The Wars of Reconstruction

This book by Douglas Egerton, professor of history at Le Moyne College, gives us a history of the racial violence the nation experienced during Reconstruction.

The book teaches us a great many things. One very interesting item is the plight of Robert Vesey, Sr., an African-American carpenter in Charleston, South Carolina. Vesey was the son of black abolitionist Denmark Vesey, who had been hanged by Charlestonians in 1822. Robert Vesey attempted to live his life quietly without calling attention to himself in order to escape suspicion he was more like his father than white Charlestonians would have liked.

Egerton talks about education for African-Americans in the South. “For African Americans long denied access to education and literacy, that also meant enrolling their children in the hundreds of new schools sponsored by the federal Freedmen’s Bureau. Northern teachers had ventured south beside Union troops, and as portions of the Confederacy had fallen under Union control, the Bureau had established day schools for freed children. At first they taught only reading and spelling; although few southern states had flatly banned the education of enslaved children–South Carolina was one of the four that had–no system of public education existed for free blacks in the years before the war, and society frowned on masters who bestowed literacy on slaves beyond a few trusted domestics and drivers. Within two months of the celebration at Fort Sumter, the Bureau founded four schools in Richmond, Virginia, educating two thousand children. By the summer of 1866, more than nine hundred academies and fourteen hundred teachers taught ninety thousand pupils. Supporters of Bureau schools observed that white children might also attend if they wished, and one Republican journalist thought it was in his party’s interest to have undereducated white farmers learn to ‘read the general news [and] form opinions for themselves’ without having to turn to the ‘rich masters’ for political information. Basic public education came at a cost, of course, and southern Democrats complained about the higher taxes necessary for Bureau schools. Before 1867, a black Louisianan replied, free people of color in New Orleans paid property taxes yet ‘never was this tax used but to the exclusive benefit of white children.’ To blacks, joining the republic as equals also meant putting their education to good use, particularly when it came to political involvement. Within five years of the war’s end, republican officials in Mississippi reported that eighty-five percent of black jurors could read and write. Black activists demanded integrated police forces, and to show they harbored no racial bias, black policemen in Mobile, Alabama, arrested a greater proportion of African American suspects than had their white predecessors.” [pp. 10-11]

When Andrew Johnson controlled Reconstruction, he united with white southerners to impede the rights of African-Americans. “Southern moderates fell silent or were intimidated into acquiescence as Mississippi and Texas refused to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, and as most defeated states, including South Carolina, enacted a set of laws dubbed the Black Codes, which severely restricted the political rights of African Americans. It was Carolina’s Black Code that led to the November protest meeting at the Mount Zion Church. With a dwindling number of federal soldiers available to protect black Americans, and aware that Johnson thought their actions justified, the handful of white southerners who had never accepted defeat responded to black activists and white reformers with a campaign of targeted violence. Although scholars have recently chronicled the series of deadly riots that followed the election of 1872, particularly the massacre in Colfax, Louisiana, in April 1873, small-scale but highly lethal violence began as early as 1866. By that year Confederate veterans grasped that the White House would not crack down on their retribution. Rather than continue to engage in the sort of wholesale, public savagery that attracted the wrath of northern journalists and politicians, dogmatic southerners quietly but methodically attacked the rising generation of Republican Party functionaries. Among those assassinated in 1868 was Reverend Benjamin F. Randolph, who had read a prayer at the dedication of Charleston’s black church. As black activists paid for their convictions with their lives, terrified carpetbaggers–northern politicians, missionaries, and teachers–fled the South. Reformers who might have taken their places often opted instead for survival, unhappily aware that the price of abandoning the work of Reconstruction meant that a future generation of activists would have to risk their lives in the cause of voting rights and integration. As these en and women well knew, Reconstruction did not fail; in regions where it collapsed it was violently overthrown by men who had fought for slavery during the Civil War and continued that battle as guerrilla partisans over the next decade. Democratic movements can be halted through violence.” [pp. 18-19]

