“This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am president it shall be a government for white men” — Andrew Johnson, U.S. President (1865-69) and VP Under Abraham Lincoln (1865)
Reconstruction is a generic term to describe the rebuilding of any country after a war or natural disaster. For instance, there was a reconstruction after World War II, or in Afghanistan and Iraq. In American history, though, Reconstruction with a capital R describes the rebuilding of the South after the Civil War, from 1865-1877. Eighteen-Seventy-Seven doesn’t mark a resolution of any important issues — those are ongoing — but rather the end of the Union Army’s occupation of the South.
The end of the Civil War wasn’t an opportune time to have a president assassinated, as Abraham Lincoln was, especially since his VP Andrew Johnson wasn’t well suited to the task of top office. Whether things would’ve gone better had Lincoln lived we’ll never know, but even the Great Emancipator would’ve struggled mightily with the challenges presented by Reconstruction. Toward the beginning of the war, Lincoln hadn’t tried to ram abolition down Southerner’s throats the way many GOP politicians wanted, saying that direct reform efforts wouldn’t work better than trying to “penetrate the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw.” He hoped, instead, to win them over to his cause by reaching their hearts. That didn’t happen. After the war, Southerners were demoralized and they resented the freed slaves and those that freed them.
The southern economy was in tatters, the Union Army had wreaked havoc in some areas, and Confederate “greyback” currency was worthless. Black freedom translated into a sudden financial loss for Whites ~ $13 trillion in 2016 dollars (source). Even if the economy could recover — and cotton exporting would survive and thrive — the regional psyche wasn’t about to heal quickly or easily. Slavery, the linchpin of the South’s economy and social structure, had ended suddenly. The southern U.S. in 1865 was hardly an ideal place for one of the modern world’s early experiments in interracial democracy and, on that score, the North had nothing to offer but its own history of discrimination and segregation toward free Blacks. Places like Cincinnati’s Little Africa and Boston’s N****r Hill mainly symbolized that the North had only abolished slavery less than a century earlier. As historian C. Vann Woodward pointed out in The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955), the antebellum North provided a rough template for what transpired more dramatically in the South in the century following the war.
Two overlapping questions were at stake. The first was how, and under what conditions, would southern states be allowed to rejoin the country. That may seem like an odd question since the Union had fought the war to prevent them from leaving. However, the Union acknowledged Confederate nationhood in 1863 and there’s a saying in war, that to the victors go the spoils. The North had the leverage to make reentry conditional on Southerners either demonstrating loyalty to the U.S. or in treating Blacks in accordance with new constitutional amendments. Either prospect was grim for many white Southerners. Lincoln advised forcing just 10% of citizens in any given state to sign loyalty oaths before readmitting that state while congressional Republicans favored 50%. Toward the end of his life, Lincoln advocated suffrage for literate Blacks and veterans and Congress agreed. That was John Wilkes Booth’s immediate motivation for killing him.
But Congress was in recess in the summer of 1865, leaving President Johnson in charge. Johnson didn’t support Blacks being granted basic civil rights. Historian Richard Norton Smith points out that Johnson tellingly refused to use the term reconstruction, preferring restoration. The extent of those civil rights, or lack thereof, was the second big question posed by Reconstruction: how would Freedmen, as former slaves were known, fit into society?
Seemingly getting the green light, with no direct communication from Congress otherwise, southern states passed laws called Black Codes returning Freedmen to conditions as closely approximating slavery as possible without actually including ownership. It was illegal for Blacks to be unemployed, but they could only work jobs that Whites wanted them to work, mainly the same tasks they’d done as slaves. Blacks couldn’t stay out past curfews, own guns, vote, or hold office. If Whites felt black parents weren’t raising their children correctly they could assume guardianship of the children and hold them as apprentice servants.
These laws varied depending on specific locale and state. Later, they were known collectively as Jim Crow laws after a popular character in black minstrel shows. The poster on the left isn’t from the South during Reconstruction; it’s from Boston in 1847. The extent of these laws varied regionally and, in some places, there was conflict between politicians. Republicans in Louisiana objected to Democrats passing a new constitution with strict black codes and the ensuing Mechanics’ Institute Massacre of 1866 led to nearly 300 casualties, most of them Freedmen. Not only did Black Codes vary from place to place, but the black population was mobile. They experienced emancipation for the first time in many areas only when the war ended, not when Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and they were traveling all over trying to locate lost relatives sold to other plantations before the war.
