The Great Task Remaining Before Us

This is a book of essays about Reconstruction edited by Paul A. Cimbala, Professor of History at Fordham University, and Randall M. Miller, Professor of History at St. Joseph’s University. It contains an introduction by G. Ward Hubbs and eleven essays by historians.

The first essay, by Derek W. Frisby, Assistant Professor of History at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, is titled, “A Victory Spoiled: West Tennessee Unionists During Reconstruction.” In this essay we learned guerrilla attacks combined with confederate raids disrupted Unionist elections in West Tennessee and proved challenging for Andrew Johnson and his military government. “Because of these obstacles and embarrassments in restoring West Tennessee to the Union, state and federal authorities appeared increasingly passive, if not altogether indifferent, about the West Tennesseans’ plight over the course of the war. This unresponsive attitude alienated West Tennessee Unionists from their supposed allies, prevented them from enjoying the spoils of federal victory, and ultimately left them at the mercy of their former enemies. Additionally, the federal government’s evolution from a policy of restoration of the Union to that of Reconstruction, with its emphasis on civil rights for freedmen, left Southern Unionists disoriented in the new Southern economic, social, and political landscape and disillusioned with government at all levels. West Tennessee Unionists’ experiences are indicative of Reconstruction’s failure to appreciate the challenges of Southern Unionism and incorporate these loyal Southerners into a strategy that would positively affect the character of the peace.” [p. 9] We learn, “Ever since the Emancipation Proclamation had transformed the Union’s war objectives, West Tennessee Unionism had been under great strain. Most West Tennessee Unionists agreed with the Radicals [identified in the essay as East Tennesseans] on the necessity of punishing the former Rebel leaders, but they remained deeply divided over the political fate of rank-and-file Confederates. Additionally, West Tennessee Unionists, who unlike East Tennesseans came from a more racially divided region, had already expressed their dissatisfaction over emancipation, the formation of United States Colored Troops, and expanded rights for freedmen.” [pp. 11-12] West Tennesseans who had served in the Union Army came home and found conditions not to their liking. “One Memphis Unionist claimed that years of suffering the federal occupation and unrestrained guerrilla warfare had altered the balance of power in the region. In areas of West Tennessee where Unionism had prevailed before the war, Rebels now seemingly outnumbered Unionists three to one. He feared that without federal protection, Unionists here were in danger from violence inflicted upon them by their former enemies, and he told newly elected Vice President Andrew Johnson that ‘it is as much as [Unionists] can expect to be allowed to remain in the State.’ The lack of security left Unionists vulnerable to attacks by guerrillas and bushwhackers, many of whom were former Rebels. Furthermore, those Unionists who remained had to be wary of their attitudes toward the former Rebels and would have to plan their future not as they would want, ‘but as may be expedient.’ Unionists were already ‘fast leaving the state,’ declared a group of ‘greatly discouraged’ West Tennessee Unionist refugees in Columbus, Kentucky. Until Unionists received protection, they deemed any attempt to restore government as ‘madness.’ ” [pp. 13-14] Former rebels established themselves in economic control of Western Tennessee during this time. Meanwhile, William “Parson” Brownlow was inaugurated as Tennessee’s governor and Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. “Admonished by Brownlow ‘to guard the ballot box faithfully and effectually against the approach of treason,’ Radical state lawmakers passed restrictions on ‘seditious’ speech and adopted a new franchise bill disfranchising former Confederates for five years and Confederate political leaders and high-ranking military officers for fifteen years. These new voting restrictions would be enforced by the state’s first-ever voter registration system. The registrars in each county, chosen directly by the governor to ensure that only ‘unconditional’ Unionists could participate in the upcoming elections, employed very strict qualifications that guaranteed Unionist East Tennesseans would qualify and vote in large numbers, thereby securing that section’s hold on state power. Conservative Tennessee Unionists, primarily from Middle and West Tennessee, considered the 1865 franchise bill as part of another blatant power grab by Brownlow and the Radical East Tennesseans and worked diligently to dislodge him from office. … Many Conservative Unionists now favored a lenient course toward their former enemies, believing the support of ex-Confederates as vital to overturning ‘Brownlowism’ and preventing the expansion of freedmen’s rights. They loudly protested