Reviews for Capitol Men : The Epic Story of Reconstruction Through the Lives of the First Black Congressmen


Booklist Reviews 2009 February #1
*Starred Review* With drama and precision, award-winning historian Dray retrieves buried aspects of a precarious and little understood period in American history, the Reconstruction, a time of hope and backlash, and vividly portrays the first African American men to serve as U.S. congressmen, groundbreaking lawmakers who faced harrowing adversity. Dray s fascination with all that he discovered, aspects of the past that illuminate the present in truly galvanizing ways, is palpable as he introduces readers to a furiously contentious world following the seismic rupture of the Civil War. A world in which one step forward in pursuit of racial equality was trampled by a stampede backward as Southern whites refused to accept black politicians. Dray isn t exaggerating when he uses the word "epic" in his subtitle: the black congressmen he portraits are heroes and their stories are riveting. Meet Robert Smalls. Born in 1839, he was the son of a slave woman and, mostly likely, her master. Theirs was an unusually affectionate South Carolina household, and Smalls, who never could behave like a slave, became a wheelman on the Planter, a steamer commissioned by the Confederacy. Bold and strategic, Smalls orchestrated the steamer s theft and turned it over to the Union army, becoming an instant war hero, a sure path to politics. With forays into the lives of Lincoln, Grant, and Frederick Douglass, as well as a look into the Ku Klux Klan, Dray establishes a multidimensional context for his lively and enlightening portraits of Smalls and his fellow black lawmakers, including Robert Brown Elliott, a "favored slave" who was so refined many believed he was English, and Richard Cain, an African Methodist Episcopal minister, the first black clergy to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, and a brilliant debater. A vigorous and groundbreaking work of character-driven history, Dray s thoroughly involving book concludes with an invaluable bibliography. Copyright 2009 Booklist Reviews.

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Choice Reviews 2009 August
The Reconstruction story has been told often; seldom has it been told from the perspective of African American politicians, and seldom so well. Dray writes an important history, weaving biographies of those who represented their states in the nation's Capitol, such as Robert Smalls, Hiram Revels, P. B. S. Pinchback, Richard "Daddy" Cain, John Roy Lynch, and Blanche K. Bruce, with focused accounts of the incidents that came to define Reconstruction and its aftermath. These include the Colfax Riot, the founding of the Ku Klux Klan, the emergence of Benjamin Tillman in South Carolina, the disputed elections of 1876, and the Exoduster movement. The narrative connects state politics with national developments. The author chronicles the triumphs of Reconstruction and the challenges and ultimate demise of what some have argued was the first civil rights movement. Working from an extensive secondary literature and numerous contemporary resources, Dray reminds readers that his is an important voice in fostering understanding of some of the most difficult issues of American and African American history, including Mississippi in 1964, the lynching of far too many Americans, and now a rethinking of Reconstruction. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates and above. Copyright 2009 American Library Association.

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Kirkus Reviews 2008 August #1
Impeccably written study of the brief post-Civil War period in which African-Americans were admitted to Congress--with the door subsequently closed to them for the next century.From a white Southern loyalist's point of view, writes Dray (Stealing God's Thunder: Benjamin Franklin's Lightning Rod and the Invention of America, 2005, etc.), military defeat was bad enough, let alone what a Union sympathizer called "the elevation of the free negro to equal political power." The first to be so elevated, at the local and then national level, were a fascinating lot. Some of them, such as South Carolinian Robert Smalls, had engaged in acts of resistance during the secession and courted death for their crimes of sedition; others were of mixed race and comparatively well educated, such as the Mississippian reformer John Roy Lynch, "distinguished in appearance, possessing an innate gentlemanly reserve"; others were freed slaves with few advantages aside from a willingness to take on the job. None were the illiterate sock puppets of anti-Reconstructionist myth. Bringing them into power was a complex and daunting task, opposed by many in both the North and the South. In that light, Dray writes sympathetically but critically of Andrew Johnson, the Unionist Southerner, "a stubborn loner never adept at conciliatory politics," under whose watch Reconstruction disintegrated. The denouement of Dray's story is dispiriting. It finds Smalls, that great hero, ordered to sit in a segregated Jim Crow train cabin, a "dirty coach with cigar stubs on the floor and broken windows," and the other freshmen congressmen not much better treated. The humiliation of Smalls took place in South Carolina in 1904. But then, as Dray notes, the same had happened to him in Philadelphia during the war--racism was not the exclusive domain of the South.A welcome addition to the literature of the Civil War and Reconstruction Era, and important for students of the civil-rights movement and its origins. Copyright Kirkus 2008 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.

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Library Journal Reviews 2008 July #1

In 1870, Rep. Joseph H. Rainey (1832-87) of South Carolina entered the U.S. Congress as its first black member. In 1901, Rep. George H. White (1852-1918) of North Carolina left Congress as the 20th black to serve. Focusing on these 20 men, Pulitzer Prize finalist Dray (At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America ) fleshes out the circumstances in which these early black congressmen lived and worked. He portrays these men as confident, courageous, eminently decent, exceptional individuals who advanced public education and other reforms for social justice. Casting Reconstruction's efforts as crucial to mid-20th century civil rights successes, Dray emphasizes parallels between the periods. His sourcing of quotations shows his considerable research, but this is not so much a scholar's book as one for general readers. Dray's compelling narrative offers sharper focus and argument than Maurine Christopher's Black Americans in Congress or former Rep. William L. Clay's Just Permanent Interests: Black Americans in Congress, 1870-1991 . Dray develops a poignant story of racial hope--and resentment--and of America's ultimately reneging on its promises to blacks. For collections on the U.S. Congress, civil rights, Reconstruction, and black politics or politicians.--Thomas J. Davis, Arizona State Univ., Tempe

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Publishers Weekly Reviews 2008 June #3

With this densely textured history of Reconstruction, Pulitzer Prize-finalist Dray (At the Hands of Persons Unknown ) moves the first black congressmen--including Robert Brown Elliott, P.B.S. Pinchback and Hiram Revels--from the margins of American history and places their careers in an integrated context that includes not only "the challenging world in which they lived [but] the stories of the men and women of both races whose actions affected their role." Particularly illuminating on local political history, Dray is equally attentive to broader issues (e.g., the "rift between women's rights advocates and civil rights activists"). Events frequently treated as separate African-American issues (e.g., the collapse of the Freedman's Bank, the legal entrenchment of "separate but equal") are examined in the fuller milieu of contemporary history. The author asserts, "[I]t is difficult to imagine another period in America's past as complex as Reconstruction, or one that has been more controversial in the telling." Dray's triumph is to have crafted a lucid and balanced narrative, thoroughly researched and well-documented to satisfy the scholarly, while consistently fascinating and fully accessible for the casual reader. (Sept.)

[Page 40]. Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information.

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