Public Iconography, Museum Education, and Reconstruction Era History

Public Iconography, Museum Education, and Reconstruction Era History

Today, correspondent Nick Sacco shares his first Field Dispatch. Nick is a public historian working for the National Park Service as a Park Guide at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in St. Louis, Missouri. He holds a master’s degree in history with a concentration in public history from IUPUI. The views expressed in this essay and future essays are solely the author’s and do not reflect the views of the National Park Service.

In a recent essay about public monuments, statues, and other iconography dedicated to the American Civil War, historian Sarah Handley-Cousins argues that such icons generally sanitize the war’s causes, context, and consequences with a large dose of artistic romanticism. For many Americans, “we love the Civil War so much that when we are presented with the truth of what those monuments mean, we refuse to accept that what we love was actually a violent struggle in which the [humanity] of Black Americans was at the center.”[1] Rather than fostering a deeper understanding of the conflict, many monuments dedicated to people and events on both sides instead portray a war shorn of meaning beyond honoring military service in a time of war. Meanwhile questions over slavery, citizenship, westward expansion, and the very meaning of the concept of “Union” often go unasked within such spaces.

I find myself in strong agreement with such sentiments, which is why I am skeptical of calls to erect more public monuments dedicated to the Reconstruction era as a way of improving popular understandings of a greatly misunderstood period in American history. For example, political scientist Richard Valelly argues that creating monuments to “the heroes of Reconstruction” can possibly establish a “new politics of historical memory” within America’s commemorative landscape.[2] Valelly’s assertion, however, ignores numerous public memorials to Reconstruction that already exist and have failed to accomplish this goal. Additionally, his thesis hinges on the definition of who constitutes a “hero” of Reconstruction. The existing public memorials throughout the U.S. often celebrate “heroes,” but they celebrate the ones who actively worked to end Reconstruction through deadly, racialized mass violence against Black Americans.

The 1950 historical marker to the Colfax Massacre. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The most extreme examples of such commemorative markers are in Louisiana. To commemorate the Colfax Massacre of 1873 in which more than one hundred African Americans were killed, the state erected a statue in 1950 that openly celebrated “the end of carpetbag misrule in the South.” In this telling the victims were actually the oppressors, and the oppressors were heroes restoring the “natural” social order of society. A nearby obelisk previously erected in 1921 honors three white mobsters who died “fighting for White Supremacy” that day.[3]

The Battle of Liberty Place monument in 1932. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Similarly, up until a few months ago a different monument to another white supremacist group in Louisiana—the White League—stood in New Orleans until Mayor Mitch Landrieu ordered its removal. Here, too, the 1874 Battle of Liberty Place is commemorated as a space where “usurpers” who had attempted to establish biracial governance and political equality in Louisiana were guilty of disrupting the social order. The White League simply aimed to return the state’s white prewar political elites to power through extralegal means. When federal troops were ordered out of the state after the 1876 presidential election, the federal government, according to the monument’s text, “recognized white supremacy in the south and gave us our state.”[4] More than once in my own work as a public historian I have interacted with a visitor who was adamant that all public monuments in America should stay up, but are then shocked when they learn that a monument had been erected to celebrate the attempted overthrow of a democratically elected state government.

To be sure, some work has been done in recent years to revise the historical record. The state of Florida erected a marker in 1989 to African American Congressman Josiah T. Walls in Gainsville; Alabama erected a marker in 2011 in Montgomery listing all African Americans who served in the state legislature during Reconstruction; Georgia erected a marker in 2009 celebrating the life of John Wesley Moore, an African American farmer in Madison who became an independently successful landowner. In Memphis the National Park Service and the NAACP teamed up to erect a marker on the 150th anniversary of the 1866 Memphis massacre, honoring the victims of that deadly event.[5]

While alterations to America’s commemorative efforts for Reconstruction are necessary, that work alone will do little to change the situation. The work of teaching audiences about the era must start in the classroom and the museum. Former President Barack Obama’s establishment of Reconstruction Era National Monument in Beaufort County, South Carolina, was a major victory in this regard, becoming the first National Park Service site to make Reconstruction a centerpiece of interpretation. NPS officials and academic historians promoted this effort for a number of years (including some at the Journal of the Civil War Era), but it was started and sustained through a grassroots effort by the local community in Beaufort, particularly its African American population.[6]

Five generations on Smith’s Plantation, Beaufort, South Carolina. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

At Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site, the staff has embarked on two important initiatives to interpret and increase awareness of the Reconstruction era. Since the beginning of the year we have hosted several interactive workshops for history teachers in the St. Louis area. These workshops include an immersive visit through the park’s facilities, a collection of more than fifty primary source documents from the Reconstruction era (including speeches, letters, and political cartoons) that are distributed to the teachers, and time to brainstorm ideas for designing classroom activities in a collaborative setting.

