Not the Civil War but its Reconstruction aftermath rumbles on as the bloodiest battleground for American historians. In sheer numbers, there is nothing to compare with the continuing avalanche of war buff books on every brigade, every skirmish, every general in the North-South conflict. But these remain details about outcomes already known. What makes Reconstruction history so contentious, ideological and ever changing is its relevance, year after year, to the ferment of race relations in American society.
As the 20th century began, the South had won its long psycho-propaganda campaign to overcome its defeat and the stigma of slavery -- at least in the minds of most Americans on either side of the Mason-Dixon Line. This was the result of sheer intensity and passion as Southern novelists, journalists, pamphleteers, politicians and assorted apologists wrestled with the burdens of the past.
While Northerners went about building their industrial empire, often content to accept Woodrow Wilson's assurance that the war was a "quarrel forgotten," Southerners would not and could not forget. In their writings, the antebellum South wallowed in sentimentality and nostalgia. The slave toiling in the cotton fields transmogrified into a "contented darky" or a lazy good-for-nothing. The struggle to preserve the Union and abolish slavery converted into a diabolical Northern effort to achieve economic domination using ignorant, ill-prepared freedmen as its agents.
Curiously, the most influential historian of the Southern "Lost Cause" was a Northerner, a mugwump Democrat from New Jersey named William Archibald Dunning. As professor of history at Columbia University, he affected a judicious approach to the mighty controversies of Reconstruction. But lacing through all his writings, which attracted droves of Southern students to his classes, was a contempt for blacks and an admiration for the slaveholder and his progeny.
Dunning defended the "Black Codes" imposed on blacks by resurgent whites after the war as "a conscientious and straightforward attempt to bring some sort of order out of social and economic chaos." Discussing the Ku Klux Klan, he said white leaders used "moral suasion" on blacks while the rank and file resorted to "physical suasion" -- a nice euphemism for lynchings and violence.
His book, Reconstruction, Political and Economic 1865-1877, was first published in 1903. Later editions, including one by Harper in 1962, can be obtained through the Internet or at good used bookstores.
The polar opposite of Dunning was the fiery, brilliant black intellectual, W.E.B. DuBois, who famously declared in that same year of 1903 that "the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line." That it remains the nation's No. 1 problem as the 21st century begins is reflected in the continuing popularity and influence of DuBois' 1935 riposte to Dunning: Black Reconstruction in America 1860 to 1880. It is readily available in a 1998 printing by The Free Press, a division of Simon and Schuster.
DuBois' great work turned Reconstruction historiography on its head. Rather than denigrating the black-led post-war government in South Carolina, for example, he credited it with writing an excellent state constitution and instituting a new system of public schools. "If there was one thing that South Carolina [whites] feared more than bad Negro government, it was good Negro government," he wrote.
Instead of vilifying Radical Republican leader Thaddeus Stevens as "truculent, vindictive and cynical," (Dunning's words), DuBois said Stevens "reached the highest level of self-sacrificing statesmanship" in fighting for abolition and civil rights.
While Dunning twitted Freedmen's Bureau officials for preaching "pious homilies and moral platitudes obviously above the intelligence" of blacks, DuBois called this short-lived relief agency "the most extraordinary and far-reaching institution of social uplift that American had ever attempted."
The DuBois history drew scant notice from contemporaries in the 1930s. After all, the country was about to get another dose of sweet Southern lore in Gone with the Wind. Glorification of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1915 film, Birth of a Nation was still vivid in the nation's imagination. Segregation still prevailed in much of the country, the result of Northern indifference and a Supreme Court that repeatedly eviscerated the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments.
Nonetheless, these historic Reconstruction amendments abolishing slavery, guaranteeing due process for all citizens and promising universal franchise were embedded in the Constitution. There they lay for a century, the enduring seeds of a second American Revolution that did not burst forth until passage of the landmark civil rights enforcement laws of the 1960s.