On the crisp night of November 19th, the Majestic Theater in Gettysburg filled to hear Dr. Steven Hahn deliver the 51st Annual Fortenbaugh Lecture. His lecture sought to explore the relationship between Native and African-American experiences during the Civil War and Reconstruction and changes to the American state as a result of the war. Hahn presented the convincing argument that the Reconstruction Era history of both groups fed the momentum of that change.
After setting the stage of the turbulent years of the American Civil War for his audience, Dr. Hahn began by describing Native Americans during the war. Early attempts by the Confederacy to gain alliances with the Indian Nations and tribes against the federal government, who had forced them off of their land, posed a serious threat to the war effort. Indeed, the Confederacy offered not only independent sovereignty, but full rights of equal enlistment of Native Americans into the Confederate Army, and representation in the Confederate Congress was far more accommodating compared to the treatment they had endured so far under the federal government.
The threat of an Indian-Confederate alliance prompted President Lincoln to dispatch General Pope to the Western Territories in order to suppress this rebel activity in the same year he gave the Emancipation Proclamation. As the threat became more widespread, Dr. Hahn described the number of federal territories that were created in order to establish direct federal military control over western and south-western, previously “unterritorialized”, parts of the country. In stark contrast to the role slaves played in Lincoln’s vision for Reconstruction , Hahn indicated that “Lincoln had a hard time imagining Indians as part of the US.” The conflict between the federal government and Native Americans, at the same time when George Armstrong Custer was fighting at Gettysburg, would prove to be the true beginning of the Indian Wars.
However, Indian affairs and territorialization were not the only example of expansion of federal power in a war fought between seceded states and the federal government. Reconstruction ushered in entire new government bureaucracy roles, such as the Freedman’s Bureau, while a paradox of “perpetual union” and denial of state rights through occupation solidified the dominance of the federal government.
As Dr. Hahn put it, the “weakening of restraint of federal power” lead to the “unfolding nationally, rather than regionally” of Reconstruction and forged the first link of the nation-state that would emerge. Indeed, the unchallenged increase in federal power would outlive doomed Reconstruction and the nineteenth century. By then, the nation-state had formed a transoceanic empire from its war with Spain in 1898 that would change, in turn, of the nation’s history for the century to come.