Early in Reconstruction the staunch Unionist William Sharkey was appointed governor of Mississippi by Andrew Johnson. Sharkey said that he believed that half the African American population of the state had perished in the war. This may not be too much of an exaggeration for Mississippi where more than half the population was black and neighbouring Lousiana with almost as large a percentage. Both states had been subjected to repeated destructive invasions that had disrupted life catastrophically. Certainly the death toll for slaves was high, as it was for white women and children.
The central evidence of the aftermath of the war and Reconstruction is the neglected fact of the decline of well-being in the freed population for the half century after emancipation. The social statics of 1900 indicate a decline of 10 years in the life-expectancy of the African American population. This tragedy can only be explained by a decline in health care and nutrition, breakup of families, deterioration of work skills, and an increase in unemployment and vice. However, we can readily expect our upwardly mobile young historians, if they notice it at all, to discover for us that all the death and suffering were due to Southern violence and repression.
Recent studies have tended to raise the totals of dead from the war, especially of African Americans, but also of Confederate soldiers and white Southern women and children. A remarkable study by Jim Downs, Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering During the Civil War and Reconstruction (2015) gives the black death toll at 1,000,000. We must also take account of the postwar toll of malnutrition and debilitation from wounds, leading to early death. There were in 1866-1867 epidemics in the South recalling the death toll of the Spanish Flu after World War I.
Even while the death toll is rising, a new interpretation is emerging among fashionable historians—the South really did not suffer all that much damage from the war. (You heard about this new propaganda campaign here first.) They have already established to their satisfaction “The Lost Cause Myth.” That tells us that Southerners made up their honourable history after the war to excuse and cover up their evil defense of slavery and their incompetent failure and defeat. Since Southerners cannot be trusted to tell the truth about that, then obviously (to such historians) they lied about the degree of damage they suffered in the war. To the contrary, the U.S. government’s war against Southern civilians was not the Rape of Nanking, but it was bad enough to have shocked the Prussian general staff.
In fact, the evidence is strong that Southern white people came out of the war with a favolurable attitude toward the freedmen in the immediate after war period. The whites were generally grateful for the lack of a destructive slave rebellion during the war. They accepted the 13th Amendment as a reality to be constructively dealt with and often with a sign of relief at having put down a burden. The subsequent antagonism was a product of Congressional Reconstruction, not of the war or emancipation.
The feeling was reciprocal. Emancipation did not necessarily mean hostility toward a good master or a faithful servant. Of course, our upwardly mobile young historian cannot grasp this because he knows nothing of the real life of real people and his mind is filled with abstractions about class, gender, and race that he mistakes for knowledge.
Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens, in a speech to the Georgia legislature in 1866 said: “Wise and humane provisions should be made [for the freedmen] that they may stand equal before the law, in possession and enjoyment of all rights of person, liberty, and property. Many considerations claim this at your hands. Among these may be stated their fidelity in times past. They cultivated our fields, ministered to your personal comforts, nursed and reared your children; and even in the hour of danger and peril, they were, in the main, true to you and yours. To them we owe a debt of gratitude as well as acts of kindness.”
Generals Beauregard in Louisiana and Hampton in South Carolina expressed similar sentiments, a willingness to accept civil rights of the freedmen and allow their most respectable leaders into the vote, which is the most Lincoln ever advocated. Even the falsely supposed supreme “racist” Forrest, after the restoration of peaceful conditions, found himself on friendly terms with Memphis African Americans. He was invited to their festivals and a great many attended his funeral. Blacks and Jews were not allowed at Lincoln’s funeral in Springfield.
With Congressional Reconstruction, with the Republican manipulated black vote and black armed militia, with white men barred from franchise, and States of noble history turned into occupied military dictatorships, Southern attitudes toward their black fellow citizens hardened, and there was widespread determination to end an unacceptable regime.
Of course, Southern whites believed in white supremacy. So did European colonialists and Northern politicians, bureaucrats, and preachers who occupied Hawaii, the Philippines, and penetrated Asia and Latin America along with Northern corporations. I have read several memoirs which suggest that Southern-born people in colonial ventures got along better with the coloured natives than cold, dominating puritan Yankees. In World War I the government assumed that conscripted black troops would do better under Southern officers.