When Congress returned to Washington in the fall of 1865, Radical Republicans led by Thaddeus Stevens, who’d run the North during the war, were disgruntled with the Black Codes and Johnson, setting the stage for the biggest showdown between the legislative and executive branches up to that point. Republicans showed no mercy for “unreconstructed rebels.” Under a program known as Radical Reconstruction, they disenfranchised former Confederate leaders, confiscated some planters’ land, and returned it to the former slaves who’d worked it for generations. With the 40 Acres-and-a-Mule plan initiated during the war on Sherman’s March, that land would be redistributed to Freedmen as small family farms. At least that was the idea of Sherman’s Special Field Orders, No. 15 in South Carolina, Georgia, and northern Florida. Even when these transfers actually occurred, Blacks would unknowingly borrow money in the spring at 5000% interest (one of the many disadvantages of illiteracy) and then be virtually owned by the lender as debt peons when they harvested in the fall. Either way, President Johnson revoked the redistribution policy before it ever transferred much land.
Most Blacks ended up as tenant farmers or sharecroppers, many in the same cotton fields they’d worked as slaves. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, as long as they were being paid, but Whites blocked other jobs and any avenues of bettering one’s station. Similar to European peasants, sharecroppers worked others’ land, keeping a portion of the crops for themselves (the tenant) and paying rent with the rest. This was the fate of most southern Blacks, at least those that escaped prison chain gangs, along with huge numbers of poor Whites.
Cotton didn’t go away because of the Civil War. Production expanded, in fact, though cotton never regained its status in proportion to the rest of the economy as northern industry grew. Meanwhile, the advent of mechanized agriculture in the early 20th century displaced sharecroppers, forcing many to seek factory work in cities. Radical Republicans also overcame Johnson’s veto and set up Freedmen’s Bureaus to help Blacks attain rudimentary healthcare and educations and to provide legal aid and help locate lost family members.
Freedmen’s Bureaus did some good but lacked adequate funding and were lampooned by critics as a waste of time. Of course, their critics also didn’t think Blacks had the right to educations, healthcare, or courtrooms in the first place. While the bureaus were well intended, some of the Republican policies in the South probably had more to do with vindictiveness toward the Confederacy than genuine concern for the welfare of Freedmen. Tapping into the religious undertones Lincoln expressed in various speeches, Radical Republicans preached “regeneration before reconstruction.” Unlike President Johnson, they wanted certain Southerners, namely Confederate leaders and big planters, to atone for their sins. At no point during Reconstruction did they roll out a red carpet and invite Freedmen to come north and compete for jobs. That didn’t happen until around World War I and, when it did, racial conflict came with it. Prior to the Civil War, northern Republicans had preached the upside of a racially purified, all white society.
In some places, Black Codes held while in others the rich planters really did lose power and Blacks were elected to legislatures. Laws permitting Blacks to vote paved the way for the Fifteenth Amendment and were really what defined the radical in the late 1860s phase known as “Radical Reconstruction.” There were 2k Blacks in southern statehouses from 1868 to 1875 — more than at any time in history, including the present. In this topsy-turvy world, Hiram Revels even replaced former Confederate President Jefferson Davis as a Senator from Mississippi. Since the federal government was giving out land grants to states to build colleges, a former slave from Fredericksburg and Giddings, Texas named Matthew Gaines secured the charter to build Texas A&M University near a train stop they called College Station. No statue of Gaines currently stands on campus. The board disallowed it despite attempts by history professors and College Republicans to get one built.
Amendments & Impeachment
To counter Black Codes, Congress passed legislation such as the Civil Rights Act (1866) and the Military Reconstruction Act (1867) that were designed to support black citizenship but weren’t properly or uniformly enforced. With the southern states not voting anyway, even as they had representatives that sat in Congress, Northerners ensconced those civil rights more permanently by passing constitutional amendments. The Thirteenth had already passed in 1865, ending slavery. Now the Fourteenth Amendment of 1868, sometimes called the Civil Rights Amendment, granted basic rights of citizenship to all Americans by forcing states to honor most rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. Prior to the Fourteenth, the Bill of Rights applied only against the national government, not the state governments, meaning that states — especially the original 13, but also southern states after the Civil War — could abridge their citizens’ rights to freedom of religion, speech, fair and speedy trials, etc. After Reconstruction, most of the Bill of Rights was incorporated at the state level, with one initial exception being the Second Amendment right to bear arms; the Second was officially incorporated with McDonald v. Chicago (2010). Had the Second Amendment applied in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Blacks could’ve owned weapons. The Fourteenth, like the Civil War itself, profoundly strengthened the national government at the expense of states, really resetting American history. It’s one of the most profound impacts of the war. The “Congress shall make no law…” restraining, strict-construction theme of the Constitution gave way to a looser “Congress shall have the power to…” The Fourteenth Amendment turned Reconstruction into an ongoing process that outlasted the period from 1865-1877 and today it is the most important overall amendment in court cases.
