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.