Confederate Heritagists Lie About Reconstruction Too

I’m sure you’re not surprised, considering the lack of integrity among confederate heritage apologists.

Illustration of black political power overthrown by white supremacist terrorism by Cristiana Couceiro. Photographs: Hirarchivum Press / Alamy (Ku Klux Klan); Smith Collection / Gado / Getty (building); Universal History Archive / Getty (flags); Everett / Alamy (gallows)

In this New Yorker article by Adam Gopnik, we can find a short overview of Reconstruction as presented in a new book by Henry Louis Gates. “Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in his new book, ‘Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow‘ (Penguin Press), rightly believes that this argument has special currency in the post-Obama, or mid-Trump, era. He compares the rosy confidence, in 2008, that the essential stain of American racism would fade through the elevation of a black President with the same kind of short-lived hopes found in 1865, when all the suffering of the war seemed sure to end with civil equality. Instead, the appearance of African-American empowerment seemed only to deepen the rage of a white majority. Then it brought forward Klan terrorism and Jim Crow in the South; now it has brought to power the most overtly racist President since Woodrow Wilson, openly catering to a white revanchist base. It’s a depressing prospect, and Gates is properly depressed and depressing about it. The broad outlines of the Reconstruction story have long been familiar, though the particular interpretive pressures put on particular moments have changed with every era. Toward the end of the war, Washington politicians debated what to do with the millions of newly freed black slaves. Lincoln, after foolishly toying with recolonization schemes, had settled on black suffrage, at least for black soldiers who had fought in the war. (It was a speech of Lincoln’s to this effect that sealed his assassination: John Wilkes Booth, hearing it, said, ‘That means [n-word] citizenship. Now, by God, I’ll put him through.’) After Lincoln’s death, his hapless and ill-chosen Vice-President, Andrew Johnson, did as much as he could to slow the process of black emancipation in the South, while the ‘radical’ core of the abolitionist Republicans in Congress tried to advance it, and, for a while, succeeded. Long dismissed as destructive fanatics, they now seem to be voices of simple human decency. Thaddeus Stevens, the abolitionist congressman from Pennsylvania, proposed shortly after the war’s end, in his ‘Lancaster’ speech, a simple policy: punish the rebel leaders; treat the secessionist states as territories to be supervised by Congress, thus protecting the new black citizens; take the confiscated plantations on which masters had worked slaves like animals, and break up those plantations into forty-acre lots for the ex-slaves to own (a form of the classic ‘forty acres and a mule’). That this minimally equitable plan was long regarded as ‘radical’ says something about how bent toward injustice the conversation quickly became. Freed slaves eagerly participated in the first elections after the war, and distinguished black leaders went to Congress. The 1872 lithograph of ‘The First Colored Senator and Representatives,’ by Currier & Ives, no less, shows seven black men given the full weight of mid-century Seriousness, including the first black senator from Mississippi, Hiram Rhodes Revels. But white state governments steadily reconstituted themselves. By the eighteen-nineties, they were passing laws that, piece by piece, reclaimed the right to vote for whites alone. All of this was made worse by one of those essentially theological ‘constitutional’ points which American professors and politicians love to belabor. Lincoln’s argument was always that, since it was unconstitutional for states to secede on their own, the rebel states had never seceded. The rebels were not an enemy nation; they were just a mob with a flag waiting to be policed, and the Union Army was the policeman. The idea was to limit any well-meaning attempt at negotiation, and to discourage foreign powers from treating the Confederacy as a separate state. After the war, though, this same idea implied that, since the state governments had never gone out of existence, their reborn legislatures could instantly reclaim all the rights enjoyed by states, including deciding who could vote and when. As Stevens pointed out, the reasoning that says that no states seceded because the Constitution won’t allow it would also say that no man can ever commit murder because the law forbids it. “Black Codes” were put in place in most Southern states that, through various means, some overt and some insidious (anti-vagrancy statutes were a particular favorite), limited the rights of blacks to work and to relocate. The legislative reconquest was backed by violence: the Ku Klux Klan, formed as a terrorist organization by ex-Confederate officers, began murdering and maiming assertive black citizens. In 1877, after a mere dozen years in which black suffrage and racial equality were at least grudgingly accepted national principles, the federal government pulled its last troops from the South and, in what could be called the Great Betrayal, an order of racial subjugation was restored.”

