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[History] New Book: Capitol Men


The Epic Story of Reconstruction Through the Lives of the First Black Congressmen
The Right Men at the Right Time
The African-American legislators who fought to make Reconstruction work.

Reviewed by Jabari Asim
Sunday, September 21, 2008; Page BW04


The Epic Story of Reconstruction Through the Lives of the First Black Congressmen

This Story
HISTORY: The Right Men at the Right Time
Chapter One: Read an Excerpt of 'Capitol Men'
By Philip Dray

Houghton Mifflin. 463 pp. $30

For years, many historians got Reconstruction (1866-77) wrong. As Philip Dray notes in his absorbing new book, "History and popular culture for decades characterized it as an atrocious failure."

Many early scholarly accounts of our nation's troublesome effort to repair itself after the Civil War defended the Confederacy so ardently that it was hard to distinguish them from fictional efforts inspired by the period. For example, racist tracts such as Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind and Thomas Dixon's only slightly less subtle The Clansman (the basis for D.W. Griffith's film "The Birth of a Nation") differed little in tone and spirit from (long since discredited) nonfiction books such as W.E. Woodward's Meet General Grant. Both kinds of works suggested, to borrow Woodward's pithy phrasing, that "the American Negroes are the only people in the world, so far as I know, that ever became free without any effort of their own." Although focusing on Reconstruction, Dray also pauses to puncture such infuriating whoppers. He writes that "by war's end almost 180,000 black Americans had worn Union army uniforms, while 24,000 served in the navy; a total of 37,000 sacrificed their lives."

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[History] New Book: Capitol Men
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