In July 1913, more than 50,000 Civil War veterans traveled to Gettysburg for four days of reconciliation on the 50th anniversary of the bloodiest battle in American history. Grainy film footage records touching moments of old men, now pale and arthritic, embracing one another.
One group was missing. There were no black veterans in the crowd.
By then, Jim Crow laws delineating and entrenching segregation in the South were in place. If blacks were no longer slaves, neither were they the equals to whites they were told they could be, ever so briefly, in the early years following the war -- the period called Reconstruction. They were, once again, invisible.
Reconstruction was America's first great experiment in racial democracy. "It was one of the rare moments in history when everything is up for grabs," says historian Eric Foner, author of "Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution" and a key talking head in tomorrow night's strong "American Experience" presentation on PBS, "Reconstruction: The Second Civil War." Adds Edward Ayers, another top historian on the period, "Over 600,000 people had died in the last four years. The largest slave system in the modern world is in shambles, and no one knows what's going to replace it."
The question on everyone's mind was this: What did the Civil War mean? What were the dimensions of black freedom to be?
Former plantation owners were terrified. "What are they going to do to me, given what I've done to them?" writes one woman. Southern men, whose febrile senses of honor were already wounded in military defeat, now saw their former slaves sitting next to them in assemblies and town halls. The former slaves, in turn, believed their time had finally come.
From 1863, when Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, to 1877, when Republicans and Democrats in Washington colluded to kill Reconstruction, the federal government attempted and failed to redefine Southern society. It abolished slavery; it gave former slaves citizenship and the vote through the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution. African-Americans could own land and run for office. Across the South, blacks were elected to Congress and state legislatures. They became sheriffs and judges.
(Opponents charged that most were illiterates, unfit to serve, who became corrupted by power and money. There was some truth here, along with racial invective.)
Astonishing societal changes lived short lives. Congress passed two civil rights acts. The second, in 1875, was the precursor to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, mandating that equal access to a host of public accommodations be afforded to all, "regardless of race, color, or previous condition." Both laws were repudiated by whites, and the second was held to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1883.
Reconstruction is surely the least understood period in our history. If you hold that television can educate, this is Exhibit A.
The political landscape was unrecognizable by current nomenclature. The Democratic Party, the party of civil rights in our lifetime, was largely racist, both in the North and South. Republicans, linked today with corporate America, were the engine for social change.
Andrew Johnson, the walking disaster who succeeded Abraham Lincoln in the White House, was a border-state Republican who fought robust efforts at Reconstruction. (He was impeached by Congress in 1868 and survived conviction by one vote.) "This man is no friend of our race," Frederick Douglass said after meeting him.
Johnson's goal was to reunite whites from both sides and return 4 million blacks to servitude, if not legal slavery. His version of Reconstruction was toothless. Unanswered atrocities by whites against Southern blacks multiplied. On the show, historian Clarence Walker calls them "the systematic culling of alpha males from the black community."
Republican Radicals in the North, led by Senator Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, who demanded a reinvention of Southern society, moved from the party fringes to its core in 18 months. In March of 1867, their Radical Reconstruction passed over Johnson's veto, and the South was divided into five military districts.
But Northern hypocrisy was appalling, too. Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Illinois demanded that the states of the former Confederacy give blacks the right to vote, while offering no such suffrage within their own borders.
Blacks were elated by steps taken by the Federals even before the end of the war. On Jan. 16, 1865, Union general William Tecumseh Sherman issued his famous Special Field Order 15, which allotted blacks in Georgia and South Carolina 400,000 acres of land. From this mandate emerged the dream of "40 acres and a mule" -- an empty promise that black Southerners 100 years later still remembered.
The clouds settled soon. The federal government reversed Sherman's order and returned the land to former slaveholders. Whites installed the infamous "black codes" that made a sham of black freedom. State legislatures across the South returned to white control.
Then came the invention of "The Lost Cause," a mythology extolling the virtues of an imaginary Confederacy. A new, false history of the South was written. Northern tourists came down in search of this mythical, anodyne antebellum culture. Reconstruction came to be viewed as a well-meaning disaster, rife with corruption and flawed assumptions.
In the end, Southern blacks lost it all. That sweet thing they had tasted was gone. The promises of the 14th and 15th amendments, guaranteeing full citizenship and the vote, remained hollow for almost a century. If the North won the war, America's first modern horror, the South won its aftermath.