Inevitably there was a good deal of conflict and violence in the uprooting and chaotic social conditions that occurred in the last stages of the war and afterward. There was expectedly much white resentment to the new status of the freedmen and the white South was full of vulnerable widows living in isolated situations. People resorted to the well-established American role of the vigilante. Much of such activity was against bandits, white and black. It is true that white Republicans organised armed black militia that was used against whites and that rule of black militia, office-holders, and the U.S. army was a political and extortionist instrument rather than a consistent protector of law and order.
Southern violence was addressed more against white Republicans than against freed African Americans. Carpetbaggers really were mostly corrupt—men without standing in their home communities who followed the army with the intention of getting rich from public offices in the Republican-controlled South. That there was an immense amount of looting and abuse of office against innocent people is a simple truth
In the many incidents of violence during Reconstruction, it has been covered up or falsified what were the reasons for the outbreaks and who was responsible for initiating violence. The Marxist framework of class warfare is applied—all violence is attributed to a ruling class maintaining itself by force. Facts are to be doctored to suit the ideological agenda. In fact, the Republicans sometimes committed atrocities to be blamed on Southern resisters. To support Grant’s re-election in 1872, the Republican press manufactured the fake new of a reign of terror in the South.
Let us remember this part of the noble Reconstruction record—that ten States were under military dictatorship. They were run for the benefit of office holders and every citizen’s fate, in the final analysis, was dependent on the word of an Army officer.
The primary problem of the South for almost a century after the war was not race, it was poverty that effected more whites than blacks although a larger percentage of the African American population. Southern whites had enough to do in the postwar years just keeping body and soul together.
Some emancipated African Americans, by heroic effort, acquired property or callings without politically derived privileges. Northern philanthropists and the Freedman’s Bureau also provided authentic support, although it was little more than a drop in the bucket for an immense problem and much of its money was looted. Some good Northerners avoided politics and made constructive investments in the South, though often the profits went North. Clearly the purpose of “Reconstruction” was to drain wealth from the South, not to restore it.
Republican Reconstruction rule was corrupt as at any time in American history and it began with the war under the sainted Lincoln with the sale of offices, corrupt contracts, and looting of private property—not with U.S. Grant and his cronies. Not caused by Southern violence and oppression. The financial gains of Reconstruction were politically-derived and profited the North more than the South, white or black. The vote for African American men had more to do with keeping the Republican party in power than with spreading democracy.
The primary description of Reconstruction, long and almost universally accepted, was as an era of corruption and oppression. A common motif of current historians is that Reconstruction was a noble effort to raise the black people to equality that was destroyed by Southern violence, leaving America with an unfulfilled mission. Much of later interpretation is based on that proposition, but it is a lie. This assumes that Northerners had dedicated themselves to a crusade for equality, a goal that never existed. That is not what Reconstruction and giving the vote to the freedmen was about.
We are also told that Northerners gave up their philanthropic quest for African American equality because of intractable Southern violence. Untrue. Reconstruction came to an end because the Republicans no longer needed Southern votes for a national majority and because the Northern public was disgusted with the blatant corruption, especially when two rival corrupt factions in the same state were demanding federal troops to protect them from each other. And, as is attested by much evidence, Northern decline of interest in of African Americans in the South resulted from the disappointment of Harriett Beecher Stowe and many other abolitionists that the black people had failed to turn themselves into prim New Englanders.
A South Carolinian I knew remembered what his father had witnessed as a boy during the 1876 election in Edgefield. The Union soldiers voted for the restorationist Wade Hampton rather than for the Radical Republicans then in power. They despised the politicians that U.S. Grant had ordered them to protect.
The later 19th century, as historians have understood, saw an increase of race conflict and overt anti-black opinion. It is seldom noticed that this occurred when a new generation among white and blacks rose to prominence— a generation that had never experienced the integrated Old Regime. But there remained a great deal of personal, neighbourly accommodation in daily life. And there was also always a significant respectable element of the white population that felt a duty to help the black population. These were Booker T. Washington’s primary audience in his gestures of accommodation . Of course, they were paternalistic. So were Northern philanthropists. What else was possible in that situation?
The later 19th century was the period of the legalization of Jim Crow. Rightly or wrongly, in the age of lynching, some good people thought that segregation was a benefit to the African Americans, allowing them to develop their own communities and constructive leaders and avoiding clashes of the white and black masses that were certain to end in disaster for the blacks. Jim Crow had been designed in the North and was, ironically, in part a product of national Progressivism—the desire to have everything formally regulated. Southern Progressives sponsored segregation laws as a measure of general social improvement.
