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A Short History of Reconstruction Paperback – Abridged, January 10, 1990

47 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0060964313 ISBN-10: 0060964316 Edition: 1st

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About the Author

Eric Foner is DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University and the author of several books. In 2006 he received the Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching at Columbia University. He has served as president of the Organization of American Historians, the American Historical Association, and the Society of American Historians. He lives in New York City.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

The World the War Made

The Coming of Emancipation

On January 1, 1863, after a winter storm swept up the east coast of the United States, the sun rose in a cloudless sky over Washington, D.C. At the White House, Abraham Lincoln spent most of the day welcoming guests to the traditional New Year's reception. Finally, in the late afternoon, the President retired to his office to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. Excluded from its purview were the 450,000 slaves in the loyal border states of Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri, 275,000 in Union-occupied Tennessee, and tens of thousands more in portions of Louisiana and Virginia under the control of federal armies. But, the Proclamation decreed, the remainder of the nation's slave population, well over 3 million men, women, and children, 11 are and henceforth shall be free."

Nearly two and a half centuries had passed since twenty black men and women were landed in Virginia from a Dutch ship. From this tiny seed had grown the poisoned fruit of plantation slavery, which, in profound and contradictory ways, shaped the course of American development. Even as slavery mocked the ideals of a nation supposedly dedicated to liberty and equality, slave labor played an indispensable part in its rapid growth, expanding westward with the young republic, producing the cotton that fueled the early industrial revolution. The slavery question divided the nation's churches, sundered political ties between the sections, and finally shattered the bonds of the Union. On the principle of opposing the further expansion of slavery, a new political party rose to power in the 1850s, placing in the White House a son of the slave state Kentucky who had grown to manhood on the free Illinois prairies and believed the United States could not endure forever half slave and half free. In the crisis that followed Lincoln's election, eleven slave states seceded from the Union, precipitating in 1861 the bloodiest war the Western Hemisphere has ever seen.

The Emancipation Proclamation not only culminated decades of struggle, but evoked Christian visions of an era of unbounded progress for a nation purged at last of the sin of slavery. Even the staid editors of the New York Times believed it marked a watershed in American life, "an era in the history . . . of this country and the world." For emancipation meant more than the end of a labor system, more even than the uncompensated liquidation of the nation's largest concentration of private property. Begun to preserve the Union, the Civil War now portended a far-reaching transformation in Southern life and a redefinition of the place of blacks in American society and of the very meaning of freedom in the American republic.

In one sense, however, the Proclamation only confirmed what was already happening on farms and plantations throughout the South. War, it has been said, is the midwife of revolution, and well before 1863 the disintegration of slavery had begun. As the Union Army occupied territory on the periphery of the Confederacy, first in Virginia, then in Tennessee, Louisiana, and elsewhere, slaves by the thousands headed for the Union lines. Even in the heart of the Confederacy, the conflict undermined the South's "peculiar institution. " The drain of white men into military service left plantations under the control of planters' wives and elderly and infirm men, whose authority slaves increasingly felt able to challenge. Reports of "demoralized" and "insubordinate" behavior multiplied throughout the South.

But generally it was the arrival of federal soldiers that spelled havoc for the slave regime, for blacks quickly grasped that the presence of occupying troops destroyed the coercive power of both the individual master and the slaveholding community. On the Magnolia plantation in Louisiana, the arrival of the Union Army in 1862 sparked a work stoppage and worse: "We have a terrible state of affairs here negroes refusing to work . . . The negroes have erected a gallows in the quarters and give as an excuse for it that they are told they must drive their master . . . off the plantation hang their master etc. and that then they will be free." Slavery in southern Louisiana, wrote a Northern reporter in November 1862, "is forever destroyed and worthless, no matter what Mr. Lincoln or anyone else may say on the subject."

"Meanwhile," in the words of W. E. B. Du Bois, "with perplexed and laggard steps, the United States government followed in the footsteps of the black slave." The slaves' determination to seize the opportunity presented by the war initially proved an embarrassment to the Lincoln administration and a burden to the army. Lincoln fully appreciated, as he would observe in his second inaugural address, that slavery was "somehow" the cause of the war. But he also understood the vital importance of keeping the border slave states in the Union, generating support among the broadest constituency in the North, and weakening the Confederacy by holding out to irresolute Southerners the possibility that they could return to the Union with their property, including slaves, intact. In 1861, the restoration of the Union, not emancipation, was the cause that generated the widest support for the war effort.

Yet as the Confederacy set slaves to work as military laborers, and the presence of Union soldiers precipitated large-scale desertion of the plantations, the early policy quickly unraveled. Increasingly, military authorities adopted the plan, inaugurated in Virginia by Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, of designating fugitive slaves "contraband of war" who would be employed as laborers for the Union armies. Then, too, Northern abolitionists and Radical Republicans recognized that secession offered a golden opportunity to strike a fatal blow at slavery. Their agitation kept at the forefront of Northern politics the question of the struggle's ultimate purpose.

The steps by which Congress and the President moved toward abolition have often been chronicled. In March 1862, Congress enacted an article of war expressly prohibiting the army from returning fugitives to their masters . . .


