Schmidt on Jones, 'Intimate Reconstructions: Children in Postemancipation Virginia'

Catherine A. Jones
James D. Schmidt

Catherine A. Jones. Intimate Reconstructions: Children in Postemancipation Virginia. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015. 288 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8139-3675-8.

Reviewed by James D. Schmidt (Northern Illinois University)
Published on H-SAWH (August, 2015)
Commissioned by Lisa A. Francavilla

Intimate Reconstructions: Children in Postemancipation Virginia

My first introduction to the American Civil War and Reconstruction was through a novel. Growing up, I read and reread Irene Hunt’s 1964 Newberry Award-winning Across Five Aprils, which follows young Jethro Creighton as he comes of age during the war years. Later I learned much more about young people and the war from James Marten’s path-breaking monograph, The Children’s Civil War (1998). Both the novel and the monograph share a commonality: the focus is on the war itself, with Reconstruction either wholly absent or viewed from many years later as historic memory. Both represent a broader trend in the literature, both fictional and historiographical. We know much about young people in wars themselves, but we know far less about what happened to children and youth in the years immediately following conflicts. Hence, Catherine A. Jones’s Intimate Reconstructions is a most welcome addition, not only to the history of children and youth, but also to the broader story of Reconstruction itself.

Like Irene Hunt, Jones sets her story in a state so divided that part of it seceded and joined the Union in 1863. That secession from secession does not play a role in Jones’s story. Instead, her narrative is confined mostly to the tidewater and mostly to the families, white and black, who lived out there lives in Virginia’s plantation slavery regions. Focusing on this area and these social groups produces fruitful results, allowing Jones to show the centrality of children in the postwar world. “Children,” she argues, “were at the heart of disputes over how emancipation and defeat would reshape the constellation of household relationships formerly anchored by slavery” (p. 2). Emancipation opened new vistas for African American children as black families struggled to control the terms of their labor and gain a foothold on freedom. Conversely, defeat shaped the lives of white children and their families, as young people became a bellwether for what it meant to live without slavery. For agents from the North, especially the Freedmen’s Bureau, children defined the model of a modern, liberal domestic regime that reformers hoped to deploy in place of the plantation household. As a result, “children shaped the course of Virginia’s Reconstruction through direct action and their potency as cultural symbols” (p. 8). Jones does not limit this narrative arc to the household, however. In the book’s most valuable contribution, she links the private history of family reconstruction to the narrative of political Reconstruction that reached its climax in Virginia in the struggle over public schools during the Readjuster movement. The public school controversy both shows “how children had become the foundation for imagining a compelling public interest that bridged divisions in the state" and highlights "their importance in contesting the boundary between public and private responsibilities” (p. 13).

The book opens with a treatment of children during and immediately after the war, outlining wartime dislocation, injury, and privation. The war itself, Jones demonstrates, blurred the boundaries between the public and private realms, a dynamic that continued during Reconstruction. The wartime story also prefigured questions about the labor capacity of black children and the disputes that erupted over control of that labor in the postwar period. These themes continue in separate treatments of black and white children in subsequent chapters. Drawing on limited sources, Jones paints a vivid picture of freed households and the young people in them as freedpeople sought to reconstitute families sundered by slavery and war. She stresses that kinship was the linchpin of these movements. While African American families struggled to control the labor of young people, planter families also found domestic labor arrangements disrupted by emancipation. “The destruction of slavery, along with the war that hastened it, precipitated changes in the domestic order of white families that recast relationships between parents and children,” Jones argues (p. 76). In working out how to deal with wartime death, the loss of labor, and the decline of privilege itself, planter families also relied on kinship networks.

