Reconstruction: Violence and Dislocation

matthew butler

The final part in this installment is a lecture entitled, “Reconstruction in the Experience of the Southern People,” delivered at the 2009 Summer School.

Violence is a big subject in Reconstruction. There was certainly violence, ranging from personal assaults to riots to pitched battles in which people were killed. However, I doubt that it was as prevalent or as decisive as is now the accepted idea. The current official version of Reconstruction is that there was a reign of terror, systematic murder and intimidation by the white Southern ruling class determined to keep the black people in virtual slavery. This is the Marxist class conflict formula for history.

The real picture is a good deal more complicated. One can find plenty of material about conflict, intimidation, and killing, which is what the PC school make use of But they take for granted as fact what is clearly partisan propaganda from the time. In almost every case there is conflicting testimony or inadequate sources so that judgment becomes a matter of who you believe are the good guys and who are the bad guys. For the PC historians it is axiomatic that all violence is caused by reactionaries who are resisting the revolution. This is standard Marxist doctrine.

They never ask the essential factual and moral question: who initiated violence? Certainly the white people of the South did not want to live in a society dominated by their ex-slaves and outsiders and sometimes resorted to intimidation. Northerners would have done exactly the same in the same situation. Yet Reconstruction began with no overt hostility to the black people In fact, the general attitude right after the war was gratitude to the blacks who, after all, had for the most part remained loyal despite ample provocation and opportunity to do otherwise. Many prominent and influential Southerners expressed the wisdom of the decent necessity and long-range benefits in helping the black people to advance in their condition, even founding schools like the Tuskegee Institute.

I believe it can be shown that violence was begun by the Republicans. The Union League was a vigilante organisation that suppressed dissent in the North during the war. It moved its operations to the South. The operations consisted of secret meetings at night where black people were given promises and encouraged to assert control. Armed black mobs led by carpetbaggers roamed around intimidating, stealing, harassing, and murdering. They deliberately provoked violent response. And remember, their coercion was directed not only at whites but to any black people who refused to join. In other words, the Union League used the methods of the Ku Klux Klan before the Klan came into existence.

Southerners found themselves in a situation in which the courts, local and state government, and the militia were under the control of aliens, in most cases having seized power illegitimately and subject to no control except by the occupying army. One of the conditions that caused great variability in Reconstruction conditions depended on the character of the army officers in charge.
One of the worst was General Phil Sheridan, governor of the Military District of Texas. He showed as much contempt for the people of Texas as he had for the civilians of the Valley of Virginia. Sheridan discontinued the long established policy of recovering white women who had been captured by Indians. There is convincing evidence that he connived in the planned sinking of a boatload of Confederate families leaving Galveston for South America. The crew was to desert and leave the vessel sinking. Fortunately the intended victims discovered and prevented the plot.

Sheridan had gained military fame by commanding large forces of freshly mounted cavalry with repeating carbines which had been able to hold their own with, though not defeat greatly outnumbered and exhausted Confederate horsemen. He was so popular with Republicans that many wanted him for President, although this would have required falsification of his birthplace. Sheridan might have become the first, if not the only, foreign-born President.

In this situation, where the law was a travesty and government was in the hands of the unscrupulous, Southerners reacted as free Americans had always done. They took matters into their own hands to restore genuine law and order. Sympathetic Northerners and visiting Europeans mostly agreed that the kind of resistance represented by the Ku Klux Klan and similar groups was necessary and right, at least in the beginning. Southern actions, so viciously indicted by today’s historians, were mostly defensive.

We can evaluate the evidence accurately when we understand that the Republican party propaganda machine was pervasive and unscrupulous. Throughout Reconstruction and after, they portrayed Southerners as barbarians and unrepentant traitors who regularly murdered honest peaceful Northern men and blacks. This was the age of yellow journalism. In 1866 there were serious race riots in New Orleans and Memphis. This was widely publicised as evidence of the evil South. But actually the riots did not involve white Southerners at all. They were between blacks and the city police who were almost all former Union soldiers. At the trial of Captain Wirtz for Andersonville, numerous witnesses, some of whom had never even been there, testified that had seen Wirtz flogging prisoners mercilessly with a lash. In fact, wounds had left Wirtz barely able to lift his arms. That was why he was assigned to prison duty.

Congress took three thick volumes of testimony about alleged atrocities in the South. It has been shown that much of this was simply fiction and much of the rest exaggerated, distorted, or misinterpreted. There were even cases of blacks and carpetbaggers disgusing themselves as Klansmen to commit criminal acts.

So, it becomes often a matter of who you believe. I have been studying the character of the people involved for most of a lifetime, and I have no doubt which people are more likely to be telling the truth.


