Remembering … and Misremembering … Reconstruction

Recently I came across a diatribe on Reconstruction from a Confederate heritage advocate. That person offered the following observation:

Then there was the debt run up by carpetbagger legislatures that taxpayers were saddled with for generations. (I may be mistaken about this — I’m going from memory of something I read years ago — but South Carolina’s carpetbagger debt was not paid off until the 1960s.) So there was very little money for infrastructure, public education, etc. — and then Southerners were ridiculed not only for being “lazy” but for being poor and uneducated.

This is interesting. Ever explore what state governments throughout the South spent money on? Why, that’s right: public schools and infrastructure, otherwise known as railroads.

South Carolina is particularly interesting, as that state legislature contained many black representatives (carpetbaggers were but a small percentage of southern Republicans during Reconstruction). Its debt indeed rose during Reconstruction, but nearly all of that increase was cancelled by the early 1880s (not generations, and not until the 1960s). The state’s formerly enslaved population was indeed criticized by many people as being lazy, poor, and uneducated … by white southerners who opposed efforts to give a greater meaning to emancipation than the mere demise of slavery. In contrast, people don’t tend to pay as much attention to the state governments that emerged during the period known as Redemption that followed Reconstruction, in which white native-born southerners did not always govern effectively except when it came to suppressing black rights, regardless of the consequences. When it came to that, however, they were skilled indeed.

But there must be some people who believe that was a good thing and a sign of good government.

15 thoughts on “Remembering … and Misremembering … Reconstruction

  1. Rob Baker February 25, 2015 / 10:44 am

    I think I remember something similar for post war Georgia. Specifically the Bourbon governments.

  2. James F. Epperson February 25, 2015 / 10:59 am

    Brooks, Brooks, Brooks, …

    You must know better than to respond with boring things like *facts*!


    Didn’t a large number of Redemption-era southern state officials flee to Central America to avoid corruption prosecutions?

  3. Mark February 25, 2015 / 1:06 pm

    In “The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America”, William G. Thomas III says (I think because going from memory) that mostly federal money was used to rebuild the railroads to northern specs. It’s been too long to remember much about the details, but at the time if I recall correctly he seemed to make a plausible case for this fact. In any case it would seem to me surprising if that weren’t the case. No doubt states spent their own money too if they could, and I can google up at least one long journal article on the gory details of the state money (as opposed to federal) that went to railroads during redemption but I don’t have time to read it.

    On fleeing to Latin America, I thought that was for purely ideological reasons.

  4. Jimmy Dick February 25, 2015 / 1:11 pm

    Eric Foner’s Reconstruction class on EdX starts today. Let’s see how many of the Confederate heritage types show up in it. None of them were in the first two courses. Of course they would have to use things like facts and primary sources instead of making up their lies and we know they are not willing to actually learn.

  5. Mike Musick February 25, 2015 / 3:18 pm

    In discussing postwar developments, Rollin G. Osterweis once pointed out that in “Redemption”-era North Carolina, one argument against funding public education was that since many Confederate soldiers (by definition paragons of virtue) had been illiterate, there was obviously no need for such frills.

  6. msb February 26, 2015 / 1:04 am

    Well, there had been, in addition to the destruction to actual property caused by the war, the fact that it turned approx. 4 million pieces of “human property” into human beings, but that wasn’t a reconstruction debt.

    • Brooks D. Simpson February 26, 2015 / 9:23 am

      Some people worry more about formerly enslaved blacks as lost property than as real human beings. I wonder why that is.

      • msb February 27, 2015 / 2:21 am

        It’s a good question.

  7. Leo February 26, 2015 / 11:57 am

    The post-reconstruction era is much more tragic that the actual Civil War. We learned absolutely NOTHING about it in Mississippi History classes in the late 80’s and our textbook back then was a total JOKE. I’m willing to bet 99% of the state population can’t tell you one thing about the redeemers or the conservative democrats in Mississippi.

    This is a little off topic, but one galling bit of misinformation out there is the Mississippi flag was changed in 1894 to include the Confederate battle flag as a way to honor the Confederate veterans of the state. This lie is often sited by ne-confederates even though there is no mention of this so-called tribute in the original law creating the new design.

  8. Allison February 26, 2015 / 12:01 pm

    I don’t know why the citizens of Kentucky treated human beings the way they did, nor why they maintained slavery till the bitter end. But James Madison sure didn’t help the matter;

    “The Federal Constitution therefore, decides with great propriety on the case of our slaves, when it views them in the mixed character of persons and of property.”

    While we’re on the subject, did the Kentucky Generals coerce their slaves into the serving with them during the war, and regard them as if they were mere conscripts?

    • Brooks D. Simpson February 26, 2015 / 1:11 pm

      Interesting that you invoke Madison as authority here. Do you also invoke him as an authority when it comes to his rejection of secession as a constitutional right? Just curious.

      Kentucky had its own generals? There was a Kentucky army? I can recall the Kentucky Colonels, but they were an ABA team.

  9. Allison February 26, 2015 / 1:26 pm

    You do agree, do you not, that the states seceded from the political Union established the AoC?

    • Brooks D. Simpson February 26, 2015 / 1:59 pm

      Reconsider the wording of your question. What “political Union”?

      Then again, never mind. Thanks for playing.

  10. Noma February 28, 2015 / 5:29 pm

    “The state’s formerly enslaved population was indeed criticized by many people as being lazy, poor, and uneducated … by white southerners who opposed efforts to give a greater meaning to emancipation than the mere demise of slavery.”

    Definitely the former enslaved population was criticized as being uneducated…and some people were determined to *keep* it that way. For example, note this report to President Grant:

    >> >> I hasten to inform you of the sad Event which taken place at Hartsville in /Toursdel City Tenn on 21th of Aug 1874. The affair is a great one too and that is this, one of our School Teachers was killed which you know is very cruel and the White people Says they cant do any thing to prevent it or protect us the Col people of the adjoining country are coming to our Town for they cant Stay there for night Riders are troubling them too great to Stay there at their homes.

    The person that was killed was a Leady we want to know What to do … We want to get your advise … we have no protecting power here … if you will back us we will protect ourselves. We trust that we are not flattered by writing those lines. … we want the aid Truly and if you will not help us send us the arms and Say that you will help us be as good as your word and we will Stand for our Selves until we die. … please Answer this letter right away

    [M.C. Mason and four others, Lebanon, Tenn., August 23, 1874, Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, vol 25, p. 230]

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