Sunday, March 18, 2007

Reviewed: Richardson, West From Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America After the Civil War

West From Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America After the Civil War by Heather Cox Richardson, just published by Yale University Press, is reviewed today in the Chicago Tribune by Elizabeth Young, Mt. Holyoke. This book takes Reconstruction west. The review begins:
A striking photograph reproduced in Heather Cox Richardson's "West From Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America After the Civil War" depicts Nat Love, a black man born a slave who left the South after the Civil War to become a cowboy in the West. In the photograph, Love, who later wrote a memoir of his Western adventures as Deadwood Dick, stands in full cowboy gear, saddle at his feet, rifle at his side, hand on his ammunition belt. His stance is confident and his gaze direct.
This image highlights some of the book's key themes. As its title suggests, the volume extends the usual frame of the immediate postwar era from the relation between North and South to head westward, for "the West was part and parcel of the story of the reconstruction years and must be put back into it." Nat Love's decision to become a cowboy, for example, was part of a larger exodus of emancipated blacks from the racist South to the potentially more open West; about one-third of cowboys, Richardson notes, were men of color. Broadening the geographical focus of Reconstruction, she also extends its time span beyond the traditional closing date of 1877, to the turn of the century. Within this range, she interweaves an overarching narrative of national development with the stories of individuals. Nat Love appears alongside "Buffalo Bill" Cody, Sitting Bull, Julia Ward Howe, Jesse James, Booker T. Washington, Ida B. Wells and others.

Richardson...begins by noting the overlap between the political divisions of Civil War America and voting distinctions of the present, with Confederate states corresponding to today's red states and Union states to blue. How did the blue-gray map become the blue-red one?
For Richardson, the answer is to be found in the "heated debate over the proper relationship of the government to its citizens." From conflicts over the federal government's reach into the postwar South to struggles over labor unions, this debate, she argues, came to be dominated by the interests of a newly consolidated middle class, which distinguished between "hardworking Americans" and "special interests."...This story begins, for Richardson, with the growing power of the federal government during the Civil War....The West was central to this question, since it offered a major outlet for free labor, including that of emancipated blacks.

For the rest of this very interesting review (recommended), click here.