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Reconstruction - The Second Civil War
Reconstruction - The Second Civil War
Actors: Llewellyn M. Smith, Elizabeth Deane
Genres: Documentary
NR     2004     3hr 0min

Spanning the years 1863 - 1877, Reconstruction tells the story of the tumultuous years after the Civil War during which America grappled with how to rebuild itself, how to successfully bring the South back into the Union a...  more »


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Movie Details

Actors: Llewellyn M. Smith, Elizabeth Deane
Genres: Documentary
Sub-Genres: Civil War
Studio: PBS Home Video
Format: DVD - Color
DVD Release Date: 01/27/2004
Release Year: 2004
Run Time: 3hr 0min
Screens: Color
Number of Discs: 1
SwapaDVD Credits: 1
Total Copies: 0
Members Wishing: 3
MPAA Rating: NR (Not Rated)
Languages: English
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Movie Reviews

The South loses the Civil War but wins Reconstruction,
Lawrance M. Bernabo | The Zenith City, Duluth, Minnesota | 08/09/2005
(4 out of 5 stars)

"If there is a villain behind the curtain of the tragic story of Reconstruction, then that would have to be John Wilkes Booth. "Reconstruction: The Second Civil War" basically begins with Lincoln's assassination, but the harm that Booth unleashed on the South by removing the compassionate Lincoln from the political stage and empowering the Radical Republicans in Congress to appease their demands for Southern subjugation is a profound irony. Still, if there is a clear lesson from this "American Experience" documentary, it is that the South might have lost the Civil War but they managed to win Reconstruction.

This two-part PBS documentary covers the momentous years 1863 to 1877. Part I, "Revolution" produced and directed by Llewellyn M. Smith, begins with Lincoln's warning that Reconstruction would be "fraught with great difficulty," and ends in 1867 when Congress passed the Radical Republican's Reconstruction plan that divided the former Confederacy into five military districts, each commanded by a General with power to enforce law and administer justice. New southern governments would be created but were required to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment and allow black men the right to vote, which saw former slaves running and be elected to public office. Part II, "Retreat," produced and directed by Elizabeth Deane shows how the Democrats slowly but surely took power back in the Southern states and achieved "redemption" for white Southerners. A compelling case is made for the acquiescence of Northerners with the concern of Southern whites for keeping the blacks subordinate, and one of the more interesting episodes concerns the White League, which went after carpetbaggers the way the Ku Klux Klan was going after freedmen (I am surprised I had never heard of the Coushatta massacre before this). When President Grant sends federal troops to take the Louisiana legislature back from a takeover by the White League, it is an intervention that apparently offends Northerners as much as it did Southerners (but an armed mob taking over a state legislature is apparently okay). By the time you get to the end of this documentary you are convinced that the Civil War was a tragedy, but Reconstruction was a farce.

While this documentary covers the history and politics of the period it also focuses on a series of key individuals to tell the story of Reconstruction, much as Ken Burns did in "The Civil War." Marshall Twitchell, a former Yankee officer from Vermont, became a successful "Carpetbagger" in Louisiana who had a violent neighbor in planter B. W. Marston (whose descendant tells his family's side of the story. Fan Butler tried to keep her family's Georgia plantations, which grew rice, afloat through sharecropping. John Roy Lynch was a freed slave who succeeded in politics because of Reconstruction, while Tunis Campbell tried to stop whites from controlling blacks in his county and measured his idealism with provocative efforts that made him a target for trying to give the Negro supremacy over the white man. You can make your own judgment as to how representative these choices are as focal characters, given that they represent both Southern and Northern as well as white and black Americans, but they do allow the history to be personalized as well as setting up the historians being interviewed to speak to the greater significance of their individual stories.

With regards to the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, I would contend that it does not necessarily need to be turned into a question of Reconstruction. Johnson's crime was not that he wanted to fire a member of his cabinet, but rather than he tried to fire a Radical Republican when, you have to remember, he was neither. Abraham Lincoln was not re-elected to the presidency as a Republican, but rather as a member of the "Union" party, with Johnson, a Democrat who was the only U.S. Senator from the South not to resign following secession, as his running mate. The first part of this documentary does a good job of trashing Johnson as racist who even betrayed his allegiance to poor whites over the planters because of his disregard for the freed slaves. By the time Grant takes over the White House from Johnson there is simply too much momentum behind Reconstruction for any chief executive to do anything about it. Even when the Congress passes civil rights legislation it is not enforced as the Democrats regain control of the South and eventually the laws are declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. It would take a century for those rights to be passed again and actually become the law of the land."
One of the best documentaries I've ever seen
Justin M. Felux | San Antonio, TX | 10/10/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)

"PBS has given those of us who teach history a real gem with "Reconstruction: The Second Civil War." Reconstruction is by far the most misunderstood period in American history, owing largely to the proliferation of racist, Neo-Confederate scholarship in the post-Reconstruction Era. This paradigm portrayed Reconstruction as an era of rampant corruption, Northern "oppression," and most of all, "Negro misrule." This view, or at least the vestiges of it, is still present in many public school history textbooks.