Black soldiers not only enjoyed their freedom, but they also took advantage of the opportunity to gain educations. “In particular the white officers who were the products of antislavery communities established informal schools within their regiments, and they knew whom to contact back home for assistance. As early as 1862, the Freedmen’s Aid Society of Syracuse funded schools and supplied books to soldiers under Hunter’s and Higginson’s commands. By the dawn of 1863, the American Missionary Association provided teachers for units in the south, teaching 1,044 soldiers in informal camp schools. ‘I never witnessed greater eagerness for study,’ reported the chaplain of a regiment stationed in Louisiana. ‘The attendance of the men has been as regular as was consistent with the performance of their military duties.’ When no outside funding was available, black soldiers pooled their meager pay to hire civilian teachers. since soldiers moved often, especially as Confederate-held territory began to shrink after the summer of 1863, they used their largest tent as a traveling school. One soldier in the Twenty-second Colored Infantry marveled that the unit’s commander supplied them with ‘a big tent almost as long as a meeting house.’ When stationed in one locale for any length of time, soldiers foraged for materials and constructed a rude building they employed as both a schoolhouse and camp chapel. Even during the final year of the conflict, when the soldiers found few quiet moments for study, most made enormous academic progress. One chaplain asserted that a totally illiterate corporal could sign his name after only two days, and after five months he could not only read the Bible, and a tactical manual but maintain the company’s reports. Another minister, who taught classes in a unit comprised of Pennsylvania freemen and former slaves from Maryland and Kentucky, cursed ‘the miserable institution of Slavery’ for keeping his men ‘unacquainted with the alphabet.’ Yet once supplied with materials from the American Tract Society of Boston, his pupils made ‘surprisingly rapid progress.’ ” [pp. 43-44] That thirst for knowledge wasn’t confined to the soldiers. It was also present with freed African-Americans in the wake of the Civil War. “Tens of thousands of white activists and progressive evangelicals” trekked south. “Reviled in older scholarship and popular mythology as selfish, insincere carpetbaggers, these earnest militants labored beside black ministers and veterans to build churches and schools. Serene in the conviction that God favored their cause, young men and women cheerfully accepted low pay, selflessly endangered their health, and bravely risked their lives so that recently freed Americans might enjoy better lives. For their part, blacks, determined to build, or, in some cases, rebuild communities and institutions either neglected under slavery or shattered by the war, erected rustic sanctuaries and schools–and then assembled them again after innumerable acts of arson. Freedmen who hoped to put aside hard-earned cash for their own farms donated money for books and pews. The efforts of these men and women–and the endless stream of enlightened decisions from Judge [Hugh Lennox] Bond’s bench–serve as a reminder that the Reconstruction era neither reached a precise conclusion nor failed to achieve all of its goals. Less than two years after Appomattox, Howard reported that the Bureau was running 1,207 southern schools that employed 1,430 teachers, instructing 77,998 pupils. By 1869, that number had doubled to 3,000 schools and 150,000 students. In Texas alone, one agent observed, ‘many small schools in obscure places are scattered throughout the State, taught mostly by colored people.’ That number, impressive though it was, did not include those adults who attended informal night schools in nearby churches, or acquired basic literacy from their children each evening. ‘It is supposed that at least ten thousand colored persons, old and young, have learned to spell and read in Texas within the year,’ the agent testified.” [p. 137] The schools and churches became targets for the former confederates. Churches and schools were burned, and teachers were targeted. “The moment they quit their classrooms each day, northern teachers faced a steady barrage of criticism from those raised to believe that black inferiority justified and even necessitated their enslavement. … When it came to dealing with female teachers, southern whites invariably resorted to social ostracism, hoping to make the young women so miserable they would abandon their crusade. … Housing was a consistent problem. Single teachers rarely wished to reside with black families, who in any case had little room to spare, and even those white women who desperately needed additional income refused to rent rooms to northern women. … Male teachers faced far worse. Reports from around the South told of endless attacks on men employed by Bureau schools. ‘When a teacher goes to some [Louisiana] village and opens a school for colored children,’ Tribune editor Louis Charles Roudanez charged, ‘he is turned out and not seldom beaten, stabbed or killed.’ Black Republicans in Texas complained that in many cases ‘violence has been used against both teacher and buildings.’ ” [pp. 155-156]

