The Ordeal of the Reunion

This excellent book by Professor Mark W. Summers is a fresh look at Reconstruction, giving us a new perspective different from that we get in the standard works on the subject. Professor Summers writes, “This book’s perspective is, in essence, different from others, and that difference is defined in part by its place in a series devoted to the Civil War. Recognizing that in many respects Reconstruction was indeed a beginning, an ‘unfinished revolution,’ it chooses to lay greater stress on its other character, as an end, a postscript tot he war and the age of bitter sectional conflict. ‘Reconstruction,’ as most popular accounts use the term, generally means, ‘the Reconstruction of the South.’ Often, this rendering is shorthand for ‘The Reconstruction of Southern Society with a particular emphasis on Southern Race Relations.’ There is a good case for streamlining one’s approach to the postwar years. So much of the Union’s destiny depended on what happened to slavery, to those held in slavery, and to those who were degraded in order to make slavery work. But it seems to me that to most Americans in 1865, ‘the Reconstruction of the Union’ was more important. That priority may offer a strong clue, indeed, to why and how black civil rights were so speedily furthered just after the war and why they were so readily abandoned in the 1870s. With some justice, antislavery advocates once gibed that Mr. Lincoln would like to have God on his side, but he must have Kentucky. Very possibly, the same could be said of those on the Union side as the fighting ended. They would have liked to see justice done; but they must have security.” [p. 3] He says, “If we make the mistake of defining Reconstruction’s exclusive end as remaking the South on the basis of equal rights and democracy in a truer sense of the word than its inhabitants had ever known then we can’t help calling Reconstruction at best a failure–though that failure seemed less clear, unambiguous, and complete in 1877 than in retrospect. But if we see Reconstruction’s purpose as making sure that the main goals of the war would be fulfilled, of a Union held together forever, of a North and South able to work together, of slavery extirpated, and sectional rivalries confined, of a  permanent banishment of the fear of vaunting appeals to state sovereignty, backed by armed force, then Reconstruction looks like what in that respect it was, a lasting and unappreciated success.” [p. 4]

In early 1865, Abraham Lincoln faced a significant political hurdle in implementing what he would like to have seen done, even if his Republican Party was united behind him. This was especially true with passing the 13th Amendment in the House of Representatives. “Democrats represented four northerners out of ten and with white southerners included very likely a majority of American voters. United, they could deny the majority the two-thirds vote needed, and they could make a plausible case against action at that time. They could protest that the amendment process had unspoken limits (a premise that even some Republicans admitted). Any change strengthening the central government’s power at the expense of the state, or destroying the one institution that had most defined southern society, subverted the people’s charter that the Founders had intended. They pronounced slavery so obviously dying that it needed no constitutional executioner. Several pointed out that no constitutional majority could pass the amendment because with twenty-two southern senators and eleven states’ representatives absent, Congress had no such majority.” [pp. 7-8]

The problem of defining what Reconstruction was continued, and many realized it would have to encompass the status of the freed people. “That desire to return to the way things had been went to the heart of white northerners’ ideal of ‘Reconstruction.’ To reconstruct means to build again, for some to build anew, but for many others to raise an edifice, with more solid foundations, perhaps, but a distinct resemblance to the structure that had stood before the war. The place of blacks in the new order of things must change, but the essence of a republic, federal and not consolidated, must not. Finally, there was a point so obvious that later generations could overlook it. The one indisputable aim of the war had been to bring the Union together again and, the issue of slavery aside, a Union recognizably like the one left behind, based on the consent of the governed and the widest possible latitude for state power and personal freedom consistent with rule by law and a supreme national authority. Reunion would take reconciliation if it was to win over those whose allegiance had been lost. Any settlement that was going to last must come by mutual agreement, and the harsher the terms set on the Confederate states, the less prospect that the settlement would last very long. … The Union, then, was not meant to destroy the South so much as to save it, against its will. Few northerners could match Chief Justice Chase’s record in opposing the so-called Slave Power. But touring the South just after the war, Chase went out of his way to stress his goodwill.” [pp. 13-14]

From the beginning, Reconstruction faced a numbers problem. “Unionism certainly did exist. Even in Confederate Mississippi, true believers provided men for the Union army, though most such recruits came from the upper South. Some 42,000 white Tennesseans donned the blue, with Virginia and West Virginia enlisting 30,000, Arkansas 10,000, North Carolina 5,000. Alabama did better than most of the cotton South, with 2,500 white volunteers–about the same number as those from Georgia, Florida, and Mississippi combined. All the same, crucial as many of those soldiers would be in the formation of a white Republican Party later those figures did not amount to much. In Virginia, 80 to 90 percent of all eligible white males served in the Confederate army, and while it was true that 12,000 deserted, two-thirds of them would reenter the ranks. Even in Unionist areas, there had been outright Confederate service. In eastern Tennessee, whites volunteered; among their officers, about the same majority owned no slaves as was the case with Tennessee Unionists. Young men who came of age there in the 1850s more readily embraced the slaveholders’ revolution than did their elders. Their attachment to the Union was less for having been raised in a time of fierce sectionalism. They were likelier to be Democrats, even in Andrew Johnson’s eastern Tennessee.” [p. 27]

The majority of returning confederates would continue to be problems. “Whatever Confederate forces had surrendered, the Confederate mind had given up nothing. Force would make it drop certain doctrines like the right of secession and state sovereignty but not to admit itself in the wrong. Yankee decrees could wipe out slavery but not Nature’s law giving whites the right and duty to rule every other race. Those protesting that they would ‘comply with every reasonable demand that the Government might make’ defined just what would be ‘reasonable.’ A Cincinnati reporter stopped overnight in southern Alabama with a returned Confederate private. His only fortune was a large family of children and two hound dogs, his hospitality no more than a hoecake. He alone in the household had seen an American flag or a northern newspaper, which, perhaps, nobody in the household could have read. Yet this man, never a slaveholder, swore that the peculiar institution was divinely inspired. Utterly defeated, he invoked what he termed ‘our rights.’ ” [p. 31]

Compounding the odds against Reconstruction, the army shrank rapidly after the war. “At the start of the month [May, 1865], the Union had over a million volunteers in uniform. Three months later, over 600,000 had gone home, with another 200,000 departing by Thanksgiving. If the regulars stayed on, three times as many as served just before the war, their numbers were dwindling, too. By late 1866, Congress set the army’s new limit at 75,000 men. Weeks before the fighting closed, the navy also had begun dismantling its forces. Within two years, five-sixths of its fleet had gone out of commission. Whatever the war had done to America, it had not turned it into a garrison state, its citizens moving henceforth to a military cadence.” [p. 36]

Skillfully weaving his narrative, Professor Summers tells the story of the political struggles of Reconstruction as each administration struggled with the problems, including the terrorist violence, that went along with trying to put southern society back together. This is not, nor is it meant to be, the complete story of Reconstruction. Indeed, the era is so complex a single volume can’t begin to tell that complete story. Not even Eric Foner’s massive tome could do that. But Professor Summers has wisely chosen his topics to create a cogent, well reasoned, factual account packed with information. I can highly recommend this book for those students looking for a better understanding of Reconstruction.


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