Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Just finished viewing - Aftershock: Beyond the Civil War

I usually catch anything associated with the Civil War on the History Channel when it originally airs, but for whatever reason I missed this one. I saw this 90 minute DVD at my local library the other day and decided to give it look.

This well produced DVD tells individual stories of Reconstruction, but wraps them into fairly good overview of the whole era. This unpleasant era in American history (sometimes referred to as the Second Civil War) is largely misunderstood due in large part to early 20th century scholars such as William Dunning and Claude Bowers who presented a biased view of events. Research and scholarship since the 1960s has presented a more thorough and balanced level of interpretation.

The individual stories that Aftershock tells are: the 1866 New Orleans race riot, Governor William G. Brownlow of Tennessee's rule, the formation of the Ku Klux Klan, Arkansas carpetbagger D.P. Upham, North Carolina Lumbee Indian Henry Berry Lowery, and the Lee/Peacock War in northeast Texas. These stories are told with vivid illustrations, historical reenactments, and by scholars that have studied these events. I found the map illustrations to be especially exceptional. For example, in telling what happened during the 1866 New Orleans riot, a street map is animated to shows the rout the rioters took to attack the Mechanics Hall where delegates were debating black suffrage. The producers also make use of a relatively new technique to make period illustrations and photographs appear three dimensional. This technique breaths life into otherwise unexciting images.

Although I was already familiar with it, one of the most interesting stories to me was that of Governor William G. Brownlow of Tennessee (bias probably due to my Volunteer state roots). Brownlow, was formerly a Methodist minister and editor. He started newspapers in Elizabethton and Jonesborough before moving on to establish the Knoxville Whig and Rebel Ventilator (any question which side he was on?). Brownlow was an East Tennessee Unionst of the highest degree, who in the last year of the Civil War was elected governor. He was a driving force to have Tennessee be the first secession state readmitted to the Union. Brownlow was a no-nonsense type of man who had vocally supported slavery before the war, but thought that slavery was safest inside the Union, not outside. During the war he came to accept emancipation as means of defeating the Confederates. All along he hated former Confederates and had no patience, kind words, or sympathy for those that had previously adopted secession. During his governorship he established a state militia to handle terrorist groups like the KKK and helped Tennessee be the first state to pass the 14th Amendment.

There are some minor historical inaccuracies that appear in the reenactment of events, but this DVD vividly portrays the extreme level of violence that both sides used during this contentious period. Reconstruction is not a pretty time in American history, but it is one, like the Civil War, that needs to be understood in order to have a better understanding of present issues such as race relations and state versus national sovereignty.

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