A Fresh Perspective on How Post-Civil War America Took Shape

This review ran in the Chicago Tribune on March 18, 2007.

By Elizabeth Young

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, associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and author of The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post-Civil War North, 1865-1901 and The Greatest Nation of the Earth: Republican Economic Policies During the Civil War, 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." Those perceived as the latter were seen as unworthy of governmental support, while the "hardworking Americans" not only merited but depended on such support. The story of today's America, for Richardson, is the story of postwar 19th Century America, which is in turn "about how a middle class formed in America and how its members defined what the nation would stand for, both at home and abroad, for the next century and beyond."

This story begins, for Richardson, with the growing power of the federal government during the Civil War, when it imposed the first national taxes, a national currency and legislation to develop the transcontinental railroad. The governing uncertainty of the postwar nation was how government would shape a society based on free labor. The West was central to this question, since it offered a major outlet for free labor, including that of emancipated blacks. While the West was sometimes an outpost for refighting the Civil War--Jesse James, she notes, was reluctant to rob ex-Confederates--it also exemplified a "new national culture distanced from the tensions between the North and South." At the same time, the West also became a site of paradox: an "idealized image [that] increasingly emphasized individualism, economic opportunity, and political freedom at the same time that mainstream justification for government activism grew."

Such paradoxes increasingly shaped the postwar decades. For Richardson, the racial conflicts of the last one-third of the century were part of an overarching struggle about who merited the help of the government: "For those who were making it in America, the demands of disaffected farmers, miners, wage laborers, African Americans, suffragists, and industrialists seemed to be the complaints of those looking for government aid." The key to success for those perceived to be in such "special interest" groups was the ability to position themselves within individualism's governing group, the middle class. Nat Love, for example, became a Pullman porter, and Richardson reproduces a second photograph from his memoir, which represents him in a pose of middle-class respectability, soberly suited and seated next to his wife and daughter. The insouciant swagger of the rifle-toting cowboy has become the seated solidity of the middle-class family man.

Throughout this era, the West served as "an image, permanently rural, antigovernment, and wild, untrammeled by the realities of western urbanization and government intervention." In actuality, it was highly trammeled by government intervention, its resources and peoples serving as those of a colony for an expansionist nation. The postwar history of the West becomes, in this account, the prehistory of American empire, formally consolidated at the turn of the century in U.S. interventions in Cuba, the Philippines and Hawaii. In the era of Teddy Roosevelt, Richardson concludes, "the cowboy came to maturity as the symbol of the nation. But the image of the American cowboy has always had two sides. It contains the great hope of American equality of opportunity. . . . But it also contains the deliberate repression of anyone identifying racial, gender, or economic inequalities in society, as well as a dangerously self-righteous expansionism."

As this brief summary suggests, this study covers an enormous amount of ground, and it is a substantial achievement. Among the yields of Richardson's approach is the erasure of some conventional separations in late-19th Century U.S. history. Instead of a fractured historical narrative in which Reconstruction and race dominate the 1870s, class and urbanization organize the next two decades and imperialism emerges at the turn of the century, Richardson links these developments, with an emphasis on the constant renegotiation of the relation between the citizen and the state. An expert on political economy, she is particularly effective in charting the paradoxical increase of governmental intervention under the alibi of individualism. At the same time, her portraits of individuals are vivid and lively.

In such an ambitious account, some topics lose definition. "The West" and "the middle-class," two of the governing terms in her study, never come quite fully into focus. Richardson could, for example, specify which states constitute the West, how its definitions shift over time and how its relationships to the North and South intersect with other trajectories, such as its histories of conflict with Latin America. The shifting boundaries and border states of the middle class could also be specified. Late in the study, Richardson notes the rise of "'middle-class' ideology." What distinguishes the middle class, as a social group, from the idea of "'middle-class?'"

Some social issues, too, are flattened. Thus in Richardson's account, female reformers, as exemplified by Julia Ward Howe, focused on domesticity and family, and centered their authority on the idea that "women as mothers had special interests in cleaning up society." This approach downplays more radical approaches to feminism, as well as contradictions internal to middle-class approaches. For example, Jane Addams appears here as a reformer who worked to create stable families in slum neighborhoods of Chicago, but Richardson leaves out the challenge that Addams' own social network, which was forged primarily through intimate relationships among women, posed to conventional notions of family. More generally, her narrative develops a model of the "individualist household" without exploring the gender tensions such a formulation suggests between the lone male cowboy and the family man.

Finally, the book invites further analysis of the role of culture. Richardson does discuss some literary works, though her examples, such as Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, are more complex than she has time to explore. More generally, in a history whose defining terms--from "the cowboy" to "special interests"--are so fully shaped by cultural representations, what is the relation between culture, broadly conceived, and the realities of political economy and class formation.

Mark Twain, an astute commentator on so many of the developments in this period, has his most famous protagonist "light out for the Territory." Traveling "West From Appomattox," Richardson, too, participates in a tradition of journeying westward, as shaped by fictional characters from Twain's Huck Finn to Nat Love's self-created cowboy persona, Deadwood Dick. In so doing, she expertly redraws a map of post-Civil War America that only grows more complex a century-and-a-half later.

Elizabeth Young, associate professor of English at Mount Holyoke College, is the author of Disarming the Nation: Women's Writing and the American Civil War and, with Anthony W. Lee, the forthcoming On Alexander Gardner's Photographic Sketchbook of the Civil War.