Reconstruction at the 2016 CWI

During the next several days I’ll offer a few observations on what is happening at Gettysburg College’s Civil War Institute, which this year explores Reconstruction. As I am typing this, Peter Carmichael, sans scarf, is setting forth the issues of the conferences. He argues quite passionately that the outcome was not preordained.

Do you agree?

23 thoughts on “Reconstruction at the 2016 CWI

  1. Lyle Smith June 17, 2016 / 1:33 pm

    Not preordained, but likely to fail.

  2. Ah, but which outcome would that be: the South losing the War on the battlefield, or the South winning the “peace” after its battlefield defeat?

    I look forward to your dispatches from that front.

      • Got it. Losers in war don’t typically get to set the terms of their post-war existence and certainly not to the point of witnessing a wide acceptance for its “lost cause” narrative by the victor’s social, political, and cultural structures.

  3. Pam Divanna June 17, 2016 / 2:09 pm

    Letting them down easy was a big mistake. I can only think of how Leiber reacted to surrender terms in a letter to Sumner. An olive branch?

    • Michael William Stone June 17, 2016 / 9:21 pm

      A mistake in what way?
      From the viewpoint of most Union Men, Reconstruction was a great success. By 1898 young Southerners were enlisting to fight for the US just as readily as their Northern peers. Ditto in 1917. The Union, in short, had been truly restored – which was what the War had been about.

      • Shoshana Bee June 18, 2016 / 9:11 am

        It depends on who you ask, regarding the success of Reconstruction. I am not certain that African Americans in the South would be celebrating Reconstruction in 1898. Black Codes, vagrancy laws, Jim Crow, and a nice fat Separate but equal ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) did hot suggest a whole lot to celebrate. Sure, the Union was glued back together, but not all the parts and pieces shared the same strength.

        • Michael William Stone June 18, 2016 / 10:54 pm

          When had they ever shared the same strength?

          For most Americans – esp in the North, which post-1865 was the politically dominant section – the outcome of the war and reconstruction was satisfactory, which is why nothing much was done for three generations. Until the advent of the Cold War, there just wasn’t much need to do anything further.

          • Shoshana Bee June 20, 2016 / 8:23 am

            I am not sure what your point is, however, “same as it always was” does not strike me as satisfactory when a whole section of the population — African Americans — lagged far behind the rest, after Reconstruction.

            I am going to stop here, because we are not on the same page and further exchanges will not change this.

            Good day.

  4. Michael William Stone June 17, 2016 / 2:38 pm

    Did the South really “win the peace”?

    They could no longer pursue fugitive slaves in the North, nor take slaves into the western Territories. And the tariffs never returned to their prewar levels.

    In short, the North and the Republican Party won and kept everything that they really wanted and everything for which that party had been founded. The only thing they didn’t do was make Black voting rights stick – an issue about which most people in the North didn’t give a hoot, and about which they had no particular reason to give a hoot. The South got away with overturning that because (as far as most white folks were concerned) it simply wasn’t important enough to be worth fighting about.

  5. Shoshana Bee June 17, 2016 / 5:15 pm

    By the fact that Johnson was the president surely gave the other team the home field advantage when it came to the early years of Reconstruction. Until the power structure changed in the South, how could Reconstruction have had a chance out the door? I am not an optimist. I am not well versed on almost anything CW, but I do know that change is not a natural or desirable state in most cases, so without continued hardline enforcement, most of the edicts of Reconstruction were not going to naturally fall into place nor remain in place indefinitely. Johnson believed the Southern states should decide the course that was best for them. It was also a widely held opinion that African-Americans were unable to manage their own lives. Even after Johnson, this attitude prevailed. Put this all together and I don’t know how else one could view the outcome of Reconstruction other than inevitable.

    *Ducking behind a rock now, as I do not usually got this far with opinion*

    • Michael William Stone June 17, 2016 / 10:03 pm

      No reason to duck. You are only stating the obvious.

      I do feel, though, that Johnson’s importance is a bit overrated. In some ways, it was he who gave the Radicals their chance, by his acquiescence in Black Codes and the election of prominent ex-Rebs, which forced the Republican Party as a whole to accept at least some of the Radical programme, in particular by enfranchising all Freedmen rather than just the literate and those who had served in the Union Army. Had Johnson insisted on that, it might well have satisfied enough Republicans to secure readmission of the South with only a modest Black electorate.

      After all, it would only have required the defection of four conservative Republican Senators to stop the Fourteenth Amendment in its tracks. From what I can see, it was Johnson’s hamfisted approach, more than anything, which ensured that those defections didn’t happen.