Andrew Johnson opposed the Fourteenth Amendment and vowed to obstruct its passage, just as he’d gone out of his way to block the Freedmen’s Bureaus and not enforce the earlier civil rights laws. He also didn’t support any potential Fifteenth Amendment granting Blacks the vote, and even seemed to question the legality of Congress since representation hadn’t been restored to all Southern states. Presidents don’t have an actual Constitutional (legal, official) role in the amendment process, but their support or opposition can sometimes influence their passage. President Johnson’s opposition to civil rights was the real reason House Republicans impeached him, though they trumped up technical charges concerning the illegal way he’d replaced one of Lincoln’s cabinet members in violation of their new Tenure of Office Act. Historian Mark Summers pointed out that, as commander-in-chief, some Republicans also feared that President Johnson might lead a coup d’etat using the Army to back a new congress of allied northern and southern Democrats, kicking out the Republicans. When Johnson backed down on his Reconstruction policy, the Senate allowed him to escape in their trial – the next phase of the process after the House impeaches a president. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presides over the Senate trial. Only three presidents have been impeached in American history. Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton both escaped in the Senate trial phase and Richard Nixon preemptively resigned as the process was unfolding in the House. Besides passing the word that he was done opposing Reconstruction, another factor that saved Andrew Johnson was that the president pro tempore of the Senate who stood to replace him, Benjamin Wade, favored women’s suffrage, which most Senators didn’t (there was no VP, as Lincoln’s assassination vacated that office).
Since many southern states passed legislation to keep Blacks from voting, the Fifteenth Amendment was added to secure black suffrage in 1870. Northern Republicans needed the southern black vote if slaves were freed; otherwise, they could potentially form an alliance with southern Whites and constitute a threat to northern hegemony. The Fifteenth only secured black male suffrage, though, since women didn’t have the right to vote yet.
Passage of these Civil War Amendments gets to the heart of why it was advantageous to keep former Confederate states out of the Union temporarily. It requires ¾ of the states to pass an amendment and none of them would’ve ever passed if the former Confederacy had voting seats in Congress after the war. In fact, the Thirteenth barely passed anyway. The Confederate states’ condition of readmission, then, was signing off on the new amendments, as Texas did in 1870. In the meantime, the ongoing, if limited, Union military occupation (per the Military Reconstruction Act) kept the South in line as the amendments passed and the southern states only had non-voting seats in Congress. The U.S. Army had less than 30k troops after the war, though, with most in the West fighting Indians.
However, passing amendments is one thing, and enforcing and interpreting them is another. There’s always some wiggle room and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth were no exceptions. The Fourteenth, for instance, outlawed states (state governments) from discriminating based on race, but what about the people that lived within states and ran private stores, inns, or restaurants? The Fifteenth outlawed denying votes based on race, but what about denying votes to everyone whose grandparents had been slaves (the Grandfather Clause), or everyone who couldn’t read with a special exemption for Whites who couldn’t, or how about charging poll taxes with a special exemption for Whites who couldn’t afford it? None of these were explicitly outlawed by the Fifteenth, at least not as long as the Supreme Court was in a “healing mood” from the Civil War. Finally, what about people taking the law into their own hands and simply beating up, torturing, or killing black voters?
Vigilantism & Southern Redemption
That was the preferred tactic of vigilante groups that arose to defend the South in the absence of the Confederate Army. White League, Red Shirts, Knights of the White Camellia, White Liners, and Ku Klux Klan sometimes fought directly against Union forces as paramilitary groups, especially in the more contested Upper South. This is when northern judges began interpreting the Second Amendment as based on individual gun ownership rights, in order to prevent southern states from using the Constitution to form militias. The Klan’s first incarnation started in Tennessee, the White League in Grant Parish, Louisiana, and the Red Shirts in Mississippi and South Carolina. Instead of fighting Union troops directly, though, these “rifle clubs” (often comprised of Confederate veterans) usually intimidated black and white Republican voters, purportedly including Carpetbagger businessmen from the North who scooped up cheap, confiscated land and charged high rent to white sharecroppers (there isn’t much primary source evidence to support the existence of carpetbaggers, but a few must have existed to fuel the legend).