Scholars began to tear down the Neo-Confederate intepretation of Reconstruction during the movement for Civil Rights, starting in the 1950s. However, the popular image of Reconstruction (to the extent that there is such a thing) still persists due to popular racist movies like "Gone With the Wind" and "Birth of a Nation." With this documentary, PBS is finally catching up with the new scholarship, and is at last giving the American public the truth for popular consumption. And perhaps the greatest thing about this documentary is the way in which it tackles the outdated view of Reconstruction head-on, giving students a great example of the way historical interpretation changes over time.

The film is done in the Ken Burns style, treating the stories of several individuals as a microcosm of the larger social changes occuring during this period. The characters include a white former Union soldier who goes South to run a local Freedmen's Bureau, two southern white female plantation owners, and two black politicians.

The documentary includes interviews from a diverse array of top-notch scholars including Eric Foner, Edward Ayers, Drew Faust, Nell Painter, and Clarence Walker. The variety of photos and the quality of narration are great. The music selections are also perfect in setting the mood and portraying the emotional tone of the subject-matter. To me, the most impressive aspect of the movie is the historical reenactments. Typically historical reenactments in documentaries look clumsy, fake, and silly. But in this film they are absolutely believable, and beautifally done. The quality of the picture and cinematography overall are just fantastic.

The DVD also includes several mini-documentaries focusing on different aspects of Reconstruction, such as the development of the sharecropping system, the culture of white Southerners, the career of John Roy Lynch, the establishment of public schools in the South, as well as several other topics.

This documentary is highly reccommended to anyone interested in Civil War and Reconstruction history, and ESPECIALLY to teachers who cover this pivotal period in American history. The two reviewers who have attacked this documentary do so obviously because of their political views. Mr. Victor Alpher and Mr. Eric Paddon have glowing reviews of Ronald Reagan and Ann Coulter, among others in their history of reviews. Both give high praise to works that criticize Bill Clinton, Mr. Paddon going so far as to call him the "worst president EVER."

I am no fan of Bill Clinton, but any legitimate historian would acknowledge that Clinton's impeachment as an absolute farce based on personal vendettas more than anything, whereas the Johnson impeachment, whatever your view of it, was over issues of enormous importance. Personally, I think the question of whether or not the Republicans had a technically legal reason to impeach Johnson is unimportant. What is important is the terrible damage Johnson and his racist Republican allies were inflicting on black southerners. Together, they were responsible for undoing everything that the Union soldiers fought for in the Civil War.

Perhaps the documentary could have dealt with the subject in greater detail, but I think the reason they didn't is because this documentary is much more focused on the common citizens of the country than with national political leaders. Most of the story this documentary follows takes place on the ground in the South -- on the plantations, in the halls of local and state government. The reason for this is to give a personal face to the story of Reconstruction by focusing on the lives and times of the individuals who participated in it.

And it is done wonderfully."
Right-Wing Reviews "Woefully Inadequate"
Bridget | Plymouth, Mongolia | 01/05/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)

"The two "featured" reviews paint this first-rate documentary as inadequate for the classroom because of omitted "warts." This is so much quibbling.

As a history teacher, I find myself perfectly capable of filling in the blanks in any film I present to my students, including this one. NO documentary covers EVERY fact or point in great detail, either because of time constraints, or to maintain focus on the main point rather than digress into minutiae that is off the subject. Speaking of such omissions, I find myself perfectly capable of discussing the Tenure of Office Act (which, with the Johnson impeachment, could be the subject of a film on its own) and the self-serving motives of some Radical Republicans of that era to give my students further context with which to understand this film, which I have done.

The idea of showing a film without comment or discussion in the classroom is abhorrent, and to insinuate that this film would be presented to students in such a manner is equally so. Additionally, viewers outside the classroom are most likely interested enough in the subject of Reconstruction to have done some reading beforehand, or some follow-up reading, since as I said above, no documentary film covers every point.

This film is an excellent tool to augment any high school unit on Reconstruction after the Civil War, and one would do well to ignore the prejudices of reviewers who are more interested in taking potshots at liberals than in an honest review."
A great tale!
Lawrance M. Bernabo | 02/04/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)

"I watched this on PBS just recently. It explores the bloody aftermath of the Civil War and Reconstruction. The documentary accurately portrays the struggles of both north and south and gives a point of view from both sides also. By the way, this documentary is not rated R. Why would PBS make a rated R documentary? It was a great and entertaining show!"