      Even had another POTUS gone for universal suffrage, it might not have had the same impact. When the first election under the Reconstruction Acts were held in 1868, much of the initial Republican success was due to white voters, with Johnson’s encouragement, boycotting the polls in the belief that a Democratiic President would be elected in November and restore the South under white rule. In 1865, absent Johnson, there would have been no such hope, and enough whites would probably have voted to return Conservative governments in most Southern states – as in fact happened anyway in Virginia – so that Radical Reconstruction as we know it would have been stillborn in much of the South.

      In short, without Johnson it could well be that less is achieved rather than more.

  6. Mark June 17, 2016 / 9:18 pm

    It was not preordained. What is preordained is that if it failed people would eventually claim it was preordained. The same as it ever was.

    Lincoln’s assassination made it very unlikely that it was going to succeed, but that was because of the liability he had as a VP. I think Johnson used up much of the patience of the Northerners required to get a better outcome, and then there was the great counter productive nature of Johnson’s actions themselves.

    With Lincoln, or a like-minded VP, or Grant later on, the prime enemy would be the internal naivety of such men in projecting their own respect for the law onto the recalcitrant Southerners who weren’t as much like them in that regard as they thought. The Southern states were let back into the union too quick without enough conditions being met. Didn’t that allow SCOTUS to have the upper hand over the legislature? Or maybe I have chronology wrong. But avoiding Taney’s power was a huge issue all through the war. I think without Johnson it more likely than not that Reconstruction succeeds. The KKK was required to keep blacks and whites from fraternizing, which they were doing and would continue to do, and also stop Republican progress.

    • Michael William Stone June 17, 2016 / 10:07 pm

      How does it matter what “conditions have to be met” once the Army has dropped back to peacetime levels and there is no loger any way to enforce the conditions? Having a different POTUS doesn’t stop that happening.

      • Mark June 19, 2016 / 12:28 am

        >> How does it matter what “conditions have to be met” once the Army has dropped back to peacetime levels and there is no loger any way to enforce the conditions?

        Michael, your comment isn’t as cogent as you think. Returning the army to peacetime levels did not require abandoning the Freedmen’s Bureau as was done later. Many people think, and I’ve read many contemporary diary entries to confirm this, that all it took was the presence of federal authority to give a place or refuge, and crucially a way for blacks to avoid the horribly corrupt judicial system with its jury nullification. Many noted how compliant the Southerners were when troops were even in the vicinity. The Freedmen’s Bureau was weakened in 1870 and disbanded in 1872. Obviously, if the Bureau was kept open it would have been appropriately staffed. It didn’t require combat veterans.

      • Mark June 19, 2016 / 2:12 am

        Michael, you’ll have to excuse me I’m sleep deprived after a flight. In my hour ago reply I addressed your query about the “peacetime” army and policing, and missed the most important point given your question. When I referred to “conditions” originally, I wasn’t referring to enforcement conditions. I was referring to conditions to be readmitted as a state. (“The Southern states were let back into the union too quick without enough conditions being met.”) Some things went very wrong there, not least having the ringleaders back in Congress, and fast. So much fail there to let people back in leadership that couldn’t even be honest with themselves about the reasons they fought, let alone others.

  7. Derek June 17, 2016 / 10:47 pm

    Only with a very strong president like Lincoln willing to scare the south with the worst of the radicals. Grant sure didn’t want to give up what the Union fought for either. The voters lost interest. Blacks and women argued over priority on gaining voting rights.

  8. Michael William Stone June 18, 2016 / 10:17 am

    What difference does it make what “conditions are set” without the means to enforce them?

    Once the Army has dropped back to peacetime strength (and that mostly needed out west) the wherewithal to police the South no longer exists.. And that is something about which no POTUS can do very much.

    • Mark June 19, 2016 / 1:04 am

      >> What difference does it make what “conditions are set” without the means to enforce them?

      People that will the ends usually know they must will the means. You realize we’re dealing in counterfactuals, don’t you? Grant told Young in later years it would have been better to occupy the South since it bought them no good will whatever from the recalcitrant Southerners for their leniency as many supposed it would. And the Southerners respect for new laws was virtually nil, which came as a surprise to folks like Grant, but not to folks like Sherman who knew better.

      The KKK act was passed in 1871. If there was no ability to destroy the KKK after the army reduced to “peacetime strength”, it would have come as a surprise to Congress who authorized POTUS to declare martial law, impose heavy penalties, and use military force to suppress the KKK, which they largely did by most accounts. There was limited public support for doing this though, and POTUS hands are tied by popular support of these activities.

