But There Was No Peace

This wonderful book by Professor George C. Rable details the role violence played in determining Reconstruction’s outcome. He tells us, “By 1867 civil disorder was taking on an increasingly political character. Interpreting the passage of the Reconstruction Acts as the final triumph of Jacobinical radicalism, veteran politicians and newspaper editors unleashed vehement attacks on the new Republican state governments. Conservative leaders adopted a variety of peaceful strategies to stem the Republican tide, ranging from courting black voters to legalistic obstructionism, but to no avail. Frustrated at their inability to bring their states back to Democratic control, some southerners turned to the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist organizations, using terrorism to eliminate opposition leaders and to strike fear into the hearts of rank-and-file Republicans, both black and white. The poverty and economic instability that were universal in the postwar South heightened political conflict and worsened race relations. Factional disputes within the Republican party, weaknesses i the southern state governments, and the halting and inefficient federal campaign against terrorism encouraged impatient whites to use force against their political foes. A counterrevolutionary tide began sweeping through the South in the early 1870s, sending state after state back into Democratic hands” [pp. xi-xii]

He begins the main part of the book by telling us, “In the context of world history, the American Civil War is a singular event. In four years more than six hundred thousand men died, the Union was preserved, and slavery was destroyed, but  no formal peace settlement was ever made. The country miraculously avoided the bloody reprisals that commonly follow civil wars. The victors were amazingly lenient and executed but one rebel, Henry Wirz, commandant of the infamous Andersonville prison. The leaders of the southern ‘rebellion’ not only saved their necks but after a brief period of ‘reconstruction’ regained their dominant social, economic, and political positions. yet more ironic, the losers in the conflict–the white southerners–committed numerous acts of violence against the winners. Individuals and groups, organized and unorganized, intimidated, whipped, hanged, and shot Union men, blacks, and Republicans of both races. By the time the federal government retreated from its reconstruction of the South, former Confederates had achieved through political terrorism what they had been unable to win with their armies–the freedom to order their own society and particularly race relations as they saw fit.” [p. 1]

He tells us, “A substantial number of southerners mistakenly imagined they could both rejoin the nation and enjoy their former status. The South’s only desire, said Robert E. Lee, was to preserve the Union ‘as established by our forefathers.’ Several Confederate state governors attempted to act as if nothing had changed. Governor Joseph E. Brown of Georgia called a meeting of his state’s General Assembly, and when Secretary of War Edwin Stanton forbade it, Brown took his case to the local Union commander, General James Harrison Wilson. Brown told Wilson that signing a parole would mean the end of his political career in Georgia, whereupon the general bluntly asked the governor if he faced any future in the country other than being hanged. Struck by this forceful logic, Brown replied that he had not thought about it and agreed to sign the parole. Brown’s actions illustrated the limits of southern loyalty. Former rebels vehemently proclaimed their ‘acceptance of the situation’ yet sought to turn events to their own advantage. Northern newspaper accounts of southern intransigence and the ‘bloody shirt’ harangues of Republican politicians were not entirely groundless. Southerners who still hoped for a Confederate triumph were like the unreconstructed Robert Toombs, who, Stephens said, ‘talks of things as he would have them and not as they are.’ A few noncombatants, particularly women, even spoke of renewing the contest shortly after the surrender of the Confederate armies. Faced with the bitter reality of their position, many men sought refuge in what [Wilbur] Cash has described as a tendency toward hedonism and romanticism. Fantasizing about past glories or building imaginary castles for the future allowed temporary escape from the harsh present. Only the ever-present Yankee intruded into these pleasant dreams.” [p. 5]

Also, in discussing how the people of the former confederacy felt, he says, “The southern electorate sent to the Thirty-Ninth Congress the vice-president of the Confederacy, four Confederate generals, four Confederate colonels, and nine former Confederate congressmen. Oblivious to the northern reaction, many citizens found nothing wrong with electing their ‘natural’ leaders to state and national offices. As Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase had discovered during his tour of the South in the spring of 1865, the old politicos were eager to wield their accustomed influence. Politicians who deviated from the narrow confines of southern orthodoxy on Reconstruction paid a dear price. When Georgia’s Joe Brown traveled to Washington in late 1866, he discovered that suffrage for southern blacks was no longer a debatable question and that adoption of the proposed Fourteenth Amendment and universal suffrage might avert white disfranchisement. Brown’s public letter advocating this course opened him to a fusillade of angry protest. Even less bold statements elicited cries of ‘traitor’ and ‘Judas.’ During his brief imprisonment after the war in Fort Warren in Boston Harbor, former Confederate Postmaster General John H. Reagan wrote a letter to the people of his native Texas urging them to adopt at least a qualified form of Negro suffrage to mollify the North. After Reagan’s release from prison, the ‘Fort Warren letter’ made him a pariah in his home state. Southerners who counseled moderation or making the smallest concessions found themselves publicly reviled and privately scorned.” [p. 7]