What we saw in Reconstruction was the reimplementation of white supremacy in part through terrorism. “It’s a story with fewer pivotal three-day battles than the war fought over slavery, but its general shape is oddly similar: after a stunning series of victories and advances in the early years by the ‘rebels’—in this case, egalitarian forces—the armies of Reconstruction began to fall victim to the sheer numbers of the opposing side and to the exhaustion of their allies and reserves. Some battles, both real and rhetorical, do stand out. There were the arguments in Congress, pitting newly minted and almost impossibly eloquent black representatives against ex-Confederate politicians who a few years earlier had been sending hundreds of thousands of young men to their death in order to preserve the right to keep their new colleagues in perpetual servitude. There was the so-called Battle of Liberty Place, in New Orleans in 1874, a riot on behalf of the White League, a gang of ex-Confederate soldiers who sought to oust Louisiana’s Republican governor and its black lieutenant governor. In a moment of extraordinary moral courage, as worthy of a film as any Civil War battle, James Longstreet, the most capable of General Lee’s Confederate lieutenants, agreed to lead municipal police, including black officers, to put down the white riot and restore the elected government. He knew what it would cost him in status throughout the old Confederacy, but he did it anyway, because it was the right thing to do. Naturally, the city’s monument to the attempted coup bore an inscription that conveyed the White League’s point of view, and, sobering fact, it was scarcely two years ago that the racist memorial to the riot finally came down—with a police escort to protect the movers.” But terrorism was only one part of the equation. “Gates emphasizes that Reconstruction was destroyed not by white terrorism alone but also by a fiendishly complicated series of ever more enervating legal and practical assaults. The Supreme Court played a crucial role in enabling the oppression of newly freed blacks, while pretending merely to be protecting the constitutional guarantee of states’ rights—one more instance in which ‘calling balls and strikes’ means refusing to see the chains on the feet of the batter. The overtly racist decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) arrived long after the worst was already done, but it sealed the earlier discrimination in place, and Jim Crow thrived for another half century. Meanwhile, at least some of those Northern liberal abolitionists—including the likes of Henry Adams and the well-meaning Horace Greeley—managed, in the way of high-minded reformers, to let their pieties get the better of their priorities: recoiling against the apparent improprieties of the pro-suffrage Grant Administration, they made common cause with the Democrats who were ending democracy in the South. ‘When, therefore, the conscience of the United States attacked corruption,’ W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in his classic 1935 study, ‘Black Reconstruction in America,’ in many ways the most astute account of the period ever produced, ‘it at the same time attacked in the Republican Party the only power that could support democracy in the South. It was a paradox too tragic to explain.’ ”

And this is where the confederate heritage lies come into play. “The historical literature that arose to defend white supremacy was soon accepted as a chronicle of truths, especially in the countless sober-seeming memoirs of the former leaders of the slave states, including Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy, who insisted that slavery was a side issue in a states’-rights war. The ‘Lost Cause’ took on popular literary form in Thomas Dixon’s novel ‘The Clansman,’ which became the basis for D. W. Griffith’s 1915 ‘The Birth of a Nation,’ the first great American feature film. In Griffith’s Reconstruction, blacks, many played by white actors in blackface, are either menaces or morons (black legislators of the kind depicted in that lithograph spend their time in the statehouse drinking and eating), and are, thankfully, routed by the Klan—shown dressing in sheets because they have grasped the primitive African fear of ghosts. It is still difficult to credit how long the Lost Cause lie lasted. Writing in the left-wing The Nation, James Agee, the brilliant film critic and the author of the text for ‘Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,’ could announce, in 1948, that ‘Griffith’s absolute desire to be fair, and understandable, is written all over the picture; so are degrees of understanding, honesty, and compassion far beyond the capacity of his accusers. So, of course, are the salient facts of the so-called Reconstruction years.’ Even as late as the nineteen-sixties, the Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison, in what was then a standard ‘Oxford History of the American People,’ called for ‘ten thousand curses on the memory of that foulest of assassins, J. Wilkes Booth’—but for a surprising reason. ‘Not only did he kill a great and good President; he gave fresh life to the very forces of hate and vengeance which Lincoln himself was trying to kill,’ Morison wrote. ‘Had Lincoln lived, there is every likelihood that his magnanimous policy towards the South would have prevailed; for, even after his death, it almost went through despite the Radicals.’ The thought that the failure of Reconstruction had been its insufficient attention to the feelings and the interests of the white majority—like the thought that ‘The Birth of a Nation’ should be considered to hold the ‘salient facts’ of Reconstruction—strikes us now as astounding, but it was orthodox textbook history and criticism for an unimaginably long time, and among people who believed themselves to be progressive.”