      But as I’ve already said, Congress abruptly abandoned the Freedmen’s Bureau in 1872. It is always an open question how much influence POTUS with separation of powers so for all I know the policing of the South and/or continuation of the Bureau would never have happened in any case. I’m not sure. If the crystal ball says neither would have taken place even if a likeminded president to Grant or Lincoln was in office then the answer to Brook’s question of whether the failure (to the extent that it was – it wasn’t total as you say) was preordained, at least by my lights, would be ‘yes’. But I say no it wasn’t preordained because I suppose what I think are the necessary conditions if undertaken soon after the war could have been done, but after nearly a full term of Johnson it became far less likely and perhaps failure was preordained given Johnson’s actions and the limited patience of popular support for them after 3.5 years of time and effort seemingly wasted at the least.

      • Michael William Stone June 19, 2016 / 12:10 pm

        “There was limited public support for doing this though, and POTUS hands are tied by popular support of these activities.”

        Exactly. So unless you know some way some way to create such popular support, I don’t see how the outcome can be changed. .

        And the suppression of the KKK didn’t stop Texas from being “redeemed” in 1873 and Alabama and Arkansas the year after, eaving just some scattered Republican State governments to be picked off one at a time.

        I’ve no problem with counterfactuals, but they need to have some basis in reality. And if it’s only “things would have been different if the Northern voters had been a different kind of people” that isn’t much of a basis.


        • Mark June 21, 2016 / 4:14 pm

          But you’re staying off-topic. The main point I was trying to make, that I obscured in my sleepless stupor, is that I think surely the most critical fact of the Reconstruction was the “conditions set” for the acceptance of the rebellious states back into the Union. What public support is required to merely keep the rebellious states out following a viciously bloody war out of the Union until conditions are met to which that their honor is pledged and penalties for non-conformance are known. Not much, if any. The question is, after a bloody war to the death, after the assassination of the head of state, why should they be let back in?

          If there were any political difficulties in keeping them out until “conditions are met”, the burden is on you to list what they were. Punitive military action after political failure is politically difficult. We all know that. That’s why Johnson is crucial to the question. Acting naively and supposing goodwill will be returned under the circumstances was poor judgment, and might still have been made right if Johnson doesn’t take office and act like an idiot. But both happened, and then the problem of limited popular support for punitive or policing military action comes in.

          You can’t just say “oh, ya public support won’t allow X” so it was preordained after a death-struggle. The war was highly unpopular in the North, and yet it was fought to the bitter end. Why? It is question-begging to merely cite politics in a generic sense to say Reconstruction was bound to fail.

  9. iffits June 18, 2016 / 12:33 pm

    The task of integrating 4 million freed slaves as well as other Black Americans as equal citizens of the country is still going on. The legacy of slavery is guilt, shame, race hatred, good intentions too. Jim Crow for Black people in the South (North too, but different) was terrifying. We know some of the famous cases of justice gone wrong, innocent blacks lynched, convicted, jailed — but we don’t know about hundreds of others that many people in black communities, especially in the South, do know about as part of their history, part of their family histories.

    Thurgood Marshall defended many cases of falsely accused blacks in the South as head of the NAACP Legal Defense team. He was always in danger, needed protection, at least once was close to being lynched. The Black communities where he went knew who he was, prepared to support and protect him, welcomed him with joy. These cases were reported in black newspapers, but very few were reported in mainstream white papers. I grew up in Tulsa and didn’t learn about the worst race riots in the history of the country there until I was an adult. But every black person in Tulsa knew. I am more and more aware of how sad it is that we still live in such a segregated country. It takes a great leap of the imagination and knowledge of history to be able to understand the legacy of slavery. It means reconstructing our hearts and minds.

  10. Matt McKeon June 20, 2016 / 4:32 am

    In 1964 there was a classic debate between William F. Buckley and James Baldwin on the resolution “The American Dream has been achieved at the expense of the American Negro” Its fair to say that Reconstruction of the US after the Civil War was accomplished at the expense of the freedpeople.

    We can go too far with this. Consider the starting point: people as commodities, labor units. Reconstruction did gain some space for African Americans to establish families for the first time, a public education system, colleges and to create a leadership class that would produce the leaders for the next generation of struggle.

    Reconstruction, or the end of Reconstruction was a defeat for African Americans, and for American society as a whole. But the clock was not turned back to zero again.

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