So a solution of sorts was given to the problem of rebuilding a country after a civil war. It is hard to imagine a worse one. In the end everyone lost except the minority who had gained power and profit.

It is easy to under-estimate the sufferings of the Southern people, black and white, after the war. Starvation and near-starvation was prevalent in many areas, and the kinds of epidemics that flourish where diet is inadequate. The Georgia writer Ferroll Sams records that his grandmother remembered subsisting on poke salad for long periods. The only way they could obtain essential salt was to cull it out of the dirt where the old smokehouse had been. And they were fairly prosperous people.

It is reliably estimated that the South, once a flourishing region, had lost 40 per cent of its capital. If you count slave property as capital it was 60 per cent. In other words 60 per cent of the total wealth of the society was gone with the wind. This included not just the destruction and stealing of the war. The 14th Amendment made all private financial transactions that could be construed in any way as supporting the Confederacy void. Bank reserves in Charleston, for an example, had been reduced from $30 million to $2 million. Insurance funds, charitable trusts, and many business investments vanished. Two-thirds of the railroad mileage was destroyed. A fourth of the able-bodied white men were dead and many others crippled. The only positive factor was in Texas where there were huge herds of wild cattle that could be driven North where people had money.

General Matthew Butler rode home to South Carolina after the surrender, and riding was not too easy for a man with one leg, even at the age of 28. He found his wife, three children, and 78 emancipated slaves on his plantation. Besides the problem of constructing a completely new manner of labour relations, he records that he had $15,000 in debts and one dollar and forty cents cash in his pocket.

Butler’s plantation was relatively intact having fallen between the area devastated by Sherman and the area devastated by Stoneman’s raiders. How much worse for people where the houses, barns, livestock, tools, seed, and standing and stored crops had been destroyed or stolen.

How do you get started back to work and avoid starvation under these conditions? The landowner and the workers must have food and shelter for the many months while the crop is planted, raised, harvested, and sold. And selling the crop was an iffy business since the price received for cotton varied greatly from year to year. Life could only be sustained by borrowing and the only people with money to loan were Yankees who sometimes received interest of as much as 60 per cent. As late as 1880 there was less land under cultivation than there had been in 1860. As vast amount of land changed hands—going not to the former slaves but to Northern investors.

Thus developed the system of share-cropping and its vast attendant poverty and debt which dominated the South well into the 20th century. The landowner borrowed to finance the year and advance the workers what they needed. The land was worked in an arrangement by which the proceeds of the crop for sale would be shared by the landowner and the worker. The worker was thus not a wage earner. There was no money for wages. He had some freedom over his activities and the chance to negotiate a contract. But he was perpetually in debt for the funds advanced by the landowner and the landowner was in debt to forces beyond his control. This second point is seldom mentioned by writers who hold Southern life up to condemnation and excoriate the landowners.

When Reconstruction was over a large majority of the black population were propertyless agricultural labourers who had no recourse except the sharecropping system. Even more startling, millions of the white population, where independent landowners had predominated before the war, were reduced to the same condition. There were more white sharecroppers than black, although not as great a percentage of the total population.

In plain fact, the South had been reduced to a colony, a source of cheap labour and raw materials for Northern capitalists. This was reenforced by federal legislation—not only the tariff but trade regulations. For instance, well into the lifetime of old geezers like Dr. Livingston and myself, railroad rates were rigged so that steel could be shipped to Atlanta from Pittsburg more cheaply than from Birmingham. And margarine, which could be made from cotton seed, was banned at the insistence of the Wisconsin dairy industry. At this very moment, people in the South are paid three-fourths of what the same work receives in the rest of the country.

The greatest losers of all were the black people. Some black people acquired land or other property through what must have been extraordinary effort. The beneficiaries of the vast resources that have been devoted to African-American history have not bothered to investigate this as far as I know. The experience of Reconstruction had destroyed much of the familial affection between black and white that had existed before and replaced it with mistrust and hatred on both sides. The experience had certainly made the Southern insistence on white supremacy much stronger.

Black people had been given the right to vote, which was not what they most needed, and that was about all they were left with. You can show by statistics of social pathology that the black population was worse off in 1900 than it had been in slavery. Health had declined, as had work skills and family integrity, and crime was rampant. According to official American truth, the pathologies that we see today in the ghettos of Detroit, Watts, and Newark are the result of the heritage of slavery. Is it not strange that the further away one gets from the South in time and place the more these pathologies increase.

About Clyde Wilson

Clyde Wilson is a distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the University of South Carolina where he was the editor of the multivolume The Papers of John C. Calhoun. He is the M.E. Bradford Distinguished Chair at the Abbeville Institute. He is the author or editor of over thirty books and published over 600 articles, essays and reviews and is co-publisher of, a source  for unreconstructed Southern books. More from Clyde Wilson

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