The promise and perils of reconstruction: Augusta, Georgia, 1865 – 1886

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This dissertation examines Reconstruction in Augusta, Georgia, particularly focusing on how the city’s Whiggish history impacted the trajectory of the post-war era. The city’s commitment to Henry Clay’s American System of internal improvements resulted in the construction of a canal in 1847, which supported a variety of early manufacturing ventures. With this foundation in place, Augusta was already in position to capitalize on the post-war push for a New South, and industrial boosters promised that the city would soon become “the Lowell of the South.” Many of the men behind this program of industrialization built on Augusta’s tradition of political moderation, and in some areas, experienced success. For a brief period, a coalition of unionists and African Americans combined to create a Republican party that dominated local and state government. The city’s economy quickly recovered from the shock of the Civil War, and industrial boosters backed an ambitious canal enlargement project to further increase the city’s manufacturing potential. Educational reformers finally completed a long-standing push to create a public education system that was free to all of Augusta’s budding pupils, and private and religious ventures expanded higher education opportunities as well. Despite these successes, inherent weaknesses and contradictions ultimately limited the overall scope of these reform efforts. Political factionalism crippled the Republican Party and erased its early gains in just two short years. Promises of a soon to come industrial utopia proved to be just as ephemeral, while efforts at interracial cooperation were likewise hampered by paternalism, factionalism, and racism. While gains were made in the area of public education, at no time was there a push for integrated classrooms, leaving Augusta’s African American schools separate but unequal. Black commemorations of emancipation and independence survived into the twentieth century, but were muted by white celebrations of the Lost Cause and reconciliation. Considering these shortcomings, the Reconstruction era in Augusta was at best a middling economic experience. Unlike other Southern cities that experienced rapid ascension or swift busts, Augusta lost some, but not all, of its regional significance. In short, Reconstruction in Augusta was neither the dark period of economic ruin and carpetbagger rule of popular memory, nor the industrial utopia promised by its industrial boosters.

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