what they considered to be vindictive legal and franchise restrictions upon former Confederates. Ex-Confederates and Conservative Unionists therefore began forming tentative alliances to support Johnson’s lenient Reconstruction program.” [pp. 14-15] Racial and political violence began and quickly escalated in Tennessee with the rise of the KKK and other white supremacist terrorist groups whose membership included significant numbers of former confederate soldiers. Governor Brownlow was forced to use the State Guard due to the Federal Government under Johnson not coming to the aid of Tennessee freedmen and Unionists. In many cases, that State Guard also inflicted violence on their political opponents. “Preserving order and preventing attacks upon freedmen and Radicals were the raison d’etre for the State Guard, and they dogged [Emerson] Etheridge [Conservative West Tennessee candidate for governor opposing Brownlow] on his campaign tour, often spurring rather than quelling disorder. Militia commanders immediately set out to punish those who dared challenge the Radicals’ authority, even if they had been sincere Unionists throughout the war. Militia officers also fostered nascent Radical organizations such as the Union Leagues. West Tennesseans charged that the State Guard exceeded its authority, using excessive force and committing numerous crimes ranging from theft to rape. Not surprisingly, the militia camps, especially in West Tennessee, came under attack during the campaign. Although the militia’s presence was supposed to ensure an orderly campaign, threats of violence frequently prevented Etheridge and his supporters from speaking. On several occasions, confrontations between the two parties erupted in gunfire or fisticuffs that left two Conservatives dead and thirteen more injured, including seven black Conservatives. early thirty black Radicals also lay wounded.” [p. 19] Brownlow was able to get himself a seat in the US Senate and resigned his governorship in February of 1869. His absence led to the collapse of the Radicals and the triumph of the former confederates. “In 1870 Tennesseans adopted a new constitution that prohibited the state from ever again infringing upon the suffrage rights of any Tennessean. Ex-Confederate Conservatives quickly pushed aside the Unionist Conservatives, despite the Unionists’ role in restoring the Rebels’ political rights. Even moderate Unionist Isaac Hawkins was turned out after three consecutive terms in Congress. By 1877 the state’s former Confederate governor, Isham Harris, had even returned to politics and won a U.S. Senate seat. Only when Democrats were divided–as they were in 1881 over solving the state debt crisis incurred during the Brownlow era–could Republicans achieve success.” [p. 21]

Aaron Astor, Assistant Professor of History at Maryville College in Maryville, Tennessee, contributed ” ‘I wanted a Gun’: Black Soldiers and White Violence in Civil War and Postwar Kentucky and Missouri.” Professor Astor tells us, “By and large, violence targeting African Americans in late-Civil War and postwar Kentucky and Missouri was not random. Indeed, a significant portion of black victims consisted of soldiers in the Union Army or their family members. The prevalence of violence targeting this subset of the African American population reflected underlying tensions regarding the contours of citizenship and white supremacy within conservative border-state society during the Civil War. In the western slaveholding Union border states, large numbers of conservative whites fought for the Union precisely because they thought it would best preserve slavery. The abolitionist turn of the Civil War demoralized such border conservatives who were caught between vicious and desperate guerrillas on one side and an armed African American population on the other. African Americans who took up arms and used them to target local white Confederates dramatically altered the balance of power in border state communities in the minds of white conservatives. When African Americans joined the Union Army, they not only contributed vital manpower to the Union cause but also recast the Union cause as a struggle for liberation, even though many fought on the same side as their own masters. As historian Linda Kerber points out, white Americans in the nineteenth century equated the prerogatives of citizenship with the obligations of military service: ‘Citizenship and civic relations in [the] republic were tightly linked to race and manhood; it was white men who offered military service, white men who sought honor, white men who dueled in its defense.’ Black slaves who took up arms for the Union cause challenged this bedrock social principle of the American republic. For white Unionists in Kentucky and Missouri, a black soldiery mocked the conservative social basis of the Union. To outraged white conservatives, only the violent suppression of these unofficial black citizens could resuscitate longstanding social relations and restore honor to themselves and to the republic.” [p. 31] We learn that “with the rise of black enlistment into the Union Army, whites in the border states no longer viewed the war as a struggle over union or disunion, but as a struggle for white dominance in all facets of social, cultural, and political life. As African American men joined the Union Army in large numbers beginning in early 1864, they made an unprecedented bid for citizenship in a republic that long treated them as nothing but mere property. In doing so, they also asserted the masculine rights of martial self-defense that had long been restricted to white men. … Federal emancipation edicts and abolitionist harangues may have annoyed and angered conservatives in the border states, but the arming of former slaves transformed social relations on the ground in ways that threatened the basic social and racial order. To conservatives–whether Unionist or Confederate–race relations resembled a zero-sum game; every gain for African Americans signified a loss in honor and power for whites.” [p. 33] Black enlistment in the Union Army was a revolutionary act. “Throughout the South, black enlistment played an integral role in ushering forward the social revolution of general emancipation and the transformation of former slaves into citizens. But the effects of black enlistment were felt the strongest in Kentucky and Missouri for four reasons: First, the number of slaves that joined the army from Kentucky and Missouri far exceeded in proportion and number of enlistees in virtually every Confederate state. Out of 41,935 military-age African Americans in Kentucky, 57 percent joined the Union Army; in Missouri, 39 percent joined. Even these numbers downplay the total of black recruits in the western border states, as many joined in neighboring free states. It is very likely that a significant percentage of the 2,080 African Americans credited to Kansas actually came from Missouri. Similarly, a sizable portion of the recruits credited to Indiana (1,537) and Ohio (5,092) were black Kentuckians who crossed the Ohio River earlier in the war to enlist. And in the heavily enslaved Little Dixie region of central Missouri and Kentucky’s Bluegrass, the proportion of slaves joining the army was even higher. In Howard County, Missouri, for example, nearly two-thirds of all military-age male slaves entered the army; Howard County had the largest percentage of slaves of any county in Missouri. In both Kentucky and Missouri, nearly all black enlistees were slaves because both states possessed miniscule free black populations. The sheer volume of black–and particularly slave–enlistment in Kentucky and Missouri transformed much of the labor force into a vital weapon in the federal government’s counterinsurgency campaign against rebels led, in many cases, by their former masters. For slaves in Missouri and Kentucky, the vast black army also signified a critical moment in the development of a highly politicized racial consciousness. … African American men developed a critical understanding of their own potential for political expression and power. Indeed, the very act of joining the military proved the most vital political statement most of these slaves had ever made as it proved the only viable path to emancipation; with both states exempt from the Emancipation Proclamation, Kentucky and Missouri slaveholders were under no federal pressure to free their slaves. The second reason black enlistments in Kentucky and Missouri proved so significant lay in the speed with which slaves joined the military. The slaves of Kentucky and Missouri flooded recruitment centers; all of Kentucky’s slave recruits joined within a span of ten months, most of them in the three summer months of 1864. … By the end of 1864, slaves rushing to join the Union Army throughout central Missouri destroyed the last vestiges of the ‘peculiar institution,’ thereby making the state’s constitutional abolition of slavery in January 1865 a mere acknowledgement of reality. … The location of blacks under arms reveals the third reason slave enlistment proved so revolutionary. After slaves entered the service, their primary duty was to guard the towns across the border from guerrilla raids and Confederate attack. Black soldiers were rarely sent to some far-off battlefield; they were stationed at home, squaring off with their own outraged former masters. Given that Kentucky remained under martial law for several months after the war’s completion, many of these black soldiers continued to stand as armed guards in towns and posts across the Bluegrass. … For whites outraged at the presence of black troops, the continued presence of these soldiers threatened a permanent, direct, and official rejection of white supremacy. For African Americans, on the other hand, the power and obligation to keep the peace in a place where they legally served as slaves as late as December 1865 signified a dramatic reversal of the social and political order. Moreover, as new guardians of the public order, uniformed and armed blacks stationed in towns across the border states made an unprecedented bid for the equal rights and