The Failure of Reconstruction and Its Consequences

Photo by Tory CC BY 2.0

Why are we here in the year 2017 still having to deal with racist morons flying the battle flag of a traitorous slaveowners’ rebellion that was defeated more than 150 years ago and other manifestations of white supremacy that draw on that utterly reactionary heritage?  One of the main reasons, I would argue, is that the Confederacy was never put six feet under in the grave yard where it belonged.   In the name of national reconciliation, the traitorous rebels were never properly punished. Moreover, they remained largely in control of their old plantations, if no longer owning human chattel.

The failure by the victorious Union to provide condign punishment for the secessionists and, even more so, to deprive them of their underlying economic power as large-scale landed property owners enabled them to make a political come-back later in the 19th century, to undo much of the progressive work of Reconstruction, and to reverse the historical verdicts against them.   This history of not having been thoroughgoing and stern enough against the overthrown ruling elite holds invaluable lessons for other places today with struggles against reactionaries, such as the ongoing threats faced by Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution.

Robert E. Lee resigned his commission from the U.S. military and violated his loyalty oath in order to side with the Confederacy.  As head of the Army of Northern Virginia, he had been responsible for the deaths and maiming of thousands of soldiers including in two invasions of the North.  If Lee after his surrender had been treated as a traitorous rebel instead of being allowed to live out his remaining five years as an honored college president, there would be no controversy raging today over the removal of his statue from a Charlottesville park (or about what to do with the name of that college in Lexington) since there would have been no such statue.   After the end of the war, Lee and some of the other top Confederate generals were in fact indicted by the tough abolitionist federal judge in Virginia, John C. Underwood, for waging war against the United States.  Indiana congressman George W. Julian urged the exemplary hanging of Lee and other leading Confederates and the distribution of their confiscated property to southern poor people of both races.  However, former Confederate generals and politicians walked free, often later to reemerge as leaders of post-Reconstruction Southern white elite revanchism.

Arguably the most culpable of them all was Jefferson Davis, the president of the eleven Confederate States of America and a big-time Mississippi cotton plantation and slave owner who had served as the U.S. Secretary of War and as a U.S. Senator before secession.  During the war to save the Union and end slavery, Union soldiers as they marched into battle had sung, “We’ll hang Jeff Davis from a sour apple tree.” Arrested while trying to flee the country, Davis was imprisoned for two years at Fortress Monroe and charged with treason.  Nevertheless, his case was never to brought to trial.  Allowed out on bail that was raised by some soft-hearted Northern liberals, he traveled widely including to Europe.  After being pardoned under President Johnson’s blanket amnesty for Confederates at all levels in 1868, Davis lived on for many years unrepentant about secession and his own political role while upholding white supremacy as a revered figure for the die-hard Southern followers of the “Lost Cause.”  Statues honoring Jefferson Davis exist on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia (along with statues of Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Confederate cavalry General Jeb Stuart) and at many other Southern locations.

Only a handful of trials for war crimes were held coming out of the Civil War, the best-known of which was that of the commandant of the notorious Andersonville Prison Camp in Georgia, Capt. Henry Wirz, who was convicted and hanged for the gross mistreatment of Union prisoners under his watch.  Even though Congress conducted an investigation, no justice was ever meted out to the Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, a pre-war slave trader who had countenanced the wholesale massacre by his troops of surrendered colored Union troops at the battle of Ft. Pillow. Post-Civil War Forrest became the KKK’s first Grand Wizard.  A statue of this foul criminal stands in a Memphis park in spite of the desires of city residents, most of whom are black, to get rid of it, and the state of Tennessee honors his birthday.  Imagine Germany having statues and memorials to the defeated WWII Wehrmacht generals or to the Nazis who ran the concentration camps. Germany has done a decent job of coming to terms with its ugly past, but not here in the United States where racist rebels are regarded as great Americans.

