“[A] powerful examination of a nation trying to make sense of the complex changes and challenges of the post–Civil War era.” —Carol Berkin, author of A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution
In 1877—a decade after the Civil War—not only was the United States gripped by a deep depression, but the country was also in the throes of nearly unimaginable violence and upheaval, marking the end of the brief period known as Reconstruction and reestablishing white rule across the South. In the wake of the contested presidential election of 1876, white supremacist mobs swept across the South, killing and driving out the last of the Reconstruction state governments. A strike involving millions of railroad workers turned violent as it spread from coast to coast, and for a moment seemed close to toppling the nation’s economic structure.
Celebrated historian Michael A. Bellesiles reveals that the fires of that fated year also fueled a hothouse of cultural and intellectual innovation. He relates the story of 1877 not just through dramatic events, but also through the lives of famous and little-known Americans alike.
“A superb and troubling book about the soul of Modern America.” —William Deverell, director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West
“A bold, insightful book, richly researched, and fast paced . . . Bellesiles vividly portrays on a single canvas the violent confrontations in 1877.” —Alfred F. Young, coeditor of Revolutionary Founders: Rebels, Radicals, and Reformers in the Making of the Nation
“[A] wonderful read that is sure to appeal to those interested in the challenges of creating a post–Civil War society.” —Choice
If you think the United States has problems today, try 1877. That single year, according to historian Bellesiles, saw an unprecedented surge in lynchings, racism, homicides, army attacks on Indians, labor violence (including a near national general strike), quack theories to explain it all, and a political crisis whose resolution on the backs of African-Americans scarred the nation until Johnson's Great Society. Offering a thorough review of this crisis-ridden year, Bellesiles, author of the controversial Arming America, makes the case that 1877 was also a year of breakthroughs in thought and creativity (Thomas Edison made the first voice recording, and Wannamaker's, the first department store, opened). But it is the violence that preoccupies the author, and he attributes it at least in part to Americans, in the midst of a depression, struggling "to come to terms with their new industrial society...." No reader will come away from this sobering work without a greater understanding of violence so extreme that contemporaries and numerous historians have commented on it (one historians called it "a symbol of shock, of the possible crumbling of society"). It's not easy reading, but it is solid, deeply informed history.