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Teaching Reconstruction: Some Strategies That Work by Hilary N. Green

Teaching Reconstruction: Some Strategies That Work by Hilary N. Green

“Carolina Singers,” Hovey, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, carte de visite, c. 1870s. Courtesy of the author.

This week we share our first Field Dispatch from Dr. Hilary Green, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama. Her research and teaching interests include the intersections of race, class, and gender in African American history, the American Civil War, Reconstruction, as well as Civil War memory, African American education, and the Black Atlantic. She is the author of Educational Reconstruction: African American Schools in the Urban South, 1865-1890 (Fordham, 2016).


Teaching Reconstruction is hard. This is a difficult admission, especially for someone who has written about the period. Before launching into possible strategies, there are two caveats to the advice provided below. First, I teach in the Department of Gender and Race Studies at the University of Alabama. My department and often my classes are located in a postwar campus building named after Basil Manly, the minister who delivered a prayer at Jefferson Davis’s inauguration.[1] As a result, my students deeply understand his role in slavery at the university and how the memory of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction shapes both their understanding of the past and current campus experiences. Second, I do not teach the United States survey, but instead an upper-level undergraduate, nineteenth-century black history course. Some of this advice may be adaptable to different levels and programs, depending on your student population. My students are typically well versed in Kimberlé Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality and Michelle Alexander’s the New Jim Crow.[2] Yet, even these more-socially aware students have difficulties with Reconstruction. The strategies I suggest have been tested and refined. I believe they work for teaching across a spectrum of students.

First, center your initial lecture on the newly emancipated. Since I am fortunate to teach Reconstruction over a series of lectures, I have developed an opening exercise that untethers students from any misconceptions and centers them on the major feature of Reconstruction–the newly emancipated African Americans. Students are divided into small groups of recently emancipated individuals who have been given twenty-four hours to decide between staying on the plantation or leaving. After selecting a last name, students address a series of considerations for survival if they decide to leave, or provisions to include in a contract with their former owner if they remain. Students have ten to fifteen minutes to complete the exercise.

Following the opening exercise, I use photography to discuss how African Americans defined their new identities. Thanks to a personal collection of early African American photography, students are able to view and hold several examples and reflect on the opening exercise. In reading these historic photographs, students bear witness to the Carolina Singers, a group of newly emancipated men and women engaged in a fundraising tour for the Fairfield Institute in Winnsboro, South Carolina. They also grapple with the contrasting depictions of the postwar black Mississippi community through images of John Roy Lynch and an unidentified Mississippian dressed in worn clothing while his eyes beaming with the joys of freedom. These visual texts give voice to the many unidentified individuals who left little to no written records but celebrated their new status and existence through photographic technology. For those without such collections, digital examples from the Library of Congress will suffice. The Black Codes, reunification, education, and political achievements also garner special attention before we launch into frank discussions over Reconstruction’s failed economic policies.

The entire article can be viewed on the Journal of the Civil War Era Muster blog.

Gone with the Land: Environmental History in Civil War and Reconstruction Classes by Erin Stewart Mauldin

 Gone with the Land: Environmental History in Civil War and Reconstruction Classes by Erin Stewart Mauldin

"Confederate Fortifications in Atlanta, Georgia,” 1864. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Whenever I introduce myself in conversation as an “environmental historian,” many non-academics assume I write about environmentalism as a political movement or the history of environmental policy. It almost never helps to use the full title of my field of study by saying, “I’m an environmental historian of the Civil War and Reconstruction in the U.S. South,” because inevitably the follow-up is: “Was there an environmental movement during the Civil War?” Brief explanations of the ecological impacts of the Civil War and its relation to the agricultural context of Reconstruction are usually met with nods and smiles, and then always, “But how do you do that?”

I have a lot of practice answering these questions, since this is a discussion I have with my own mother at least once a month.

While environmental history is too well established for these sorts of conversations to happen at conferences, there is still a sense of confusion about the mechanics of that field, its sources, and most importantly, its usefulness to what historians do in the classroom. Just as debates about class, race, and gender infuse our pedagogical approaches to teaching material, so too should “environment.” Whether frogs or fluorocarbons, climate or cholera, soils or sows—considering the larger context of the human experience provides fuller, more nuanced depictions of well-known events in U.S. history.

Environment is particularly salient in Civil War and Reconstruction classes, for by reminding students of the omnipresence of the natural world, we reinforce the intimacy soldiers had with the non-human environment; the effects of disease, terrain, and weather on battle outcomes and questions of military logistics; enslaved people’s necessity for the war effort on both homefront and battlefield; and of course, that issues about labor after emancipation and much of Reconstruction legislation were about labor on the land.

The full article can be viewed on the Journal of the Civil War Era Muster blog.

Congratulations to Crystal Sanders!

Congratulations to Crystal Sanders, Associate Professor of History and African American Studies, who was a finalist for the 2016 Hooks National Book Award for A Chance for Change: Head Start and Mississippi's Black Freedom Struggle!

The Hooks Institute's National Book Award honors outstanding work on the American Civil Rights Movement and Its Legacy. Each calendar year, the Hooks Institute's National Book Award is given to the book that best furthers understanding of the American Civil Rights Movement and its legacy.

