I am currently writing a new book titled 1873: The World the Civil War Made.
Every high-school student knows what happened in 1776 or 1929. But there are forgotten years that nonetheless changed the course of American history in surprising yet quieter ways. 1873 was one of those years.
In the decade following the Civil War, many Americans – northerners in particular – came to have faith in a powerful and technocratically sophisticated federal government that could solve the problems of the nation: a physically destroyed and deeply divided South; a vast West filled with warlike and savage Indians; a complicated and increasingly global world where the United States was a latecomer to the imperial scramble; new and growing cities teeming with unassimilated immigrants and besieged by vice and corruption; a rapidly industrializing national economy which reaped massive profits for some but threatened to engulf the nation in labor strife and instability. The year began with great expectations and hope for the future. Yet by year’s end, the South had erupted in racially fueled violence and terrorism, wars were breaking out throughout the Great Plains, American interests were threatened aboard, and the nation’s economic and political leaders were mired in corruption scandals and on the brink of an economic depression that would last for nearly a decade. 1873 was a year of broken promises.
The story begins with the aftermath of the election of 1872. In his second inaugural, Grant promises an end to the Civil War and peace at last. But meanwhile, a desperate battle for control of local government is simmering throughout the South. Over the course of the year, the struggle for control will erupt in violence, most notably in the small town of Colfax, Louisiana. While African Americans face white supremacist terrorists in the South, American Indians confront an inflexible Peace Policy in the West. Conceived in isolation by technocrats largely ignorant of the reality on the frontier, the book next explores how the Peace Policy promised a systematic and humane process of settling the West. But what happens when Indians reject the government’s limited set of options? In southern Oregon in 1873, the Peace Policy will perish in the flames of a conflict with an unknown tribe who will kill the highest-ranking general to die in any Indian war and the result will be more than a decade of genocidal war with the Indigenous tribes of the West. Imperial ambitions in the West were reflected in dreams of an empire aboard. Using the 1873 publication of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Day, the story turns next to American dreams of a global empire drawing on stories of missionary and diplomatic efforts in Hawaii, northern China, west Africa, and Cuba. Missionary efforts aboard often translated into reform efforts at home. Using the 1873 passage of the Comstock Law as a jumping off point, the book then considers the origins of the various reform movements from urban development and sanitation projects to educational reform movements to the beginnings of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and women’s rights. Finally, the book ends with a chapter on the origins of the Gilded Age with a discussion of the Credit Mobilier investigation, the Salary Grab Act, the Coinage Act, the prosecution of Boss Tweed, and ending with the Panic of 1873.
In telling the story of 1873, I propose both a modest endeavor and a momentous undertaking. I want nothing less than to tell the story of the era – the World the Civil War Made – and in doing so chip away at the traditional boundaries we as historians make between Reconstruction, the Gilded Age, the Progressive Era, and the Age of American Empire. But I want to do so through the use of small but powerful stories, a series of vignettes that form a mosaic of episodes, events, and moments that alone are fascinating but together reveal a whole new way of looking at America’s most pivotal era.