Du Bois took a revolutionary new look at Reconstruction in the 1930's, providing a fresh view that went largely ignored until recent books by Foner and Litwack resuscitated this overlooked period in American history. Du Bois summons up his great intellectual bearing to illustrate that from being the unmitigated failure that Reconstruction has long been portrayed as, it was the crucible of civil rights legislation, a time when there was very definitely hope that America would redefine itself along more egalitarian lines. While the book deals predominately with the black man's point of view, Du Bois offers a principled Marxist view of labor relations at the time, and how the leading Radical Republicans tried to come to terms with the new industrial society that was emerging in America.
Du Bois was a very compelling writer, he cuts through the layers of history to reveal the soul of the persons most greatly affected by Reconstruction. He charts the troubled waters of the Civil War, and the Presidential attempts at Reconstruction which followed the Union victories in the South. He provides a candid view of Lincoln, who struggled with his own prejudices, but eventually came to accept the black man because of the pivotal role he played in the war. Ironically, Du Bois noted a black did not become a man until he showed he could hold a gun in battle.
Du Bois felt Lincoln really did alter his views during the course of the war, no longer favoring the colonist view held by many that blacks should be repatriated to Africa. However, Du Bois felt that Lincoln lacked the convictions to really push forward Reconstruction, that his principal concern remained in reclaiming the Southern states in the Union.
The mighty task of Reconstruction was left up to the Radical Republicans in Congress and the "Black" legislatures that emerges in the South during this time. Du Bois refutes the Dunning-Bowers view that blacks were incapable of forming governments, by providing a chapter on "The Black Proletariat in South Carolina." Here, he shows that blacks fully recognized the enormity of this most propitious moment, but that they ran up against a set of state and federal courts, which refused to hold up their decisions. While blacks were now members of state legislatures and of the US Congress, they did not take over the South, as is often described. Even in South Carolina, where blacks outnumbered whites, blacks were only temporarily able to seize control of the legislature, and force a new state constitution.
This is the book that forms the basis for Foner's excellent book, Reconstruction. Du Bois was the first to realize that Reconstruction was more than just an epilog to the Civil War, but the beginning of the long road to freedom, which took nearly 100 years in the making for blacks in America.