One of the sessions that I sat in on when I attended the American Historical Association (AHA) Annual Meeting in D.C. in January 2018 was entitled “The Struggle to Commemorate Reconstruction in National Parks,” which featured former Secretary of
Perhaps no period in American history has been so utterly erased or misremembered as the Reconstruction era, that decade after the Civil War when the federal government sought to ensure that millions of African Americans, most of them former slaves, could enjoy basic civil and political rights. Just as “Lost Cause” mythology long disguised the centrality of slavery as the cause for the Civil War, supplanted by a false narrative of States’ Rights, so too did it invent a fiction of an occupied postwar south given to dangerous excess, exploited by rapacious northern “carpetbaggers,” in league with venal local “scalawags,” and hapless illiterate blacks manipulated to do their bidding and trample the rights of their former masters. That all of this is nonsense has made it a no less tenacious feature of American popular memory.
The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America’s Most Progressive Era, by Douglas R. Egerton, is a welcome addition to recent scholarship that has put the appropriate lie to these false narratives while recovering the often-heroic stories of African Americans and their white allies seeking to advance the cause of freedman against the frequent violence and brutality meted out by ex-Confederates seeking to reassert white supremacy. In the tradition of Eric Foner, whose magisterial Reconstruction: America’s Unfished Revolution 1863-1877, was among the first to expose the falsity of long-accepted interpretation, Egerton—professor of history at LeMoyne College—has crafted a well-written treatment of a pivotal era that has long languished from lack of attention and yet remains so critical to our understanding of how race continues to impact the American experience.
As a child growing up during the lunch counter boycotts and back-of-the-bus banishments of the Civil Rights era, with scenes splashed across my television set of unarmed marchers beaten by police and beset upon by dogs and water cannon, I had no idea that Alabama—where Governor George Wallace proclaimed, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” and a church bombing by white supremacists took the lives of four young children—had sent former slave Benjamin S. Turner to Congress in the 1870s. Nor did I know that Mississippi, infamous for the 1964 abduction and murder of civil rights workers, once had no less than two black United States Senators. How was that possible? What had happened? Egerton’s fine book is an excellent one-volume survey of a dramatic time of enormous hope for African Americans that proved to be all too brief, ultimately postponing efforts at equality for another century.
Reconstruction—which meant different things to different audiences at the time—was fraught with failure from the very beginning. Perhaps it only really had any kind of chance during the scant five days between Grant’s generous terms to Lee at Appomattox and Lincoln’s assassination. Lincoln, whose second term was only weeks old at his death, had been vague about postwar Reconstruction. It only seemed apparent that he favored easy terms for readmitting the states of the former Confederacy to the Union, and that he had concerns about the just treatment of the recently enslaved. But the great man was gone, and in his place was Andrew Johnson, a coarse, ex-slaveholder and Unionist Democrat from Tennessee added to the ’64 ticket to bolster Lincoln’s chances for re-election. At first, there was some concern that the new President—a rough fellow who despised plantation elites—would be too hard on the defeated south, but it soon became clear that the racist Johnson reserved most of his hatred for freed blacks and for their white “Radical Republican” allies in Congress who sought to sponsor civil equality and voting rights for African Americans. From the outset, Johnson would have none of that, blocking programs designed to educate and assist freedmen, granting blanket pardons to ex-Confederate military and political leaders, drawing down troop levels in the occupied south, and reassigning northern military commanders who were too aggressive in protecting blacks from rising southern vigilantism. Congress and the accidental President made war upon each other, and Johnson was narrowly acquitted in impeachment proceedings, but the real losers were blacks struggling to make their way in a new world where they were no longer property yet, typically lacking skills and education, faced daunting obstacles for basic survival.
