Reconstruction’s Hungry Locusts

E roosevelt

The wife of the president H.L. Mencken referred to as “Roosevelt the Second” provided much of the impetus for the communizing of the Democratic party in the mid-1930s, and could be readily found supporting and speaking before openly Marxist groups like the American Youth Congress, Communist National Student League, Young Communist League, and anti-Franco communists.

In a news column she wrote that “signs of poverty and unhappiness . . . will have to disappear if [the South] is going to prosper and keep pace with the rest [of the country].” Author W.E. Debnam noted that Mrs. Roosevelt need not travel South to discover “poverty and unhappiness” as she could easily find it looking out her hotel apartment window in New York City. Debnam referred her to the root cause of the South’s unhappy condition.

May we tell you something about Reconstruction, Mrs. Roosevelt? Apparently somebody needs to tell you for only your abysmal ignorance of Southern history could possibly explain your continued carping criticism of just about everything south of the Mason-Dixon line . . . your complete failure to understand certain social and economic problems and conditions about which you pose so frequently as an authority.

Some of our modern Southern scalawags need to be reminded too . . . and that great horde of Northern editors and reporters so prone to pillory the South on every occasion while they ignore even worse conditions in their own backyard.

When the War ended, Mrs. Roosevelt, the South was licked and no one knew it better than the men who had followed Lee. The South was defeated, but it was not penitent. It had lost the War but not its pride. There was no sense of guilt but the South was resigned to the verdict of the battlefield. There was no love for the Yankee, it’s true, but also there was – speaking generally – no hate.

Most Southerners still insisted, and laughed about it, that “damnyankee” was one word, but, while they were not prepared to forget, they were ready, given a little time, to forgive their conquerors.

But [the war] wasn’t over, Mrs. Roosevelt. The South’s Gethsemane had just begun. War, as your Yankee friend General Sherman said, is hell . . . but it’s a hell that about it a certain dignity. There was nothing of dignity about Reconstruction.

There was only the studied, deliberate debasement of a proud and defenseless people. Old Thaddeus Stevens and his gang of Radical Republicans set out to murder the South in the first degree. Their murderous assault, prompted by greed and revenge, was cold-blooded and premeditated. They worked night and day at the job of killing the South twelve long years.

They almost succeeded. Only the vitality of a civilization that simply refused to die kept the South alive.

Lee’s surrender . . . came on April 9, 1865. Have you been able to stand the heart-breaking ordeal of visiting the South in April, Mrs. Roosevelt? If you have, you must have observed – if you could bear to keep your eyes open – that by the middle of April the plowing has long since ended and the planting, for the most part, is over. Already in some areas the new crop is far advanced.

But there was little plowed land in the South in that black April of 1865 and almost no planting.

On the great plantations, and on the little farms of the small land owner, the land to a large degree lay fallow and grown up in weeds. The returning soldiers made the best they could of bad situation. They had almost no livestock – few cows, few pigs, few sheep, and even fewer horses and mules. Those that hadn’t died on the battlefield had been killed or stolen by the invading soldiers.

And labor! Well, Mrs. Roosevelt, you know what happened to the farm hands of the South. Five million Negro slaves had been set free. They did little work in the fields that spring and summer . . . and one can hardly blame them. The taste of freedom lay sweet upon their tongue. Why labor in the fields? The Yankees were going to take care of them and, come Christmas – so the story went – every black man was to be the proud owner of forty acres and a mule! More than that, he was to run the government! The government of the Southern States, that is.

Only a few Northern States allowed the Negroes to vote then, and in not one instance during the tragic era did a single Negro, no matter how intelligent, hold even the lowest elective or appointive office north of the Mason-Dixon line; not even Fred Douglass of New York, who was the idol of Northern abolitionists. But in the South, Mrs. Roosevelt, it was a different story.

The Southern white man was almost completely disenfranchised while for 12 long years the newly-liberated slavers and the carpetbaggers and the scalawags ran every Southern State government and a Negro Senator from Mississippi sat in the seat in Congress that had been held by Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy. Our Reconstruction lawmakers, of course, had some help.

They were backed by Federal troops – thousands of them Negroes in brand new Federal uniforms. They had the guidance of Thaddeus Stevens and his Radical Republican murderers and the help of the Union League. They had also the kindly assistance of self-appointed authorities on Southern problems from New York and other Northern States who came down on short visits to give out criticism and advice. You know, we imagine, the type to which we refer.

There is no need, Mrs. Roosevelt, to review in detail that saturnalia of official corruption and waste during which the new rulers, strutting like peacocks, set out deliberately to turn to their own profit every cent of taxes that could be wrung from a prostrate land.

[And our] Northern conquerors had no intention of letting [Southern cotton] serve those who had attempted to exercise their constitutional right and withdraw from the Union. The “cotton agents” descended upon the South like a swarm of hungry locusts. First they seized 3,000,000 bales outright, claiming they had been sold to the Confederate government and were, therefore, contraband of war.

What was left – or most of it – was taxed heavily, or what was more often the case, stolen by the cotton agents in one of the greatest swindles in the history of our country. The South, screamed the Radical Republicans, had caused the war . . . and the South should pay for it.”

(Weep No More My Lady, A Southerner Answers Mrs. Roosevelt’s Report on the “Poor and Unhappy South,” W.E. Debnam, Graphic Press, 1950, pp 27-37)

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3 thoughts on “Reconstruction’s Hungry Locusts

  1. There is a certain personality type that obsesses over the shortcomings of others in order to divert attention from their own faults. Eleanor Roosevelt was certainly one of these.

    Sadly, there are today many like her.

  2. So glad to see someone write about this book, found it in an antique store while back and thought it was just beautifully written, and so smart. I read half of it there in the store.

  3. When I was a small boy I always thought her name was that G-d–n Woman. Those were the words uttered by my father and grandfather whenever her foul bucktoothed countenance appeared on the nightly news in the late 50’s and early 60’s.

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