The teaching of Reconstruction in middle and high school settings is generally unbalanced. Some teachers do not have time in their curriculum to teach it, while others admit that their knowledge is limited and that they are heavily reliant on textbooks—some of which are badly outdated—to teach the material. One teacher stated that his high school spent two weeks reenacting the impeachment of Andrew Johnson. These workshops, however, work to provide documentation, context, guiding questions, and techniques for interpreting Reconstruction. Specifically, the park aims to interpret Reconstruction as a period that was in some ways “a forerunner of the modern civil rights movement,” in the words of historian Eric Foner.[7]

The other initiative consists of utilizing the park’s museum exhibits on Reconstruction and facilitated dialogue techniques to foster conversations with students about universal concepts like freedom, liberty, and justice. One dialogue we use—”The Many Meanings of Justice”—aims to educate students about the power and ambiguity of the concept of “justice” in American society. We discuss the effort to restore the Union after the Civil War and how Americans had competing versions of what would be fair and just moving forward. Would the country’s political system return to the way it was before the war except without slavery, or would other changes occur? Who in society would be considered an American citizen? Who could run for office and vote? How do societies promote political and social equality? What civil rights issues are students concerned with today?

Academic historians have produced an impressive array of scholarship on the Reconstruction era in recent years, but the work of interpreting and commemorating this period must be complimented with the stories we tell to millions of American students and museum-goers every day. Disseminating this scholarship and providing resources for teachers and students is a centerpiece of my work as a public historian, and I relish every opportunity I get to advance this important goal.


[1] Sarah Handley-Cousins, “Falling Out of Love with the Civil War,” Nursing Clio, August 21, 2017, accessed September 3, 2017,

[2] Richard Valelly, “How About Erecting Monuments to the Heroes of Reconstruction?” The American Prospect, August 23, 2017, accessed September 2, 2017,

[3] Matt LaRoche, “Tributes to Terror: The Mis-Monumentation of the Colfax Massacre,” The Gettysburg Compiler, March 27, 2015, accessed September 2, 2017,

[4] Rebecca Solnit, “The Monument Wars,” Harper’s Magazine, January 2017, accessed September 3, 2017,

[5] “Josiah T. Walls,” The Historical Marker Database, accessed September 1, 2017,; “Black Members of the Alabama Legislature Who Served During the Reconstruction Period of 1868=1879,” The Historical Marker Database, accessed September 1, 2017,; “Reconstruction Property Rights,” The Historical Marker Database, accessed September 1, 2017,; Christopher Blank, “Do the Words ‘Race Riot’ Belong on a Historic Marker in Memphis?” NPR, May 2, 2016, accessed August 30, 2017,

[6] Jennifer Whitmer Taylor and Page Putnam Miller, “The Attempt to Designate Beaufort, South Carolina, The National Park Service’s First Reconstruction Unit” Journal of the Civil War Era 7, no. 1 (March 2017): 39-66; Kritika Agarwal, “Monumental Effort: Historians and the Creation of the National Monument to Reconstruction,” AHA Today, January 24, 2017, accessed September 4, 2017,

[7] David M. Prior, et al., “Reconstruction in Public History and Memory at the Sesquicentennial: A Roundtable Discussion,” Journal of the Civil War Era, May 2016, accessed September 2, 2017, This forum first appeared appeared in the March 2016 issue of the journal.

Nick Sacco

NICK SACCO is a public historian and writer based in St. Louis, Missouri. He holds a master’s degree in History with a concentration in Public History from IUPUI (2014). In the past he has worked for the National Council on Public History, the Indiana State House, the Missouri History Museum Library and Research Center, and as a teaching assistant in both middle and high school settings. Nick recently had a journal article about Ulysses S. Grant’s relationship with slavery published in the September 2019 issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era. He has written several other journal articles, digital essays, and book reviews for a range of publications, including the Indiana Magazine of History, The Confluence, The Civil War Monitor, Emerging Civil War, History@Work, AASLH, and Society for U.S. Intellectual History. He also blogs regularly about history at his personal website, Exploring the Past. You can contact Nick at

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