In the immediate aftermath of the war there may have been an opportunity for long-term positive change, even if perhaps social equality for blacks might remain out of reach. At first, the conquered south seemed to follow Lee’s example, accepting defeat and seeking reconciliation. The “Spirit of Appomattox” kindled an optimism on both sides that was nearly extinguished with Lincoln’s death but yet still held promise, as the south seemed willing to accept whatever postwar terms the north might impose. But this moment was forever snuffed out by Johnson’s decisive embrace of ex-Confederates and palpable scorn for black aspirations.
Egerton underscores a vital point often overlooked by scholars of the era when he looks to how representation re-empowered states of the former Confederacy. The famous Three-Fifths Compromise of 1787 that led to ratification of the U.S. Constitution was to mean that millions of blacks held as chattel property nevertheless counted as three-fifths of a person, which granted the antebellum south disproportionate political power in Congress for its free, white population. The 1868 Fourteenth Amendment, extending citizenship to all, ironically increased the political power of white southerners exponentially, if only they could terrorize the black population—newly enfranchised by the 1870 Fifteenth Amendment—from exercising the right to vote. Paramilitary “White Leagues” and the Ku Klux Klan proved to be effective forces on the one hand, along with Johnson and emboldened Democrats on the other, so that readmitted former Confederate states and pardoned rebels could combine legal and extra-legal tactics to put control of these states in the hands of the very elites who led the rebellion! For example, in a remarkable turn of events, Alexander Stephens, former Vice President of the Confederate States of America, had a political rebirth as Congressman from Georgia in 1873, serving incongruously alongside blacks from other states that had once been part of the CSA. Stephens and his successors would well outlast their African American counterparts.
Optimism was rekindled when Ulysses S. Grant—a moderate of Lincoln’s ilk who was a friend of African Americans—was elected President in 1868, but much damage had already been done and Grant was no match for competing entrenched interests on all sides. Bogged down by corruption, scandal and his own gullibility, the great general proved to be a mediocre Chief Executive. And there were other forces at work that were beyond his control. Massive demilitarization followed the Civil War, and Indian wars in the west further diminished federal forces stretched thin in a south that was rapidly reasserting itself. Meanwhile, the north had grown weary of the conflict and of blacks clamoring for political rights, economic upsets proved more tangible to the postwar population, and a reconciliation that promised the nation an opportunity to move on beckoned with greater appeal than the interests of faraway ex-slaves. They were free now; what more do they want from us? The result was the mass murder of thousands of blacks in the south, as well as many of their white allies, as ex-Confederates enforced “Redemption”—the seizure of political power from northern Reconstruction forces that prevailed for a century after, and still endures in pockets of the south today. The contested election of 1876 put Rutherford B. Hayes in the White House and withdrew federal forces from the south, effectively ending Reconstruction. The controversial Confederate monuments adorning too many public squares in the south today represent a commemoration of that moment—of Redemption and the near permanent debasement of African Americans to second-class citizenship—rather than the ostensible memorial of Civil War soldiers falsely proclaimed by southern partisans.
While it may seem that all was lost, in this outstanding history Egerton reminds us that there were accomplishments. Abolitionists and the like-minded flocked to the south after the war to teach blacks to read and write, and indeed great strides were made. African Americans, often against impossible odds, learned skills that forged new generations of artisans and shopkeepers. While “sharecropping” turned multitudes of blacks into serfs that were perhaps only a new brand of slave, they never stopped hoping—if not for themselves, then for their children—that one day a promised equality would become a true reality. Egerton can also be praised for bringing the nuance and complexity requisite to modern historical scholarship to bear as he does not fail to explore the often overlooked entrenched racism of the north, where few states granted voting rights to blacks prior to the Fifteenth Amendment, and which spawned its own brand of strong resistance to social equality that also sometimes dealt violence and death to its proponents.
One of the benefits of academic conferences is the opportunity to harvest books. I picked up The Wars of Reconstruction from a publisher’s table as the AHA annual meeting wound down, and cracked the spine on the train ride home. Rarely have I found a work of history both so compelling and so relevant to its own time and to our own. I highly recommend it.