Southern appropriations for public education, particularly for African Americans, were meager compared to the North. But, in fact, Southerners, in their poverty, were taxing themselves per capita more for education than Northern citizens. It is true that Reconstruction legislatures made unprecedented provisions for public education. It is also true that carpetbaggers looted most of the money provided. It is possible that those poor schools provided more genuine education than the lavishly funded big city institutions of today.
It is useful to remember that for decades after Reconstruction “the Negro question” was a Southern question. In national terms it was an issue of what federal power should do or not do about the South. Not until the 1970s was there any public recognition that race was a national problem. The percentage of African Americans outside the South was too small to have any political significance in the North.
This began to change in the World War I era when many black people left home for the North looking for work. The big city newspapers at first complained loudly about this unwanted new black population. After a while they began to blame new urban problems on “Southern hillbillies.” There is evidence that the first African American immigrants to the North founded churches and were hard working.
The problems began with the next, Northern-born generation. How that change happened is an interesting question and truthfully understanding that change is the only source of real solution of the deplorable state of American society today. Social scientists soon found a phony answer to dysfunction in Northern cities—it was “the legacy of slavery.” A governor of Illinois, shortly before following his predecessors to the penitentiary, made this into a national popular idea.
When Martin Luther King moved his civil rights campaign to Chicago he was shocked that Northern urban African Americans, unlike those in the South, had no community, no shared social structure. He also noted that the white hostility he received was fiercer and more hateful than had been experienced in the South.
When in the later 19th century Southerners began to put together enough money, usually from many small contributions, to honour the immense numbers of their Confederate dead, some black people contributed to the memorials in local patriotism and in respect for real people they had known. These monuments are now officially defined as statements of white supremacy, though their words seldom indicate such, to be defaced and destroyed. So defined by people willfully ignorant of American, Southern, and African American history.
In South Carolina and Mississippi memorials were erected to black people who had remained faithful during the war. Samuel E. White in Fort Mill, South Carolina, in 1895 erected a shaft. One side is inscribed “in Grateful Memory of Earlier Days” with the names of ten African Americans. The opposite face is “Dedicated to the Faithful Slaves, Who, loyal to a sacred trust, Toiled for the Support of the Army, with Matchless Devotion, and with Sterling Fidelity Guarded our Defenceless Homes, Women, and Children During the Struggle for the Principles of Our ‘Confederate States of America.’” On the other sides are opposite respectable relief carvings of an African American man and an African American woman with baby.
Perhaps the most profound treatment of the depressed condition of his people in the late 19th century was by Paul Laurence Dunbar, the child of Kentucky slaves. Dunbar was a great American poet and perhaps the greatest African American writer of any time. Shortly before his early death in 1903 he wrote an appeal in verse, “To the South– On Its New Slavery.” Antebellum slavery, he wrote, had some consolations for the slave in daily life and in the affection and faithfulness between master and bonded people. African Americans had been loyal friends of the whites, nourishing their lives and maintaining fidelity during the war. His view of the antebellum regime was not very different from that of Alexander Stephens. And Southerners had in earlier times had a high reputation for courage, honour, and integrity, wrote Dunbar.
But now the condition of the black people reflected “Too long the rumors of thy hatred go/ For those who loved thee and they children so.” And: “Did Sanctioned Slavery bow its conquered head/ That this unsanctioned crime might arise instead?/ Is it for this we all have felt the flame,/ This newer bondage and this deeper shame?”
“Oh, Mother South, hast thou forgot thy ways, Forgot the glory of thine ancient days, / Forgot the honor that once made thee great,/ And stooped to this unhallowed estate?” Dunbar was hopeful that the South would once more take “Thy dusky children to thy saving breast.” . . . .”Till then, the sigh, the tear, the oath, the moan,/ Till thou, oh South, and thine, come to thine own.”
Tragically, Southern whites were toiling as the colonial slaves of Northern capital. They had learned the hard way the consequences of honourable behaviour in a conflict with materialist people and had become a little cynical and resigned to an imperfect world. In Henry James’s The Bostonians the young ex-Confederate Basil Ransom tells his world-improving Yankee kin that he does not believe in progress because he has never seen any. Southerners had neither the morale nor the wealth for more than a very limited philanthropy. Their sin against their black fellow Southerners was not so much oppression as it was alienation and indifference. In that they were no different from the North except for them it was daily life and not self-righteous indignation.