The Klan’s tactics included rape, genital mutilation, and murder, the reports of which some southern newspapers variously dismissed as “fairy tales” or glorified (above). One ostensible purpose of the vigilantes was to protect the honor of white girls from black men, who would presumably rape them with impunity once freed from slavery. White plantation owners had free access to their female slave property for centuries, so people expected some retribution, though it never materialized in disproportionate numbers.
Not all former Confederates agreed with prolonging resistance to northern rule. John Singleton Mosby, a famous cavalry battalion commander in the war known as the “Gray Ghost,” thought that Republicans offered the South the best hope to rebuild their society. He went to work for the Grant administration as a lawyer then served as ambassador to Hong Kong. Many Southerners, however, stuck with the Democrats and a sizable minority with vigilante groups.
The Klan branded itself along themes similar to groups that arose in Scotland in previous centuries — many rural Americans were of Scotch-Irish ancestry — but mostly traced their lineage to America’s Anglo-Saxon founders. They dressed in hoods to scare Blacks into thinking they were ghosts of dead Confederate soldiers coming back to haunt them. Just as Nazis appropriated the swastika symbol, the Klan used hats similar to the capirote worn in Spain on Easter to represent equality and anonymity during confession. Union forces confronted the KKK, virtually dismantling the original “social club” by enforcing Grant’s 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act. Some Klansmen even escaped to Canada, of all places. A new Klan emerged around 1915. But eventually, President U.S. Grant instructed Union forces to stand down and they ceded territory to the other vigilantes. While Grant had the reputation for being “the Butcher” because of the ruthlessness of the Vicksburg and Overland Campaigns, his battlefield experiences only made him hate war. The last thing he wanted under his presidency was a resumption of the Civil War. Obviously, at some point, Southerners would end up controlling the South; the Union couldn’t occupy the region forever.
Just before he left office, on Christmas Day 1868, President Andrew Johnson offered amnesty to all Confederates. Under Grant, they returned to power. Former Confederates won back control of most areas by the early 1870s, with the understanding that they couldn’t re-institute slavery. They were led by Yellow Dog Democrats who favored voting for former Confederates over anyone, even a (cowardly) “yellow dog.” While Republican-led governments ran South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida backed by federal troops until 1877, these Democratic Redeemer governments eventually won control of the entire Southeast. This transition happened during U.S. Grant’s two terms, from 1869-1877. The Redeemers subverted bona fide democracy in favor of an apartheid-like system that ruled through violence and intimidation. That’s why some historians claim the North won the war, but the South won Reconstruction.
Southerners also won the battle of historical interpretation, especially in the Southeast but, to a surprising extent, even the North. For nearly a century after the war, Democrats in many states made it illegal for public schools to teach that the South’s cause in the Civil War was connected to the “peculiar institution” of slavery. Georgian Mildred Lewis Rutherford (aka “Miss Millie”), pro-slavery historian general of the Daughters of the American Confederacy, argued in A Measuring Rod to Test Textbooks (1919) that public schools should reject any text arguing that “the South fought to hold her slaves.” Instead, the civic religion of The Lost Cause obscured slavery’s importance, emphasizing states’ rights, duty, and honor, as represented by the ambiguously pro-slavery Robert E. Lee. Lee owned slaves but called slavery a “political and moral evil” in 1856 and planned to manumit his slaves five years after his death if his Arlington estate was financially sound. Historian Gary Gallagher said “you could even pretend that Lee was sort of anti-slavery if you squint just right and stand on your head and turn the lights out.” It’s probably not coincidental that Lee’s Army’s “Stars & Bars” streamer became the lasting symbol of the Confederacy rather than either of the actual political Confederate flags. Lee once called slavery “evil” (despite owning them) and opposed the erection of the Confederate monuments that later stirred controversy, predicting that they would only “keep open the sores of war.”
