around the Circle" speaking tour strengthened Radical control over Congress. Each step of the way, Johnson did everything he could to obstruct Congressional Reconstruction, setting the stage for his impeachment in 1868.


Black Reconstruction in the South: The Freedpeople and the Economics of Land and Labor

Professor Blight begins this lecture in Washington, where the passage of the first Reconstruction Act by Congressional Republicans radically altered the direction of Reconstruction. The Act invalidated the reconstituted Southern legislatures, establishing five military districts in the South and insisting upon black suffrage as a condition to readmission. The eventful year 1868 saw the impeachment of one president (Andrew Johnson) and the election of another (Ulysses S. Grant). Meanwhile, southern African Americans struggle to reap the promises of freedom in the face of economic disempowerment and a committed campaign of white supremacist violence.


Retreat from Reconstruction: The Grant Era and Paths to "Southern Redemption"

This lecture opens with a discussion of the myriad moments at which historians have declared an "end" to Reconstruction, before shifting to the myth and reality of "Carpetbag rule" in the Reconstruction South. Popularized by Lost Cause apologists and biased historians, this myth suggests that the southern governments of the Reconstruction era were dominated by unscrupulous and criminal Yankees who relied on the ignorant black vote to rob and despoil the innocent South. The reality, of course, diverges widely from this image. Among other accomplishments, the Radical state governments that came into existence after 1868 made important gains in African-American rights and public education. Professor Blight closes the lecture with the passage of the 15th Amendment, the waning radicalism of the Republican party after 1870, and the rise of white political terrorism across the South.


The "End" of Reconstruction: Disputed Election of 1876, and the "Compromise of 1877"

This lecture focuses on the role of white southern terrorist violence in brining about the end of Reconstruction. Professor Blight begins with an account the Colfax Massacre. Colfax, Louisiana was the sight of the largest mass murder in U.S. history, when a white mob killed dozens of African Americans in the April of 1873. Two Supreme Court decisions would do in the judicial realm what the Colfax Massacre had done in the political. On the same day as the Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court offered a narrow reading of the 14th Amendment in the Slaughterhouse cases, signaling a judicial retreat from the radicalism of the early Reconstruction years. The Cruikshank case, two years later, would overturn the convictions of the only three men sentenced for their involvement in Colfax, and marked another step away from reconstruction. Professor Blight concludes with the Panic of 1873 and the seemingly innumerable political scandals of the Grant Administration, suggesting the manner in which these events encouraged northerners to tire of the Reconstruction experiment by the early 1870s.


Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory

Having dealt with the role of violence and the Supreme Court in bringing about the end of Reconstruction in his last lecture, Professor Blight now turns to the role of national electoral politics, focusing in particular on the off-year Congressional election of 1874 and the Presidential election of 1876. 1874 saw the return of the Democrats to majority status in the Senate and the House of Representatives, as voters sick of corruption and hurt by the Panic of 1873 fled the Republicans in droves. According to many historians, the contested election of 1876, and the "Compromise of 1877," which followed it, marked the official end of Reconstruction. After an election tainted by fraud and violence, Republicans and Democrats brokered a deal by which Republican Rutherford B. Hayes took the White House in exchange for restoration of "home rule" for the South.


Legacies of the Civil War

Professor Blight finishes his lecture series with a discussion of the legacies of the Civil War. Since the nineteenth century, Blight suggests, there have been three predominant strains of Civil War memory, which Blight defines as reconciliationist, white supremacist, and emancipationist. The war has retained a political currency throughout the years, and the ability to control the memory of the Civil War has been, and continues to be, hotly contested.