Gopnik also tells us, “One mistake the North made was to allow the Confederate leadership to escape essentially unscathed. Lincoln’s plea for charity and against malice was admirable, but it left out the third term of the liberal equation: charity for all, malice to none, and political reform for the persecutors. The premise of postwar de-Nazification, in Germany, was a sound one: you had to root out the evil and make it clear that it was one, and only then would minds change. The gingerly treatment of the secessionists gave the impression—more, it created the reality—that treason in defense of slavery was a forgivable, even ‘honorable,’ difference of opinion. Despite various halfhearted and soon rescinded congressional measures to prevent ex-Confederate leaders from returning to power, many of them didn’t just skip out but skipped right back into Congress. One might at first find it inspiring to read the gallant and generous 1874 remarks of Robert Brown Elliott, a black congressman representing South Carolina, as he defended civil rights against Representative Alexander Stephens, of Georgia, the former Vice-President of the Confederacy. Elliott’s voice is so ringing and defiant, and at the same time so uncannily courteous. ‘Let him put away entirely the false and fatal theories that have so greatly marred an otherwise enviable record,’ he declared, addressing Stephens. ‘Let him accept, in its fullness and beneficence, the great doctrine that American citizenship carries with it every civil and political right which manhood can confer.’ But then one recalls Abraham Lincoln’s beseeching letters to Stephens in 1860, between his election and his Inauguration, seeking some possible compromise before war came. Stephens then made it plain that slavery was the only thing at issue, and its permanent perpetuation the only demand that could never be compromised. What the hell was he doing back there in Congress, one wonders, after all that death and suffering? He should have counted himself lucky not to have been hanged. But he was there and, soon enough, Elliott wasn’t. Surprisingly few in the educated classes in the South had the foresight to recognize that reform was needed for the South’s own sake. Du Bois reproduces an 1866 speech from Governor Brownlow, of Andrew Johnson’s own state of Tennessee, in which he stated bluntly, ‘I am an advocate of Negro suffrage, and impartial suffrage. I would rather associate with loyal Negroes than with disloyal white men. I would rather be buried in a Negro graveyard than in a rebel graveyard.’ Yet Robert E. Lee—subsequently ennobled for not actually leading a backwoods guerrilla campaign—never made a statement accepting the new order, never said, in the language of the time, something like: ‘A great struggle has gone on, and Providence has settled the question on the anti-slavery side. We must now accept these men as citizens and comrades, if not fully as brothers.’ One Confederate general who did make the turn was Longstreet, a genuinely heroic figure. The only member of Lee’s inner circle at Gettysburg who was smart enough to grasp that Lee’s aggressive strategy, and thus Pickett’s Charge, was doomed in advance, he was also smart enough to see that the strategy of permanent segregation was ultimately ill-fated. Yet the broader legacy of Pickett’s Charge is part of the story, too. Fifty thousand casualties in three days at Gettysburg: for us, those are numbers; for their countrymen, it was fifty thousand fathers and sons and brothers wounded or dead. War weariness is essential to the shape of the postwar collapse. The hope that, in 1870, even a well-intended cohort of former abolitionists would focus properly on the denial of civil rights to blacks in the South was morally ambitious in a way that is not entirely realistic. Richard White, like many others, points to the retreat on the part of Northern liberals from aggressively advocating for black rights, while perhaps not sufficiently stressing one good reason for it: the unimaginable brutality many had experienced in fighting the war. In ways that Louis Menand explored in his book ‘The Metaphysical Club,’ it left a generation stripped of the appetite for more war-making and even (as Menand has argued) of any confidence in moral absolutism. The horror of the Civil War made it difficult to accept that more fighting might be necessary to secure its gains. Nothing is easier to spark than an appetite for war, and nothing harder to sustain than a continued appetite for war once a country learns what war is really like. War hunger and war hatred are parts of the same cycle of mass arousal and inhibition. The other brutality lay in the strange demographics of race in America: basically, the black people were in the South, and their natural allies were in the North. Even today, African-Americans form a huge nation, almost forty-four million people—bigger than Australia or Canada—but they also represent only about thirteen per cent of the U.S. population, never large enough to act without allies. In the postwar period, clustered in the South, they found that their chief ethnic allies were far away. This demographic paradox—a population large enough to be terrifying to the majority population nearby but not large or concentrated enough to claim its own national territory—was part of the tragedy, and increased the brutality by increasing the fear. The adjusted percentage of the Jewish population in Poland before the Holocaust was similar, and had similar implications: enough to loom large in the minds of their haters, not enough to be able to act without assistance in the face of an oppressor.”

Gopnik continues to trace the white supremacist developments in the Jim Crow years, the foundation of which was laid during Reconstruction in the wake of the terrorism, vote fraud, and criminal overthrow of legitimate state governments in the South. This is an excellent article.



  1. Mike Musick · · Reply

    Al: I would respectfully suggest that Mr. Gopnik’s statement “Yet Robert E. Lee…never made a statement accepting the new order….” should be modified in light of the Amnesty Oath Lee signed on October 2, 1865: “I, Robert E. Lee of Lexington, Virginia, do solemnly swear in the presence of Almighty God, that I will henceforth faithfully support, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, and the Union of the States thereunder, and that I will in like manner, abide by and faithfully support all the laws and proclamations which have been made during the existing rebellion with reference to the emancipation of slaves, so help me God.”

    1. Great point, Mike. That is certainly a statement by Lee; however, I think Mr. Gopnik might say that was a standard form, and he might question whether it counts since it wasn’t made public.

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