Reconstruction: The Continuing Civil War? (Civil Warriors Greatest Hits)

(This post first appeared at Civil Warriors on November 14, 2006)

I have long thought that the surrender of the Confederacy’s field armies in the spring of 1865 and the final collapse of the effort to secure the independence of the Confederate States of America to be as much a moment of transition as a definite end to conflict. After all, one could argue that much – too much – remained unanswered at that time. Sure, the Union was preserved, but how would one define that Union? Surely it was not the same Union that existed in 1860. And if emancipation throughout the American republic took root during the American Civil War, it remained unclear as to what exactly freedom meant for some four million African Americans who could celebrate the final death of slavery with the ratification of the 13th Amendment in December 1865.

That said, it is clear that peace did not come in the spring of 1865. Rather, the conflict underwent a transformation. To be sure, there would be no large-scale gray-clad field armies operating across the American South, but even by the summer of 1865 there was growing evidence of continued, low-level violence and clashes that within a year would spark a series of major violent outbreaks at Memphis, New Orleans, and elsewhere. The development of local white supremacist terrorist groups and the advent of the Ku Klux Klan promised a renewal of hostile resistance to efforts to establish civil (let alone political) rights for adult African American males: it’s worthwhile to remember that these outbreaks came well before Congress passed the Reconstruction Acts of 1867, and so they cannot be justified as a way to protect “home rule” and “social order” from Republican legislative initiatives. Violence played a major role in several elections over the next ten years, from Georgia in 1868 through North Carolina in 1870-71, South Carolina in 1871-72 and 1876, Louisiana from 1872 to 1877, Mississippi in 1874-75, and other former Confederate states. Klan violence (as Jim Hogue has pointed out in an essay posted on this blog) morphed into paramilitary resistance; there were attempts, some successful, to conduct a coup d’etat in several states; by 1877 Republicans in the North had admitted frustration with the failure of federal intervention to secure black rights in the postwar South.

In short, if we limit our definition of the American Civil War to the period 1861-1865, we do ourselves a disservice in historical understanding. There was violence before (Bleeding Kansas, John Brown) and violence after (Reconstruction). What happened during Reconstruction helped shaped what the Civil War achieved (and what it didn’t achieve), and perhaps its time that people who profess to be interested in the Civil War take a new and broader look at the extended conflict. One may recall John B. Gordon’s performance at the surrender triangle near Appomattox Court House, but how many of you recall Gordon’s participation in the overthrow of the Republican regime in Georgia? And yet the latter fact demonstrates the conditional and limited submission evident in the former image.

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9 thoughts on “Reconstruction: The Continuing Civil War? (Civil Warriors Greatest Hits)

  1. There is a historical marker commemorating this event not even 1/8th of a mile from where I grew up:

    http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Election_Riot_of_1874

    “The Election Riot of 1874 or Coup of 1874 took place on election day, November 3, 1874 near Comer, Alabama. On that day, the White League (comprising white Alabamian Democrats), formed an armed mob and invaded Eufaula, killing at least seven black Republicans, injuring at least 70 more, and driving off over 1,000 defenseless Republicans from the polls. [1] The mob then moved on to Spring Hill, where members stormed the polling place, killing a white Republican judge’s son. [2] The White League subsequently perfected its coup d’état by refusing to count any Republican votes cast (Republican voters outnumbered Democratic voters by a margin greater than two to one), declaring themselves (the Democrats) victorious, forcing Republican politicians out of office, and seizing every county office in Barbour County. [3] The Democrats followed up by auctioning off as slaves (for a maximum cost of $2 per month) or otherwise silencing all Republican witnesses to the coup so that they could not testify in federal court about it.”

  2. >> . . . perhaps its time that people who profess to be interested in the Civil War take a new and broader look at the extended conflict.

    Indeed. That entire last paragraph was sweet. I just finished a couple of books in the last month in my quest to get a broader perspective that were so good I’d like to pass them along: “Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War” and “Our Masters the Rebels: A Speculation on Union Military Failure in the East, 1861-1865″. The latter an out of print book that delivered so much more for me than the subtitle suggests. And for the ultimate background read on the question of race issue generally, there is Hannaford’s “Race: The History of an Idea in the West”, which isn’t an easy read by any stretch for the uninitiated in matters of intellectual history, but necessary for an understanding of the racial issues underlying much of 19th century, and a needed corrective for many of the bad ideas still rattling around in my opinion. It’s so good to read the background that scholars have dedicated their lives to provide us.

  3. It’s so true! While other historical periods are often viewed as “the long_____(fill in the blank)” Civil War studies still seem to begin and end end in 1861 and 1865. If you’re interested, we did recently post a series of lectures by David Bight on the legacies of Reconstruction, which are of course many, despite the period’s rate of being understudied.

  4. The only way to understand Reconstruction is to view it as an extension and continuation on the War. Violence against blacks continued, and there was an ongoing attempt to reenslave them, under a different set of relationships and legal terms. Anyone who doubts this should watch the documentary “Eyes on the Prize,” and the, paying close attention to the rage and anger on the faces of the white Southerners dvd “Slavery by Another Name,” based on Douglas Blackmon’s Pulitzer Prize winning book by the same title: http://www.amazon.com/Slavery-By-Another-Name/dp/B006JN86VW/ref=pd_sim_b_35

  5. There was talk with Grant and Sherman about the necessity of bringing a swift, decisive and definitive peace as a means of preventing Confederate forces from breaking into random guerrilla bands and creating mass instability in the South. In some ways it seems like that is indeed what happened after all, with the Ku Klux Klan and similar groups.

    From another perspective, there is Sherman’s famous pronouncement, “That devil Forrest must be hunted down and killed if it costs ten thousand lives and bankrupts the treasury. There will never be peace in Tennessee til Forrest is dead.” It appears that Sherman was correct. In fact, in the form of the Ku Klux Klan, Forrest continued to wreak violence long after he was dead.

    It’s a good question: Did the Union win the Civil War in 1865 — or did the Confederacy win it in 1877, when all the Federal forces were withdrawn?

    • The Union lost its patience with interminable racial conflict in the South and pulled out its forces. Northerners began to perceive Reconstruction as a failure. Racial attitudes changed dramatically by 1900.

      The South settled into something like quasi-independent home rule which lasted until 1965. It certainly helped race relations when millions of negroes moved to the Northern states.

      In the twentieth century, the Union withdrew its troops from Mexico and Haiti. Did the Yankees lose the war? The score was more like 1-2. The Union was preserved and slavery was abolished, but Southerners drew the line at negro equality, and triumphed on that point.

  6. Mr. Wallace, what do you mean when you write, “racial attitudes changed dramatically by 1900″? How so? In what way? Are you referring to the Northern states or the whole nation?

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