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; 1 edition (January 10, 1990)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060964316
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060964313
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.1 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (47 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #22,621 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Eric Foner is DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, where he earned his B.A. and Ph.D. In his teaching and scholarship, Foner focuses on the Civil War and Reconstruction, slavery, and nineteenth-century America. His "Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877," won the Bancroft, Parkman, and Los Angeles Times Book prizes and remains the standard history of the period. In 2006 Foner received the Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching at Columbia University. He has served as president of the Organization of American Historians, the American Historical Association, and the Society of American Historians. He is currently writing a book on Lincoln and slavery.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

66 of 74 people found the following review helpful By David E. Levine on September 10, 2000
Format: Paperback
I have never read Foner's longer treatment of this tragic period in American history, "Reconstruction, America's Unfinished Revolution," but this abridgement gives an exellent overview of the subject. Foner debunks the theory that the "Radical Republicans" were the bad guys and the Andrew Johnson was a moderate acting in the spirit of Lincoln. In fact, there was very little progress in restoring rights to freedmen during the first year or two after the Civil War under Johnson's "moderate" approach. In fact, Johnson, while a firm supporter of the Union during the war was, in his views towards blacks, a racist as demonstrated by statemnets Johnson made and which this book documents. It was only after the "Radicals" forced federal intervention that blacks made significant progress. Unfortunately, Democrats began to make headway in the South, often by the use of intimidation and violence, and what remained of the Republican party began to change it's agenda. Certainly, the Republicans in the North became indifferent, culminating in President Rutherford B. Hayes' abandonment of Reconstruction after his narrow victory over Samuel Tilden in the 1876 election. This book is illumi\nating and well written. Although an abridgement, it reads smoothly rather than as a patchwork. I recommend this book to all who are interested in this underemphasized period of American history
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46 of 51 people found the following review helpful By Joshua McNeal on February 21, 2006
Format: Paperback
In an attempt to document the important issues of reconstruction, Eric Foner compiled his book Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. This book was the basis for the abridged version titled, A Short History of Reconstruction. The shorter version is an excellent study of Reconstruction, and does not read as though it were patched together for light reading. Foner addresses all the major issues leading up reconstruction, and then finishing his book shortly after the end of reconstruction and the election of Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876.

In the preface of his book, Foner discusses the historiography of Reconstruction. He notes that during the early part of the twentieth century many historians considered Reconstruction as one of the darkest periods of American history. Foner notes that this viewpoint changed during the 1960s as revisionists shed new "light" on reconstruction. The revisionists saw Andrew Johnson as a stubborn racist, and viewed the Radical Republicans as "idealistic reformers genuinely committed to black rights." (xiii) Foner notes further that recent studies of reconstruction argue that the Radicals were actually quite conservative, and most Radicals held on to their racist views and put up very little fight as the whites once again began to govern the south.

Foner initially describes the African-American experience during the Civil War, and Reconstruction. Foner argues that African-Americans were not simply figures that took little or no action in the events of the day. Foner notes the enlistment of thousands of African-Americans in the Union army during the war. Foner also notes that many of the African-Americans that eventually became civil leaders had at one time served in the Union Army.
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42 of 48 people found the following review helpful By Moten Swing on January 18, 2012
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I am not a willfully blind, states-rights crackpot who accuses Foner of slandering classically educated Southerners.

My complaint is strictly with the Kindle version. Of course, one expects some errors when a book is scanned for transformation into an electronic edition. I have read some Kindle books before, and noticed the occasional error--usually easy to ignore and not terribly memorable.

However, this book is downright difficult to read. "Democrat," for example, if often rendered "Democracy." I don't pretend to understand the technology, but you would think that there would be some sort of spell-check involved. But no: "precipitate" is rendered "precipitatate."

Commas are routinely rendered as periods, and vice versa; colons for semi-colons, etc. Perhaps most seriously, quotes almost never are ended by a quotation mark. There is one to start the quote, but then one must guess at when the quote ends. All this means that the book is quite often a pain to read.

I realize I am the second reviewer to make this point (I stupidly ignored the first reviewer who made the same criticism), but really, you should read this book the old-fashioned way.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Taryn Gulliver on May 10, 2008
Format: Paperback
A truly fascinating time in American history, the Reconstruction era (1865-1877) is not something that enough of us are familiar enough with. Foner presents a clean account of the period leading from the closing years of the war through 1877 and the Compromise that settled the Election of 1876 that many historians regard as the end of Reconstruction, and a mark of its failure. Foner seems to make this argument, although other historians contend that Reconstruction ended in 1873 with the Colfax Massacre or with the US v. Cruikshank case.

Regardless, Foner's book is quite dense (although not nearly as bad as some other history books!) and it seems a little rushed, but the latter characteristic makes it a quick read. If you want a general idea about the era, it's a good one, but for the more serious scholar I would recommend his longer work on Reconstruction to avoid missing any key concepts that may be overlooked in this piece.

I especially commend Foner for his accurate portrayal of Johnson and the Radical Republicans. He makes neither out as saintly and rounds them out fully as historical figures with many dimensions--good and bad. He presents a clear and seemingly objective characterization of the two, as well as of other major players of the time. Although it may be criticized for its pace, one thing it cannot be criticized about is its objectivism, yet reading it slowly, one can make out Foner's clear and cogent arguments which gives the work a great amount of depth.
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