The forenamed “Grey Ghost” Mosby (left) also opposed statues that attempted to erase or rewrite history by downplaying slavery, because that’s what he fought to protect. In a 1907 letter to Sam Chapman, Mosby wrote:
“People must be judged by the standard of their own age. If it was right to own slaves as property it was right to fight for it. The South went to war on account of Slavery. South Carolina went to war ― as she said in her Secession proclamation ― because slavery [would] not be secure under Lincoln. South Carolina ought to know what was the cause for her seceding. […]I am not ashamed of having fought on the side of slavery. The truth is the modern Virginians departed from the teachings of the Father’s. John C. Calhoun’s last speech had a bitter attack on Mr Jefferson for his amendment to the Ordinance of `87 prohibiting slavery in the Northwest Territory.” (Wiki)
Jim Crow-era Lost Cause proponents from the 1890s-1920s put up most of the statues in question to underscore their commitment to segregation and disenfranchising Blacks, avoiding honoring Confederate generals like James Longstreet that later supported black suffrage or worked with authorities against the Ku Klux Klan. Many military historians see Longstreet as the best corps commander on either side of the war, but he fought with Blacks against the White League in New Orleans’ Battle of Canal Street (1874) — an apostasy causing Lost Cause historians to blame him for the defeat at Gettysburg even though Lee overrode Longstreet’s sound advice to go around Cemetery Ridge, arguably blowing the Confederacy’s best post-1861 chance to win the war (previous chapter; J.E.B. Stuart was another scapegoat for the Gettysburg loss that took the historical blame off Lee).
The movement kicked off with publication of The Lost Cause (1866) by journalist Edward Pollard, that told Southerners what they needed to hear. The cause was lost to start with because they’d faced an enemy with overwhelming resources, even though their soldiers were superior. Actual Confederate veterans never disparaged Union soldiers, but their fans didn’t realize that slighting an opponent doesn’t burnish ones’ own reputation, win or lose. Moreover, though they’d lost the war, the South had fought for morally superior causes like states’ rights, while slavery, hereafter often referred to as “slavery, so-called,” was only incidental.
The states’ rights interpretation rang especially true during Reconstruction when there really was tension between the national government and the Union-occupied southern states. Our friend Julius Howell from the previous chapter, the 101-year-old Confederate veteran interviewed in 1947, said they fought for states’ rights because the national government imposed its will after the war. In effect, he was arguing that the South seceded in 1860 because of how they were treated after 1865, showing how time clouds the memories of even those who personally experienced it. But as we also saw in Chapter 19 on Secession, prior to the Civil War, Confederate leaders showed no consistent adherence to states’ rights except as a means to an end — a fallback position after their failed attempt to exert national power on slavery’s behalf. Before the war, Southerners opposed new states deciding whether to legalize slavery on their own out west, and Confederate states lacked the power to legislate slavery within the Confederacy. The very people spinning the Lost Cause interpretation after 1865 clarified that they were fighting to preserve slavery in 1860-61 before it was known as “slavery, so-called.” At some point, either before or after the Civil War, their interpretative wires got crossed. I’m guessing after.
Scholars at Vanderbilt University called the Agrarians updated and refined the Lost Cause theory in the 1930s, arguing that an acquisitive, overbearing, industrializing North essentially attacked the bucolic South in a war of railroads and factories versus traditional farms. Their interpretation coincided with the popularity of the book and movie Gone With the Wind. But the original ringleader of Lost Cause revisionism was Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who penned a 1,500-page tome entitled The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (1881) and spoke across the South throughout retirement. Along with ex-CSA VP Alexander Stephens, author of the infamous Cornerstone Speech from March 1861 — in which he explicitly equated Confederate identity with racism — Davis argued that slavery was the occasion for the war, but not the cause. Davis drew parallels between the formation of the Confederacy and the U.S., arguing that they preceded from similar ethical and political frameworks — an interesting theory that some liberal historians increasingly entertain. And he made the best arguments on behalf of secession that he could, pointing out Lincoln’s hypocrisy in denying the constitutionality of the Mexican War and Lincoln’s view that Mexico had the right to the same self-rule that Davis argued the Confederacy should have had. Of course, Mexico wasn’t in the United States and the reverse argument could be used on Davis insofar as he didn’t respect Mexican sovereignty or right to self-rule in the 1840s, but that’s another matter. More importantly, most of the arguments Davis made on behalf of states’ rights as an alternative cause concerned the right of states to have slavery, lending credence to the argument he was trying to debunk. A teacher trying to make a case for slavery as foundational to the war could start by just assigning Jeff Davis’ own book about how it wasn’t.