States’ Rights and Antislavery Activism by Michael E. Woods

Michael E. Woods, associate professor of history at Marshall University, has joined our team of Mustercorrespondents. He is the author of two books and several articles about politics in the antebellum period. Here he offers his first Field Dispatch. Let us know what you think in the comments!


The “states’ rights!” refrain is echoing in American politics, often coming from unexpected directions. California has crafted an independent climate change policy. Dozens of states have challenged the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. Prospective “sanctuary states” from New York to Nevada might limit their collaboration with federal immigration authorities. There is ample evidence supporting columnist Charles Lane’s remark that, in 2017, “liberals are learning to love states’ rights.”[1]

Is this trend significant? Definitely, although its full influence will not be known until confrontations between state and federal authorities unfold. Is it surprising, ironic, or unprecedented? No. Americans across the political spectrum have leveraged state power against federal might. States’ rights appeals, as battle cries or as blueprints for political action, are neither distinctively Southern nor intrinsically reactionary. Secessionists in the nineteenth century and segregationists in the twentieth claimed ownership states’ rights in the name of white supremacy. But other historical cases are starkly different – and quite pertinent. Take the foundational texts of many states’ rights doctrines, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison’s Kentucky (1799) and Virginia (1798) Resolutions. They assert that a state government may interpose to protect the civil rights of its citizens against unconstitutional federal usurpation.[2] They were also written in response to federal efforts to suppress journalistic dissent and expedite the deportation of foreigners. States’ rights have been wielded both to attack and to defend the values of liberty and equality that the United States, at its best, has championed.

Among the most important, but commonly forgotten, advocates of states’ rights were the antislavery activists who launched the Republican Party in the 1850s. As I explored more thoroughly in a recent Journal of the Civil War Era article, early Republicans used states’ rights to win voter support and to challenge proslavery federal policies.[3] For Northerners who feared that federal officeholders served an insidious southern “slave power,” states’ rights offered a desperately needed basis for resistance.

The full article can be viewed on the Journal of the Civil War Era Muster blog.

Public Iconography, Museum Education, and Reconstruction Era History by Nick Sacco

Public Iconography, Museum Education, and Reconstruction Era History by Nick Sacco

The 1950 historical marker to the Colfax Massacre. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Today, correspondent Nick Sacco shares his first Field Dispatch. Nick is a public historian working for the National Park Service as a Park Guide at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in St. Louis, Missouri. He holds a master’s degree in history with a concentration in public history from IUPUI. The views expressed in this essay and future essays are solely the author’s and do not reflect the views of the National Park Service.


In a recent essay about public monuments, statues, and other iconography dedicated to the American Civil War, historian Sarah Handley-Cousins argues that such icons generally sanitize the war’s causes, context, and consequences with a large dose of artistic romanticism. For many Americans, “we love the Civil War so much that when we are presented with the truth of what those monuments mean, we refuse to accept that what we love was actually a violent struggle in which the [humanity] of Black Americans was at the center.”[1] Rather than fostering a deeper understanding of the conflict, many monuments dedicated to people and events on both sides instead portray a war shorn of meaning beyond honoring military service in a time of war. Meanwhile questions over slavery, citizenship, westward expansion, and the very meaning of the concept of “Union” often go unasked within such spaces.

I find myself in strong agreement with such sentiments, which is why I am skeptical of calls to erect more public monuments dedicated to the Reconstruction era as a way of improving popular understandings of a greatly misunderstood period in American history. For example, political scientist Richard Valelly argues that creating monuments to “the heroes of Reconstruction” can possibly establish a “new politics of historical memory” within America’s commemorative landscape.[2] Valelly’s assertion, however, ignores numerous public memorials to Reconstruction that already exist and have failed to accomplish this goal. Additionally, his thesis hinges on the definition of who constitutes a “hero” of Reconstruction. The existing public memorials throughout the U.S. often celebrate “heroes,” but they celebrate the ones who actively worked to end Reconstruction through deadly, racialized mass violence against Black Americans.

The entire article can be viewed on the Journal of the Civil War Era Muster blog.

New Editor Joins the Journal of the Civil War Era Team

 New Editor Joins the Journal of the Civil War Era Team

photo by Wendy Madar

The Journal of the Civil War Era is delighted to announce the appointment of Stacey Smith as Associate Editor. Dr. Smith is Associate Professor of History at Oregon State University and author of Freedom’s Frontier: California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and Reconstruction (University of North Carolina Press, 2013), which won the David Montgomery Prize for the best book in Labor and Working-Class History, awarded by the Organization of American Historians and the Labor and Working-Class History Association (LAWCHA). Stacey is working with Associate Editor, Gregory Downs, to recruit in-depth historiographic review essays.

Stacey is assuming Kate Masur’s position. Dr. Masur was recruited as an Associate Editor, joining Anthony Kaye, when the journal was just getting off the ground. Kate worked alongside Greg to recruit many superb review essays for the journal. Our review essays are critically important, as they bring scholars in disparate fields in conversation with one another and point readers to new directions in the field. Review essays remain one of the most popular features of the journal, are regularly assigned in classes, and enjoy a long shelf life. The success of this feature is a testament to the great work that Kate did for the journal, for which we are deeply grateful.

Please help us welcome Stacey to our JCWE team.