I have been watching the PBS documentary “Reconstruction: America After the Civil War” by Henry Louis Gates. It shows a different picture from what I learned in West Virginia public schools long ago.
The Reconstruction of our textbooks was an era of military repression imposed on the devastated South by Radical Republicans bent on revenge. Greedy carpetbaggers from the North pushed former slaves into positions of power for which they had no relevant experience. Southern recovery began only after the North finally withdrew its troops.
Was it all a pack of lies? No; it was partly true, but not the whole truth. We viewed that era through the lens of poor Appalachian whites, resentful of Virginia’s ruling plantation owners. The lens of former slaves scarcely occurred to us: their urgent search for loved ones sold away under slavery, their thirst for education, their pursuit of opportunities, their hopes raised and later dashed.
To tell the whole truth is impossible. Life is too short, and you'll always have a selective lens. Which omissions matter? Perhaps the test of what you leave out is what happens when you add it back in. Does it merely add detail to the picture you already had, or does it change how you see the picture overall? In the case of Reconstruction, I am past due for a different set of lenses, or perhaps a whole new prescription.
Images: (left) ruins of Richmond after the Civil War; (middle) Thomas Nast cartoon of a carpetbagger; (right) fraternity raising Confederate flag at West Virginia University, 1967.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.