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Mapping Reconstruction

This is certainly no joke, and already getting a lot of attention in the media. The digital humanities continue to take significant leaps forward with the use of maps as information graphics - and maybe they always have been, even in 2D, but add history, technology, data, narrative and... wow.

Mapping Occupation, a recently launched web-based project by UGA and City University of New York historians, provides the first detailed look at where the United States sent its troops to occupy the South after the American Civil War. This new view of the Army’s role sheds new light on the complex landscape of Reconstruction:

From the start of the Civil War and through the 1870s, the U.S. Army remained the key institution that newly freed people in the South could access as they tried to defend their rights.  While slaves took the crucial steps to seize their chance at freedom, soldiers helped convince planters that slavery was dead, overturned local laws and court cases, and in other ways worked with freed people to construct a new form of federal power on the ground.  

Although the Army was central to shaping the development of civil rights, its role is often misunderstood or forgotten.  In part this is because of the way historians tell the story of Reconstruction.  After former rebels and Southern-sympathizing historians of the early 20th century created wildly exaggerated tales of “bayonet rule” by the U.S. Army, scholars over the last half century have worked to undercut those myths and legends.  But in the process, many of the best works of history have dismissed the idea that there was a significant occupation of the South; instead they, understandably but inaccurately, often portray the government during Reconstruction through the much-smaller and weaker Freedmen’s Bureau.  

Outstanding new work from Gregory Downs at CUNY and Scott Nesbit, assistant professor in the department of history and Digital Humanites Fellow in the Willson Center. This remarkable tool is one of the ways the digital humanities is bringing history to life, enlightening us about our past so that we can better understand the present and the future.

In fact, Nesbit said, “now is the time to rethink what Reconstruction meant and means today. One hundred fifty years after Reconstruction began, the United States continues to struggle with the questions it raised then: how does the U.S. work to change societies after chaotic wars, if it should at all? And what role does the federal government have in upholding the rights of citizens when they are subject to abuse from local governments? These questions have not gone away.”

They certainly have not. And with this tool and others like it, we can begin to venture beyond the Faulknerisms that hold the past in place, and maybe, perhaps, begin to escape its yoke.

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