Reconstruction: Allen Guelzo (Review)

Reconstruction: Allen Guelzo (Review) July 21, 2018

Reconstruction: a Short History

Allen Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era and Director of the Civil War Era Studies program at Gettysburg College. Guelzo is a three-time winner of the Gilder-Lehrman Lincoln Prize. Several of his books are seminal in their field. His reach is both academic and popular, the latter reflected in being a guest on the Jon Stewart Show. His website is

The following interview revolves around Guelzo’s latest book, Reconstruction: a Short History 

The interview was conducted by David George Moore. Some of Dave’s teaching videos can be found at

Moore: The market seems to have ample books on Reconstruction. Why did you decide to write another?

Guelzo: Several reasons. First, because (like Mallory describing Mt. Everest) it was there. We tend to think that the Civil War ended when the shooting stopped. It didn’t, and I thought a brief survey of the period would be useful, especially for college and university courses. There are more books out there on Reconstruction than we usually imagine, but most of them are specialized monographs; but even the surveys tend to run to between four hundred pages and nine hundred pages. Something more concise seemed to be in order. Second, I wrote because I believed a significant aspect of the Reconstruction project had been neglected, and that was the energies Northerners expended in trying to convert the Southern slave economy into a free-market (or “free labor”) economy. We often confine the story of Reconstruction to the struggle for racial equality; but it was more than that, since so many 19th-century Americans understood free labor and racial justice as two sides of the same coin.

Moore: I’ve read two of your other books and watched a number of your lectures (they make my treadmill time more pleasant!). You deftly handle a myriad of details in both. Give us an idea of how your corral all your research for a major writing project. Among other things, and please add whatever you would like, do you put marginalia in books? Do you handwrite or type the first draft? How do you organize a massive amount of research, especially for your big books on Gettysburg, Lincoln, and the recent survey book of the Civil War?

Guelzo: I generally read, then read some more, and after reading something further, I get back to reading. I am a chronic writer of marginalia, and an obsessive-compulsive outliner. I then reduce the significant portions of what I’ve read, underlined, marked, and outlined to 4×6 cards, which I accumulate until I feel that I have all the material I want, then I begin organizing and filing the cards into patterns. The patterns then become the books. I write at the computer keyboard, from first draft to last revision.

Moore: What were the biggest mistakes of both North and South with respect to Reconstruction?

Guelzo: The North thought it would be too easy to reconstruct the South, that all that was needed was an enlightened alliance of entrepreneurial Northerners, long-time Southern unionists, and the freed slaves. And that might have worked, too, but for the determination of embittered Southern whites to prevent it from happening. Landownership in the South remained pretty much in the same hands it had been in before the Civil War, which meant that white elites could rebuff the attempts of Northerners to create Northern-style farms, businesses and manufacturing (and stigmatize them, into the bargain, as “carpetbaggers”). Southern unionists could be played-off against the newly arrived Northerners. And the newly freed slaves had no political or economic powerbase, and were often riven by internal factionalism between those who had just emerged from slavery and those who composed the South’s small free-black population, who often assumed a little too quickly that they were alone entitled to speak for Southern blacks. Those divisions weakened Reconstruction from within; Southern white elites assaulted it from without by means of insurgency tactics – the Ku Klux Klan, the Knights of the White Camellia, the League of Pale Faces – similar to those we saw in Iraq after 2003. Those elites were aided and abetted by Northern Democrats, who looked on Reconstruction as a plot by Republican capitalists to secure dominance over American politics into the indefinite future. The North thus lost a chance to unite the American republic as a single, forward-thinking people; the South lost a chance to participate in the prosperity that free labor and industrialism brought to the North and West after the war, and condemned the South to seven decades of economic and cultural backwardness.

Moore: It is well known that Andrew Johnson was a disaster, so we will bypass him, but how effective was U.S. Grant during his time as president?

Guelzo: More effective than he is usually given credit for being. Grant was certainly well intentioned about the civil rights of the freedpeople, and he hailed the 15th Amendment in glowing terms. He also crushed the Ku Klux Klan in South Carolina in 1871 through the use of the Force Acts (although much of the actual credit for suppressing the Klan belongs to Grant’s attorney-general, Amos Akerman). On the other hand, Grant was over-eager for peace to be declared, and was even willing to toy with plans for colonizing the freedpeople out of the country (hence, his abortive initiative for acquiring the modern Dominican Republic as a U.S colony). Grant tended to react to crises, rather than anticipating them. He never developed a comprehensive plan for Reconstruction.

Moore: I recently read the terrific book, Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War, by one of your star students, Brian Matthew Jordan. Among other things, Jordan argues that non-combatants in the South existentially owned the war more than those living in the North because the battles were fought in the South. Did this aggravate the challenges of Reconstruction?

Guelzo: Civil wars are the most intractable of human conflicts, and reconstructions afterward often take the form of either vicious retribution, through show trials and executions, or through weak reconciliations which often do nothing but appease the worst elements among the losers. Our civil war was no exception to these patterns. Brian’s book highlights this in a very effective way. Marching Home shows how Union veterans strongly advocated a vigorous and effective Reconstruction, with no concessions made to the defeated Confederates. It was Northern civilians who, in their eagerness to forget the war and turn to other pursuits, abandoned the veterans, promoted reconciliation with the Confederate elite, and allowed white supremacy to re-impose itself, after 1877, on African Americans. After the Spanish-American War and World War 1, we zigzagged in the reconstruction strategies we employed. The Spanish-American War really became a civil war in the Philippines, and there, we resorted to the most brutal forms of suppression (it’s where we invented waterboarding as an interrogation technique). At the other end of the spectrum, we could hardly wait to withdraw our troops from Europe at the end of World War 1. Ideally, we ought to have created a NATO after 1918, and imposed a version of the Marshall Plan on Imperial Germany. We didn’t, and the rise of Hitler was the price we paid for it. We seemed to have learned that lesson, finally, after World War 2, but then forgot it all over again more recently in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

Moore: What are a few things you hope your readers take from your book?

Guelzo: Never assume that free markets and a free, democratic society are what everyone automatically wants. The North tried to create free institutions in what had become an oligarchy in the South, only to find that oligarchy and feudalism have their charms for people, just as today socialism and Islamic theocracy continue to exert a lethal pull on human imaginations. You would think that, after the 20th century, socialism would be understood to be a murderous and backwards-looking system; yet, it continues to spring to life in place after place, and with little regard for the havoc it wreaks.

Browse Our Archives