The source of Reconstruction violence was racial. As Professor Rable tells us, “If the central theme of southern history, as U. B. Phillips argued, was the persistent effort to keep the South a white man’s country, then Reconstruction marked the continuation and expansion of this crusade. Former Confederates, still reeling from their recent military collapse, repeated to themselves the familiar catechism of white supremacy. They called forth all of American history to prove that that nation and the government rested on a firm foundation of white hegemony. Governor Benjamin F. Perry drove the point home in a message to the South Carolina legislature. The radical Republicans, he said, forgot that the United States always had been and forever would be a white man’s country and that even the Supreme Court in its landmark Dred Scott decision had declared that the Negro was not and could not become a citizen. So far as any white southerners were concerned, the Civil War had not altered this arrangement. Despite such agreement, the discussion of the race question was unceasing. … That the most pressing concern among southern whites was the future status of southern blacks should not have been surprising to anyone familiar with the region. … Deep passions overrode rationality. Even slaveholders who accepted the reality of emancipation thought they could expect compensation for their loss. One wildly optimistic North Carolinian believed that the South could easily convince Congress to appropriate $400 million to cover the loss of her slave property. As late as 1869, planters near Port Hudson, Louisiana, kept careful records of the number and value of their slaves lost in the war, waiting for the government to decide to pay off their claims. For many whites it was an article of faith that much of the old order could be preserved.” [p. 17]

The war may have ended slavery, but it did nothing to end the racial assumptions. “Many southerners sincerely avowed that they were the Negro’s best friend. They believed their two centuries of dealing with blacks made them experts on the race. Yankee politicians might use the southern Negro for partisan ends, Freedmen’s Bureau officials might see the southern blacks as a source of employment for themselves, and fanatical philanthropists might shed crocodile tears over the sufferings of their black brothers–but only white southerners could act in the best interest of both races. Such assertions ran against the common assumption that free black labor could not succeed. The freedmen, whites quickly informed northern visitors, would never become industrious citizens. Although southerners accepted a social cosmology which, by divine edict, reduced black people to ‘hewers of wood’ and ‘drawers of water,’ they could no longer assume that the Negroes accepted this lowly status. By 1866 planters reported that free blacks were of little use on farms and plantations, and some despaired of the South ever recovering her agricultural prosperity. The missing element in free labor, most farmers agreed, was compulsion. After touring the region for President Johnson, Carl Schurz estimated that nineteen out of twenty southern whites believed that only physical force could make the Negro into a productive worker. … The southern pessimism about black workers rested on a firm foundation of racism. Prejudice generates its own language. To white southerners, ‘black’ and ‘Negro’ were what Gordon Allport has called ‘labels of primary potency,’ that is, words that by themselves conjured up a variety of irrational emotions and fears. The stereotyping produced by prejudice further widened the chasm between blacks and the dominant white society. … Using arguments that were at once sincere and self-serving, conservatives maintained that emancipation had caused a deterioration of the black race. Refurbishing the old rationalizations of proslavery ideology, whites contended that of all men the free Negro was the most miserable. Freedom had proved a curse rather than a blessing to the once happy slaves. the free blacks, by this line of exposition, were incapable of fulfilling their own needs and would either lapse into barbarism or sicken and die, thus becoming the unwitting victims of the abolitionists’ unworkable social theories. Although most planters reluctantly experimented with free labor and some even praised the efficiency of the freedmen, most were psychologically unable to deal with blacks as autonomous individuals. They expected the same humble obedience from the freedmen that they had demanded from their slaves. Accustomed to having their slightest whim satisfied by their bondsmen, they were appalled at the ‘insolence’ of free blacks. A few hot-tempered whites shot blacks who did not show the proper subordination, and most insisted the blacks receive harsh treatment without murmur, protest or resistance.” [pp. 18-19]

Professor Rable then proceeds to detail the various acts of terrorism former confederates and other southern whites committed against freedmen and white Republicans. He traces the attempts to curb the violence and how those attempts failed. Terrorism and intimidation made potent weapons in the successful struggle to overthrow the Reconstruction governments and to ensure the triumph of white supremacy in the South. I believe this book is essential for those who wish to understand the violence of Reconstruction and its political effects.

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2 comments

  1. Very nice, I hear it brought up often that the reconstruction is proof that the “civil war didn’t do anything for African Americans”.

    did you ever do that piece on US v Jeff Davis?

    1. I wouldn’t call the end of slavery nothing.

      I’ve addressed US v. Jefferson Davis here and here.

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