responsibilities of citizenship. The fourth, and perhaps most important, consequence of slave enlistment was the opportunity it gave African Americans to recast the Union cause as a struggle for liberation. Since the outbreak of war in 1861, white conservative Unionists vowed to preserve the federal government precisely because it was the best way to preserve the slave-based social order. … Slaves joining the Union war effort threatened to overturn the conservatives’ original rationale for supporting the Union. While tens of thousands of whites fought for the Union to protect slavery, tens of thousands of their own slaves fought for the Union to destroy slavery. Although slaves elsewhere in the western hemisphere–notably in Cuba during the Ten Years War between 1868 and 1878–fought alongside their masters (and ex-masters) in a war of emancipation, border state conservative Unionists were in no mood to join in spirit with a radicalized slave population.” [pp. 35-39] This led to violence by whites against blacks–both soldiers and their families. “Whites in central Missouri and Kentucky regularly harassed, intimidated, and attacked black recruits en route to enlistment camps to prevent them from entering the army. They also attacked black soldiers already in uniform carrying out their duties, especially when guarding or traveling through the border countryside. … As the war entered its final months, the state of Missouri formally abolished slavery. Bushwhackers and other Rebel sympathizers transformed their existing practice of threatening African Americans who joined the military into a generalized terror campaign, in some cases aimed at the expulsion of blacks from the border states. … With the abolition of slavery in Missouri, bushwhackers who once threatened violence against slaves escaping their masters now used terror and violence to remove all remaining African Americans from the region. Though Kentucky did not formally abolish slavery–only ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865 brought the institution to an end–slaveholders in the Bluegrass also recognized the demise of the peculiar institution. Like their Missouri compatriots, they viewed freed slaves with complete disdain. Not only had their former slaves forcibly severed their bonds of slavery, but they had the audacity to claim the prerogatives of equal citizenship commensurate with a Union soldier.” [p. 43] This violence continued into Reconstruction. “As the Union Army mustered black troops out of the service by late 1865, the immediate threat to white sensibilities of a black military died down. However, the level of violence against blacks continued apace, and it rose in some parts of the Bluegrass and Little Dixie.” [p. 46] Special targets were African Americans who had achieved some measure of success, such as grocers, restaurant owners, and teachers. Some other targets were those who refused to honor restrictions from supposedly “white spaces.” Professor Astor does an excellent job in documenting this violence.

The next essay is ” ‘The Rebel Spirit in Kentucky’: The Politics of Readjustment in a Border State, 1865-1868″ by Anne Marshall, Assistant Professor of History at Mississippi State University. She begins by referencing the last vestiges of slavery in postwar Kentucky. “The ‘peculiar institution’ had disintegrated in most of the South and much of the nation was readjusting to peace, but by the war’s end slavery was in limbo in Kentucky–neither dead nor alive. Exempt from the Emancipation Proclamation, Kentucky’s slaves had not yet been officially freed by the federal government. While nearly 70 percent of them ended their bondage by serving in the Union Army or marrying someone who did, an estimated seventy thousand Kentucky slaves existed in a frail form of slavery through the spring and summer of 1865. This meant, ironically,t hat a place where slavery once existed in its most tenuous form became one of the institution’s last outposts. Indeed, with the exception of Delaware, white Kentuckians clung to the dying institution longer than people in any other ‘Southern’ state. Many did so in a desperate attempt to control African Americans, while others still harbored hope that they might receive some sort of compensation for their property. As white Kentuckians stubbornly refused to let go of slavery, the state’s African Americans fought in myriad ways for their freedom.” [p. 54] The border state experience shows that much more than the economic impact of slavery, the reason its loss was so important was the upending of the racial hierarchy. Whites in the slave states resented blacks having equal rights more than anything else, and it was this resentment that expressed itself in racial violence both during the war and after. The Kentucky experience in many ways mirrored what we’ve seen in the previous essays. Professor Marshall does an outstanding job in this essay enlightening us on the divisions in Kentucky and the resentment white Kentuckians held with the loss of the institution and subsequent racial control of African Americans.