After Hurricane Katrina destroyed Davis’ Presidential Library and beach home Beauvoir in Biloxi, Mississippi in 2005, U.S. taxpayers spent millions to restore the new library, operated by the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV). The bookshop sells books on southern heroism and northern treachery and runs a machine that flattens pennies, replacing Abe Lincoln with Davis’ profile. The SCV is a peaceful group that disavows any association with the KKK and condemns violence. Yet, it sells books with favorable reinterpretations of Confederate general and Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest, whose popularity spiked with the election of Barack Obama, stressing other parts of his biography. With members in all fifty states, Europe, Australia, and South America, the SCV has counted among its own Harry Truman, Clint Eastwood, Paul “Bear” Bryant, Hank Williams, Jr., and Pat Buchanan. Their main purposes are charity, assisting genealogical research, and heritage defense. For some white Southerners, heritage connects innocuously to regional or ancestral pride, perhaps peppered with a dash of Lynyrd Skynyrd or Dukes of Hazzard reruns. The SVC defines heritage defense as educating the public that the Confederate cause didn’t concern slavery and that the Confederate battle flag doesn’t symbolize racism — a tougher sell after the Klan and other hate groups adopted Lee’s battle flag in the 20th century. The SCV site is worth checking out for those interested in Neo-Confederates and the general topic of historical revisionism. (Revisionism is often misunderstood by the public as a bad thing, but all interpretations are subject to revision from all camps. To argue otherwise is to over-estimate the dependability of early drafts and under-estimate the subjectivity of all interpretations. The Lost Cause argument itself is a classic and influential, if poorly argued, example of revisionism.)
In 2012, the front page of the SCV site included a re-enactor warning of “people in your town who will try to tell you lies about what caused the Civil War,” meaning those who argue that its root cause was slavery. That’s me I guess, but I’m open to changing my mind, so let’s pop the hood on their Research > History drop-down and hear them out. The history section highlights Lyon Gardner Taylor’s Confederate Catechism (3rd ed. 1929), an iconic primary source for the Lost Cause. The Catechism traces resentment between the regions back to Jay’s Treaty of 1785, the Jefferson-Burr election of 1800, and the South Carolina Nullification Crisis of 1832-33. It conveniently skips over the Sectional Crisis of 1846-60 before getting to the deal-breaking Lincoln election in 1860, which it accurately depicts as posing a direct challenge to Dred Scott (1857). Lincoln’s platform “repudiated the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court authorizing Southerners to carry their slaves into the territories.” It’s the same argument Lincoln and Douglas debated in 1858 and that motivated southern Democrats to seek a national law enforcing Dred Scott in their 1860 platform. Of course, if the object were to either dismiss slavery as being connected to the war or emphasize states’ rights, it would be best to avoid spotlighting the Dred Scott case, but at least its interpretation is spot on. As a catechism, the pamphlet asks a series of anticipated questions and provides the convert with rebuttals to memorize. Heading #2 asks the all-important question, was slavery the cause of secession or the war? This is the drum-roll moment and perfect opportunity to explain to skeptical outsiders — liars in your hometown if you will — how slavery didn’t cause secession. The explanation is that it was, instead, the “vindictive, intemperate” anti-slavery movement that was at the bottom of all the troubles.” Here’s a better and shorter catechism for citizens interested in confronting our country’s true heritage: when we spill a lot of ink explaining how something isn’t about race, most likely it is.
In the 19th century, the U.S. government acquiesced in and adapted to Redeemer Rule in the South. President Grant phased out Radical Reconstruction and Union forces retreated in 1877. Faced with an economic recession that cut jobs for factory and railroad workers and fearing the migration of Freedmen, northern Democrats crushed pro-Reconstruction Republicans in the 1874 mid-term elections, taking over the House of Representatives. In the 1876 presidential election, New York Democrat Samuel Tilden seemingly won a close election over ex-Union general and Republican Rutherford B Hayes. Tilden won the popular vote and led the electoral college 184-165 with 20 votes in four states contested. Republicans cried foul, claiming that the White League and Red Shirts were scaring their voters from the polls in the South. The Democrats could scarcely deny the charge since vigilante “social clubs” were bragging about how many voters they’d murdered on election night, taking credit for the victory. If they’d killed even a handful, how many less courageous (or wiser) people avoided the polls altogether?
The two parties held a behind-closed-doors meeting organized by a federal commission, off limits to journalists (and future historians). The Compromise of 1877‘s result was clear, though: Hayes won the election and the Union retreated from its southern occupation. In addition, Congress would help stimulate industrialization in the South and build a southern transcontinental railroad (the 5th overall) connecting Texas to California. It’s ironic given some of the economic debates of the 1850s that, as part of their agreement to leave the South after the war, the North gave into southern demand for, rather than refusal of, subsidies from the national government to aid industrialization. After all, opposition to such measures was part of what fueled the southern Democrats for decades, dating all the way back to Jefferson. According to some, it was even the very cause of the Civil War. In that way, Americans after the Civil War were similar to many today that want the government to stay out of their business as they demand protection, better roads, aid, emergency relief, and subsidies. The sign of one protestor around 2010 read “Government: Keep Your Hands Off My Medicare!”
