National Park Service Press Release

For Immediate Release:
March 21, 2016
Elizabeth Stern,, 202-219-8933

National Park Service Handbook Offers Insight into Complex History of Reconstruction

WASHINGTON – Today, the National Park Service announced the publication of its official handbook on the Reconstruction Era, one of the most complicated, poorly understood, and significant periods in American history. The handbook will be used by National Park Service interpretive rangers and historians across the country, as they seek to provide the American public a better understanding of the era. 

The Reconstruction Era handbook builds on previously published handbooks on the Civil War and the Civil Rights Era. In the aftermath of the Civil War, the United States faced enormous challenges. Four million African Americans, newly freed from bondage, sought to establish schools and communities. White southerners faced wartime defeat and slavery’s abolition.  The U. S. government sought to usher the states of the former Confederacy back into the United States of America. Congress entered a period of extraordinary policymaking, passing the nation’s first federal civil rights laws and the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution. 

Such developments were immensely controversial, particularly among white Southerners disappointed by the Confederacy's defeat and unwilling to accept the new order.  By the end of the nineteenth century, southern states had implemented Jim Crow regimes and disfranchised most African American voters.  Congress did little to intervene, and the U.S. Supreme Court followed suit, declaring in 1896 that racial segregation was legal nationwide. 

Historians' understandings of Reconstruction changed dramatically over the course of the 20th century, but current scholarship on the period has been slow to enter public consciousness. Discredited legends of “carpetbaggers,” “scalawags,” and other corrupt individuals and practices often stand in place of historical fact. The handbook seeks to address those discrepancies. 

“This handbook serves as a primer to the complex history of the Reconstruction Era that will stimulate further reading, study, and thought,” said National Park Service Deputy Director Peggy O’Dell. 

“Telling a more complete story of the Reconstruction Era’s intense public discourse and fierce clashes over issues of race, citizenship rights, and democracy not only improves our understanding of our nation’s history, it also resonates with and gives context to current issues that we are facing in this country,” said O’Dell.  “Particularly this year, as the National Park Service celebrates its first 100 years and prepares for its second century of service, we are strengthening our role in telling the complete story of our nation.  This handbook is an excellent product of that effort.” 

The handbook will be followed by the National Park Service’s first comprehensive review of nationally significant historical sites of the Reconstruction Era, to be released later in 2016.  The project, a National Historic Landmark Theme Study on the U.S. Reconstruction Era, 1861-1898, will bring attention to the history of the period and identify landmarks that help tell the nation’s story.  Theme studies are an effective way of identifying and nominating properties for preservation because they provide a national historic context and therefore allow for the comparative analysis of properties associated with a specific area of American history. 

The Reconstruction Era handbook was edited by Robert K. Sutton and John A. Latschar of the National Park Service and is a compilation of essays by noted historian scholars, including several who are contributing to the theme study.  It was published by Eastern National, a not-for-profit cooperating association that promotes the public’s understanding and support of America’s national parks and other public trust partners by providing quality educational experiences, products, and services.  The handbook is available for purchase at select NPS visitor centers and online at


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