Margaret Storey, Associate Professor of History at DePaul University, contributed the next essay, “The Crucible of Reconstruction: Unionists and the Struggle for Alabama’s Postwar Home Front.” In Alabama, as in the border states, “Among those who clung to the Union were slaveholders. In addition to harboring concerns about political legitimacy and family honor, slaveholding Unionists also feared that slavery would be more readily destroyed in the armed conflict they were sure would follow secession.” [p. 71] Unionists in Alabama, unsurprisingly, had a rough go of it during the war. “Once the war began, Alabama’s Unionists were subjected to ever-intensifying persecution and threats from the Confederate majority with an animosity that only intensified and hardened after April 1862, when the Confederate Congress passed the Act to Provide for the Public Defense, the fledgling nation’s first draft. … Conscription transfigured the implications of Unionists’ dissent and raised the stakes for resistance because it flattened out the distinction between ‘sedition’ (disloyal speech) and the more serious ‘treason’ (disloyal acts). The draft made criminals of those who refused the Confederacy not only their hearts and minds, but ultimately their bodies. Unionists who resisted the state’s call were now legally subject to arrest, imprisonment, and forced service in the Confederate Army. Moreover, because conscription was a national matter, efforts to suppress draft resistance were not only a question of state and local governance, but a problem to be solved in part by military authorities. Consequently, all Unionists now became the target of both state law enforcement and Confederate conscript cavalries. After 1862 it thus became a regular occurrence, in the words of one man, ‘for union men to be arrested, put in the county jail, others sent to military prisons, some hung and others shot, families of some … abused, their property taken, others … forced to go within the union lines for safety. By the end of the war, many loyalists in the state had suffered retribution and violence at the hands of the Confederate neighbors and the Confederate Army.” [pp. 72-73] After the war, while the Union Army was present the Unionists held the upper hand in conflict with their confederate neighbors. Violence against Union men only increased, especially after the Union soldiers went back into garrison. “Southern Unionists … found themselves indelibly marked in a ruined land, alone and left to fend for themselves surrounded by defeated and disillusioned Rebels. … In light of these realities, confrontations between Unionists and their old enemies were commonplace well after hostilities formally ended. In July 1865, ‘parties of marauders’ were reported running rampant in northwestern Alabama, ‘burning houses [and] murdering Union men.’ ” [p. 74] When increased rights for African-Americans was added to the mix, violence increased tremendously. Professor Storey concludes her essay, “As stories like these make clear, Unionists were still battling their wartime persecutors and Confederate neighbors well into Reconstruction. Indeed, Reconstruction would be the last front of their war, a front they ultimately lost for a number of reasons, including the unwillingness and inability of the federal government to protect Republicans (black and white) from violence and terrorism. Perhaps most crippling to the Unionists’ cause, however, was the fact that the war they fought during Reconstruction was different than the war they were fighting in 1861, or even in 1865, despite appearances to the contrary. During the secession winter of 1860-61 and throughout the war, Unionists embedded their political choices within neighborhood and kinship; loyalty to the Union grew out of a conservative impulse to protect the world they knew. Reconstruction, by contrast, demanded that Unionists commit to defending a new and alien order, one that was not deeply embedded in long-standing social and cultural traditions, especially those governing race relations. That the price of power would mean such insecurity–and even a sense of isolation from one’s allies–was simply intolerable to most white loyalists in the state. In 1869, Alabama’s Union League collapsed under the pressure from vigilantism and neglect from national leadership, soon followed by the state’s Republican Party. Though there remained Unionists who never abandoned their dissident stance, and who continued to run as and vote for Republican candidates in local elections, by the mid-1870s loyalists’ battle for political control of the home front had been well and truly lost.” [p. 87]

The rest of the essays are just as good as the first essays. This book is enlightening and contains much important information for understanding what happened during Reconstruction. I can highly recommend it for those who are seriously studying Reconstruction.


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