Leaving the intimate realm, Jones devotes two chapters to “public children” and “Confederate orphans.” In these sections, she does an excellent job of showing how children became a guiding light in policy decisions that shaped the whole of public action and discourse. Such was the case because “children’s dependency created a strong imperative for federal and local authorities to ensure that public children were subject to household governance, whether voluntarily or through coercion” (p. 104). Jones sees the long struggle over bound apprenticeship in this light, deepening our understanding of that oft-told story. For white children, war orphans provided the vehicle for creating an essential part of what would become the Lost Cause. “Confederate orphans, like fallen soldiers, became important figures around which interpretations of the past and visions of the future coalesced,” Jones writes (p. 133). Investigating closely three local institutions devoted to orphans, she carefully traces how local authorities created the "Confederate" orphan as a figure in public discourse, a move that linked orphan status to emerging postwar racial ideologies. While actual practice in orphanages did not live up to the inflamed rhetoric of fundraising campaigns, the image left by those racialized appeals remained.

Those familiar with the history of Virginia in the postwar period will also be familiar with the last part of Jones’s story, the Readjuster movement. Focused on the question of paying the state debt, this political controversy became interwoven with the public school system that had been established in the state during Reconstruction. Jones rightly understands the coming of public schools as something less than a radical reconstruction of society, noting that school advocates often openly sold the system as a mechanism of social control. Nonetheless, she concludes, the schools “constituted an important development in postemancipation understandings of citizenship. Within the span of a decade, public schools had become sufficiently naturalized as an obligation of the state that anger over efforts to starve them helped to drive Virginians to create new political coalitions that cut across racial and geographic divisions” (p. 159). Indeed, African American families seized on public schools as primary means to define and defend freedom. In general, Jones argues, Virginia families “largely welcomed public schools as institutions that advanced their aspirations for the future” (p. 181). This apparent public consensus helps to explain the strength of the Readjuster movement and the denouement of Reconstruction in the state.

A monograph of this nature has limitations, some imposed by the nature of the subject, some by the author. Jones readily acknowledges that the book is primarily about black and white children in the plantation districts. While such a focus is understandable, it does leave open the question of whether the book’s generalizations apply to other parts of the state or to the South more broadly, especially in that part of the state that was no longer part of Virginia. One could imagine that children in Unionist households in West Virginia (or Virginia proper) experienced “defeat” differently. Likewise, although Jones argues that Virginia is the perfect place to study children, the war, and Reconstruction, it could be argued that a place so ravaged by the war was too unlike much of the South. Similarly, slavery in Virginia had evolved considerably in the decades before the war, a fact that Jones does outline early on. Still, it would seem that households in the region were already undergoing change before the war, emancipation, and Reconstruction sped up the process.

These are minor issues. A perhaps more significant matter is the fact that Jones consistently speaks only of “children” throughout the book. Collapsing the experiences of young people into one category does yield insights. Indeed, Jones strongly declares that “conceiving of childhood as the absence of autonomy and adulthood as its fulfillment obscures the reality that interdependence, rather than dependency, is a permanent dimension of human experience” (p. 191). This sweeping statement is a powerful admonition, one that all historians should consider. This noted, most historians of childhood or children usually add “and youth” to the category. In a book that covers more than fifteen years, many young people who started as toddlers would have been teenagers by the end and those who started as teenagers would have been approaching middle age. Missing from Jones’s treatment are the experiences of young people as they move through different life stages. While this lacuna does not detract from her argument, some attention to it might have deepened the analysis.

These points aside, Intimate Reconstructions gives a rich portrait of the lives of children in postwar Virginia. The links Jones outlines between public and private life add much to what we know about how the social and political changes of the period depended on one another. Her story lets us see how the experiences of white and black children were separate yet closely connected. The book’s careful narrative of public schools in the state is highly valuable in its own right as a significant addition to the history of education. Like the best of social and cultural history, Jones’s work shows us that the public depends on the private and that all reconstructions are intimate.

Printable Version:

Citation: James D. Schmidt. Review of Jones, Catherine A., Intimate Reconstructions: Children in Postemancipation Virginia. H-SAWH, H-Net Reviews. August, 2015.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.