My Personal Fight against Reconstruction

I recently finished reading Worthy of the Cause for which They Fight, the grammatically titled diary of Arkansas general Daniel Reynolds. My review will be appearing in the online journal Civil War Monitor.

At a used bookstore today, I picked up John Rodrigue’s Reconstruction in the Cane Fields, which is about postwar Louisiana. Not only is Reconstruction something I can never seem to read enough about, Dr. Rodrigue was one of my professors at LSU. Most of what I read about Reconstruction was under John’s tutelage.

I find Reconstruction an incredibly complicated period in U.S. history. The Civil War was complicated, too, of course, but I’ve never had a comfortable grasp of Reconstruction, partly because it ended at various times in various states and for various reasons. Politics at the state and local level is always difficult to keep straight when you are weighing it against a larger national drama unfolding.

Also, the Civil War has a clear beginning and end. The firing on Fort Sumter began the slaughter. In 1865, the Confederacy ceased to exist. Historians may argue when the war was “truly lost” (after the South’s defeats at Antietam? Gettysburg? Atlanta? Not until Appomattox?). But when Lee’s army surrendered, the war was effectively over.

For me, Reconstruction is messier than the war (let’s put aside the fact that efforts to rebuild the South politically began in 1863). When I think of Reconstruction, my impression is a rather abstract one of myriad laws, legislation, and contested state elections. You don’t have a Gettysburg/Vicksburg moment. The period certainly was not without its drama. But the fight for black civil rights in the postwar period has more the nature of a long guerrilla war than a conventional one. The Army of Northern Virginia and Army of Tennessee were conventional forces. The KKK, Knights of the White Camelia, and White League were not. U.S. Grant knew how to defeat Lee’s army, but as president, he was not able to defeat the forces working to overturn Reconstruction. Many other Civil War heroes were similarly ineffectual during Reconstruction. The lucky ones made some money through railroad deals.

When it comes to the white southern forces working against Reconstruction, they are decidedly lacking in heroism. Civil War historians, regardless of political leanings, can find many admirable traits among the slaveholding South’s military leaders such as Lee, Jackson, and Beauregard. I think you’d be hard pressed to find admirers of the anti-Reconstruction forces, which relied on fraud, intimidation, and murder to assure that the South remained a “white man’s country.”

I guess it’s because of the successful white backlash in the South that I find something rather depressing about Reconstruction. The period certainly was one of great gains among the black population of the South. African Americans were no longer slaves. Families long separated by bondage reunited. African Americans could participate in the free market in a way they could not before. Many were elected to office. But I always feel that during Reconstruction, the bad guys win in the end. By the 1880s, the South was effectively purged of significant African American leadership. Blacks had their freedom, but their hard-won right to vote (only for adult males, of course) would be curbed through poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses. In hindsight, we see the South move from an oppressive slave society to an oppressive segregated one in less than a generation. The effort to equalize the races, which began with such hopes toward the end of the Civil War, was undermined at places like Colfax, Louisiana, and Hamburg, South Carolina.

I find Reconstruction a rather complicated downer. Yet, I read on.

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