The freed people also needed land for economic independence. “One of the most successful examples of black autonomy was also one of the most discussed in Washington. When Joseph Davis galloped away from the Mississippi plantation he owned with his brother, the Confederate president, slaves smashed open the mansion’s door and divided up the clothes and furniture. General Ulysses S. Grant advocated turning the vast estate into a ‘negro paradise’ and turned the undertaking over to Chaplain John Eaton Jr. Together with a group of Philadelphia Quakers, Eaton raised ten thousand dollars for tools, mules, and rations. Liberated blacks were responsible for repaying the capital investment. Under the leadership of Benjamin Montgomery, the former black driver on the estate, the laborers fashioned the very model of black entrepreneurship, bagging two thousand bales of cotton for a profit of $160,000. Blacks at Davis Bend and on the nearby plantation of the late John A. Quitman, one chaplain assured Lincoln, ‘bought and p[aid for their gin houses, machinery [and] have built for themselves and their teachers, comfortable log houses,’ which they used ‘as a church and school house,’ a hospital, and ‘an Infirmary where the aged and decrepit and young orphan children are furnished a home.’ Black women planted gardens and sold produce to passing steamboats. If doubting moderates required evidence that former slaves would work long hours if provided with incentives and given the chance to purchase lands, the Davis Bend success provided the proof they needed, just as it demonstrated that freedmen also made good party members.” [pp. 97-98] President Lincoln also got involved with trying to get land for the freed people. “After consulting with Chase, the president issued an order during December 1863 allowing single men above age twenty-one to choose and occupy twenty acres, while families might claim up to forty, as could wives of absent black soldiers. Thus from the president’s pen, and not from an officer in the field, came the first mention of forty acres. The price of land was to be fixed at $1.25 per acre, forty percent of which was due at the time the claim was filed with tax commissioners. That meant that for as little as twenty dollars, black families might obtain a plot of land; and as Congress equalized the pay of black soldiers in 1864 at sixteen dollars each month, that sum was hardly out of reach. As with Lincoln’s evolving views on black suffrage, his December edict revealed an increasingly flexible politician willing to reconsider old positions as new contingencies arose.” [p. 99] Unfortunately, Lincoln was murdered and Andrew Johnson became president.  “Without consulting leading members of either chamber, Johnson issued two proclamations on May 29. The first recognized the newly formed government of Virginia. In the second, Johnson appointed a provisional governor for North Carolina–who was authorized to call new elections–and granted amnesty for all rebels except those with taxable property valued at or above twenty thousand dollars. Neither of these proclamations made any mention of black suffrage or civil rights for the freed people, and the former tailor, who had never been accepted by his planter brethren, promised that clemency for the wealthiest southerners would be ‘liberally extended’ to those willing to apply in person, which was to say those disposed to grovel. Although Johnson also hinted at the restoration of lands to their former owners, most Democrats understood that Reconstruction was far from over. … Bureau agents were stunned by the president’s May proclamations. Although Johnson’s edicts did not explicitly restore rebel property, they indicated that he believed that the end of combat required a quick return to prewar conditions. Yet only two months into the agency’s life. the department was making enormous strides. Near St. Augustine, Florida, one agent informed Saxton that ’98 Acres of public land have been cultivated by the Freedmen for their own benefit,’ and that the land, about half of which had been purchased by tax sales, housed ‘4 teachers & about 150 Children.’ Forced to follow orders from his commander in chief, Howard issued Circular No. 13 on July 28, which established procedures for returning the land to its original owners. He chose, however, to interpret Johnson’s proclamations as exempting those estates already being worked by the freedmen. Howard also moved to bring all confiscated lands under his authority, writing to a sympathetic Secretary Stanton that the act of March 3 had effectively granted the Bureau jurisdiction. The general also noted that their efforts at transferring forty-acre parcels to former slaves was in keeping with the explicit mandate of that law, which, he delicately declined to add, had been signed by Lincoln and was not subject to repeal by future presidential edicts. Only those lands that had not been sold by tax commissioners or reserved by Sherman, Howard argued, might be returned, and only then after their owners took an oath of allegiance and obtained the president’s pardon. As enormous as that concession was, it failed to please the new president. In the first step down the road that would culminate in his impeachment, Johnson issued a direct order on August 16 that countermanded Howard’s Circular No. 13 and implicitly negated an act of Congress. Provided they obtained pardon and paid their taxes, he insisted, all southern whites could recover their estates.” [pp. 103-107] With Andrew Johnson as their ally, southern whites began to systematically deprive the freed people of any land they may have obtained as well as the opportunity to acquire land. ” ‘If there is one thing that the former slaveholders of this State dislike more than another,’ observed Francis L. Cardozo, a South Carolina-born freeman and teacher for the American Missionary Association, ‘it is to see their former slaves become the owners of land, and thereby independent.’ Traveling through Maryland, Lewis Douglass made a similar observation. ‘There seems to be a combination among the white people to keep the blacks from buying land,’ he warned his father. ‘Large tracts of woods that the whites will neither use nor sell to the blacks lie idle, and wasting.’ A good number of planters had been bankrupted by the war, and some tried to hold on to part of their estate by selling small parcels. But as one Alabaman admitted, the ‘feeling against any ownership of land by the negroes is so strong, that the man who should sell small tracts to them would be in actual personal danger.’ “[p. 108] It also made blacks who wanted to gain land of their own targets for terrorist violence. “Since hardened veterans were the most likely to insist on a share of the land, guerrillas targeted black soldiers in hopes of eliminating ‘Union men’ and potential activists.” [p. 112]

Professor Egerton does a great job in detailing much of the terrorist violence that white southerners inflicted on African-Americans and white Republicans. The book is filled with information and I highly recommend it.



  1. Shoshana Bee · · Reply

    It is refreshing to read about those who came South after the war portrayed in a positive light (as opposed to that old canard about all the greedy carpetbaggers) As I took in the chronicle of stabbings, murders, and material destruction brought forth by angry ex-Confederates, I could not help but to think: This is the “Heritage” that folks are “celebrating” when they wave the battle flag..

    1. The heritage folks aren’t interested in what actually happened. They’re only interested in a fantasy version of their own creation. They don’t realize their confederate ancestors were the postwar terrorists. Or maybe they do and they just don’t care.

  2. Douglas Egerton · · Reply

    Many thanks for the kind, generous review. Best, Doug Egerton

    1. Thanks for commenting, Doug.

  3. Julian Johncraft · · Reply

    The individual filaments within the broad brushstroke of commonly quoted history are many, and subject to oblivion. Egerton has taken on the challenge posed by Minutiae –to be readable and interesting– and given us all a chance to have a seriously informed opinion on a topic painted by sound bites and necessary generalities. That that topic burns increasingly white hot is all the more reason to read this, as both extinguisher and kindling. Egerton is an arsonist for the True, that it might burn properly, and a firefighter for the False, where its pyre of presumption needs dousing. And either, as he shows, might not quite be where you always thought them.

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