Reconstruction as a formal period in American history was over, even if we’re still shaking out its full implications. Slowly, the regional wounds began to heal. Northerners began touring the beautiful old plantations and many shared in the idealization of the antebellum South as a fully functioning society where everyone knew their place. Union and Confederate soldiers socialized at reunions, with many saying they connected more to the opposition than those back home who hadn’t fought. The best documented of these get-togethers was the 50th Anniversary Gettysburg Reunion in 1913 that we saw in the previous chapter.
It didn’t bode well for Blacks, though, when Whites talked about “healing wounds.” The Supreme Court did its part by watering down the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments. While the Fourteenth did ultimately apply the Bill of Rights to the states, that wasn’t the case at first. In U.S. v. Cruikshank (1876), concerning violence in Louisiana between white vigilante groups and black Republicans, the Court ruled that civil rights were purely a state matter and that the national government couldn’t intervene. That was eight years after passage of the Fourteenth. The Cruickshank case opened the doors for white vigilantes to mete out violence at will against Blacks in the Jim Crow era, as they had in the Colfax Massacre after a disputed gubernatorial election between Democrats and Republicans in 1872. In what historian Eric Foner called the worst mass racial violence of Reconstruction, whites killed 150 black Republicans and militia at Louisiana’s Colfax County Courthouse (now Grant Parish) on Easter Sunday 1873 and escaped prosecution, leaving Democrats in control of the state. Twentieth-century Whites celebrated the event with this 1950 historical marker:
In the late 19th century, the Court took on a cluster of Civil Rights Cases (1883) that all asked the same fundamental question about the Fourteenth: did people who lived in states have the right to discriminate or violate their fellow citizens’ rights, even though state governments didn’t? The answer was yes until the Court revisited the question again in the Heart of Atlanta Motel case in 1964, a century after the Civil War. Williams v. Mississippi (1898) approved poll taxes and literacy tests while United States v. Harris (1882) ruled that the federal government didn’t have jurisdiction over murder cases, meaning Whites could lynch or burn Blacks as long as their state governments didn’t stand in the way. Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) likewise confirmed that segregation didn’t violate the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as long as facilities were equal (in that case, passenger trains; in later cases schools).
Twentieth-century Civil Rights leaders dusted off and reinvigorated the Civil War Amendments, vindicating the hopes of Charles Sumner — he on the receiving end of Preston “Bully” Brooks’ cane during the Bleeding Kansas controversy (Chapter 18) — who called the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth “sleeping giants.” Historian Eric Foner pointed out that, unlike South Africa after Apartheid, the U.S. didn’t have to junk its constitution and start over to make racial progress, but rather strengthen its existing constitution. That was on the distant horizon, though, as of the 1870s. During Reconstruction, the Supreme Court left the state governments to gut the Fourteenth and Fifteenth as best they could. Alabama rewrote its constitution in 1901 to “establish white supremacy,” reducing the number of eligible black voters from 181k to 3k. At 40x the length of the U.S. Constitution, it is the longest still-operative constitution in the world, though the racist elements were overruled by subsequent Supreme Court cases in the 1960s.
Later, the country’s first feature-length film, Birth of Nation (1915), idealized the Klan as protagonists who restored honor and saved the region from bands of raping Blacks (portrayed by white actors in blackface) and evil-doing Yankee carpetbaggers. President Woodrow Wilson, a Virginian, screened the film in the basement of the White House and the former history professor concurred with its interpretation. According to the common line of argumentation, Reconstruction had failed. Why? Because Whites had been too nice to Blacks and given them too much power before they were ready. What’s surprising is how widespread that consensus was. It wasn’t just how things were viewed in the former Confederacy. That was the mainstream interpretation taught in textbooks across the country, including northern politician Claude Bowers’ The Tragic Era (1929) and those of Ivy League professors like Columbia’s Charles Dunning, of the Dunning School of Reconstruction.
Reconstruction is a classic example of how differently the same history can be viewed through the lens of different times. All of us view history through the prism of the present. For many Americans today, it seems preposterous to blame Reconstruction’s failings on Blacks, even if they’re reading the same information as those that made Birth of a Nation or wrote The Tragic Era. For this historian, Reconstruction policy didn’t fail so much because of its own flaws as it was overthrown by a dedicated minority of vigilante domestic terrorists who subverted democracy through violence.
For Progressives, the image below of the Statue of Liberty’s arm might serve as a good metaphor for Reconstruction. The French gave the statue to the U.S. to celebrate the Union’s victory in the Civil War, but in this 1877 photo, the statue, like Radical Reconstruction’s aim of citizenship for Freedmen, is incomplete. Before “Lady Liberty” was assembled in New York Harbor, the Times wrote, “They have not been able to procure a whole statue, but they have ornamented the city with a nice large piece of the intended statue’s arm.” Likewise, Reconstruction only started an ongoing and uneven process toward racial justice. Other Americans, no doubt, still share the traditional view of condemning Reconstruction for granting Blacks too many “special rights” or granting them “too soon.” In free societies, history is an ongoing argument.
You could think of Reconstruction as a contest over the status of former slaves. On one end of the spectrum was full equality and citizenship promoted by Radical Republicans and embodied in the amendments. On the other end is an attempt to return Freedmen to a status as close to slavery as possible without technically being slavery. Reconstruction was fought out in the gray area in between and neither side won outright. Blacks ended up not as slaves but as second-class citizens who worked mainly as sharecroppers or servants and, for the most part, couldn’t vote or hold office. Those that resisted ended up in chain gangs, burned, or swinging from a rope. One lasting effect of this domestic terrorism and institutionalized brutality is the Department of Justice, set up in 1870 under the executive branch’s attorney general to reign in white vigilante groups before the North gave up.
With the Thirteenth Amendment’s prohibition on slavery exempting the penal system, affirmed in Ruffin v. Virginia (1871), prison chain gangs built much of the infrastructure taxpayers wouldn’t otherwise finance in what amounted to a large-scale system of peonage. Like many southern states, Texas leased its convicts and even operation of its prison in Huntsville to private firms prior to 1915. Convict Lease historian Theresa Jach detailed how A.J. Ward & Dewey ran Huntsville with its 20% white population working a textile mill while the 80% of Blacks worked adjacent cotton fields. Persistent sex scandals between staff and female prisoners finally forced the state to cancel its contract. They leased to Cunningham & Ellis, who used prisoners to grow cane for Imperial Sugar. The Texas State Capital in Austin was built mainly by such quasi-slaves in the mid-1880s, with limestone from Oak Hill, aka “Convict Hill,” and exterior Red Granite from Marble Falls. Some of the prisoners were real criminals, of course, but many weren’t or were subjected to unreasonable sentences.
The worst of these southern gulags was the Parchman Farm State Penitentiary in Mississippi. Historian David Oshinsky called Parchman the “closest thing to slavery that survived the Civil War.” There, state governor James Vardaman, aka “the great white chief,” sometimes had a prisoner released so that he and his dogs could hunt him down in the surrounding woods for sport. Vardaman said that “if it is necessary every Negro in the state will be lynched; it will be done to maintain white supremacy.” Later in his career, after educator and civil rights activist Booker T. Washington dined with President Teddy Roosevelt, Vardaman said the White House was “so saturated with the odor of the n****r that rats have taken refuge in the stable.” More recently, former L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling said something similar explaining why he didn’t allow black tenants in one of his Hollywood apartment complexes. Despite Washington’s education, Vardaman thought he had no more right to vote than the “coconut-headed chocolate-colored typical little coon who [shines] my boots every morning.”
Many of the problems with unfair incarceration stemmed from the all-white jury system. Today we think of jury duty as a sort of nuisance or obligation, but when groups don’t have the right to sit on juries it means that other races can run roughshod over them, precluding any hope of real justice. Minorities didn’t have the right to sit on juries in much of the U.S. until Hernandez v. Texas (1954). If it seems odd that America hasn’t solved all its racial problems yet, this late in the game, consider that slavery existed in North America for 250 years and the Civil War ended it only 150 years ago.
Optional Further Reading & Viewing:
Jefferson Davis Papers (Rice Univ.)
Reconstruction: The Second Civil War (NEH)
Virtual Exhibit: People & Politics After the Civil War (Digital History)
Jourdan Anderson’s 1865 Letter To His Old Master (Letters of Note)
Eric Foner, “Why Reconstruction Matters” (New York Times 3.28.15)
Eric Foner, “Confederate Statues And ‘Our’ History” (New York Times, 8.20.17)
Ex-Texas Governor Rick Perry’s Speech On Jesse Washington @ National Press Club (2015)
Douglas Egerton, “Terrorized African Americans Found Their Champion In Civil War Hero Robert Smalls” (Smithsonian, 9.18)
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s 2017 Speech On Removal of Confederate Statues):