The progressive political vanguard in the U.S. Civil War were the abolitionists and the congressional Radical Republicans (back when that term meant something quite different than it does today).  Pushed by them, Congress passed two Confiscation Acts during the first two years of the Southern slave-owners’ rebellion.  These authorized the confiscation of any property, including slaves, being used to support the rebel war effort.  The enslaved themselves had taken the initiative by fleeing their owners for nearby Union lines where they hoped to be treated as free men and women.  This had presented Union commanders, who were not uncommonly sympathetic to the plight of these runaways, with a dilemma on what to do when the slave owners showed up and demanded their return.  Gen. Benjamin Butler, a cagy Massachusetts lawyer in command at Fortress Monroe in Virginia, had declared the escaped slaves to be “contraband” under the laws of war – i.e., property that was used to aid the enemy – and on that basis he had refused to give them back.  Instead, he had put them to work for the Union. The Confiscation Acts were intended to turn Butler’s improvised policy into the law of the land. But President Lincoln, who had only reluctantly signed the bills and who rescinded the orders of two Union commanders for the outright freeing of slaves in the areas under their control, did not enforce them.

Although he  abhorred slavery from his youthful experiences seeing slaves held in chains, Lincoln was not an abolitionist.  He belonged to the Free Soil wing of the anti-slavery movement whose primary objection to slavery was that its territorial expansion posed an obstacle to the acquisition of land by white yeoman farmers and their ability to rise in the world.  Lincoln promised in his Inaugural Address that he would do nothing as President to interfere with slavery in the states where it already existed.  To satisfy the South and forestall further secession, he said he would enforce the notorious Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.  Even well into the Civil War, Lincoln advocated the colonization of freed slaves in Liberia or in Central America, not the full acceptance and equal rights of them within American society (where persons of African descent had been living and contributing since at least a year prior to the showing-up of the Pilgrims), and Lincoln wanted to compensate the slaveowners monetarily for their lost “property.”  When he finally issued it, Lincoln justified his Emancipation Proclamation in terms of “military necessity,” i. e., it being needed in order to undermine the South’s economic ability to wage war and in order to provide black soldiers to help fight to save the Union – not because holding other human beings in bondage was a moral wrong and blight on a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men were created equal which  urgently needed to be rectified.  The plan for reconstructing the post-war Southern states that Lincoln put forward toward war’s end offered generous terms to the defeated rebels, and more or less the same plan was rapidly put into effect following his assassination by his successor, Andrew Johnson.  By the end of 1865, Johnson had issued thousands of pardons to individual Confederates and restored their state governments with little difference to them except that they had to repudiate the Confederate debt and accept the 13th Amendment ending slavery.

Fortunately, Radical Republicans in Congress thwarted Johnson, a former small-time Tennessee slave owner whose interest in ending slavery came not from moral principles but from his personal sense of inferiority to the wealthy planters and his desire that their political power based on slavery be curtailed.  These radicals took over Reconstruction and passed a series of laws over Johnson’s veto to provide aid to and extend and protect civil rights for the ex-slaves.  Johnson who had made himself odious not only through his pro-Southern policies but also because of a Trump-like inability to control his utterances was impeached and nearly removed from presidential office.  Under the Radical Republicans, the South was divided up into military districts and placed under watchful control.  Most people in the North supported harsh measures at that time because scarcely a few months after the war’s end the restored state governments, full of ex-Confederates, had enacted Black Codes which enforced conditions little  different from slavery and violent atrocities were being committed against black and white Republicans by white southerners in the Democratic Party unable to accept their defeat.    Nevertheless, in a fateful major failure, confiscation of the land from the Southern slave-owning class to fully break their power and this land’s redistribution to the freed men and women to enable them to become economically independent of their former masters, as advocated by the congressional radicals Thaddeus Stevens, George W. Julian, and Charles Sumner, was never put into effect.  What arose in the South, although some of the ex-slaves did acquire land by working hard and saving and through other means, was the system of sharecropping which left many ex-slaves still laboring on the land of their former masters.

General Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15 issued at the end of his epic march through Georgia to the sea had given many ex-slaves the expectation that winning their freedom would be matched with a grant of land of their own,  which they felt they richly deserved as compensation for centuries of unpaid labor.  Sherman’s order decreed that they could settle in a coastal belt of land of sea islands and river-side rice plantations abandoned by their white owners in South Carolina, Georgia and northern Florida.  Sherman’s intention in issuing the order was mainly to rid his army as it turned northward of the encumbrance of a large train of self-emancipated slaves, and their property title to the land was only provisional pending the action of Congress.  However, his act was the origin of the belief widespread among the freedmen and women that they would receive 40 acres with a mule to help till the land.   Lincoln endorsed Sherman’s Order.  However, following Lincoln’s assassination, Johnson reversed it and, in a total betrayal of the interests of the freedmen and women, ordered the return of most of the land to its former white owners.  The Union officers who had to tell them did so with great disgust.

Thaddeus Stevens, Pennsylvania congressman and chair of the House Ways and Means Committee   who earned the nickname, “Scourge of the South,” was the main architect of Radical Reconstruction.  Opposed to capital punishment, Stevens introduced legislation to confiscate the estates of the upper one-tenth of Confederates who held land above 200 acres or worth $5,000 or more in value.  Forty million acres of this confiscated land would then be broken down into 40 acre plots and distributed to the freedmen and families for their sustenance.  The balance of the land would be sold off to help pay the nation’s immense war debt, to recompense loyal citizens North and South for their losses suffered at the hands of the rebels, and to provide ongoing support for the maimed Union veterans.  Doing this, Stevens believed, would punish the members of the Southern elite who had been most responsible for the rebellion and would, at the same time, revolutionize social relations in the South providing a solid economic foundation for new and proper republican institutions. “Strip a proud nobility of their bloated estates,” Stevens cried out in a speech made to Congress in 1866 urging enforcement of the existing Confiscation Acts and overriding Johnson’s opposition. “Reduce them to a level with plain republicans; send them forth to labor; and teach their children to enter the workshops or handle the plow, and you will thus humble the proud traitors.  Teach his posterity to respect labor and eschew treason.”  If the Southern elite chose instead to flee the country and go overseas, then good riddance.  Stevens regarded providing land for the ex-slaves as being of primary importance over according them access to voting – finally ensured legally by the 15th Amendment in 1870 – because that right could be subverted by the economically-powerful pressuring those folks dependent on them to vote in the way that they wanted.

In poor and declining health, Stevens dedicated the last year of his life to promoting this legislation.   His radically democratic Jeffersonian plan to totally transform the South creating a new class of black and white yeoman farmers was supported by some other Radical Republicans and by the abolitionist and labor reformer Wendell Phillips.  Unionist conventions of ex-slaves and poor whites held in the South passed strong resolutions and agitated in favor of breaking the power of the traitorous Southern elite by confiscating and redistributing their land to those who were in need.  However, the Republican Party was coming to be dominated by Northern capitalists who were excited about possible investment opportunities in the post-war South with the ready availability of its cheap labor.  Under the spectre of growing critiques of “wage slavery,” they also feared the precedent that such a measure might set for confiscating other property – such as their own.  Radical Republican Senator Benjamin Wade had made a much-discussed speech in which he called for a more equitable distribution of property throughout the United States.  News of the Paris Commune in 1871, the world’s first working-class government,  compounded that fear for many Republicans. Thus were reached the limits of a bourgeois revolution.

During Radical Reconstruction while under the protection of federal troops occupying Southern states, governments consisting of blacks and poorer whites took power and enacted progressive reforms such as a more equitable tax system and the first free public education.  Some African-Americans affiliated with the Republican Party were elected to represent their states in Congress.  One striking example of the profundity of the South’s political transformation during this time period was that Jefferson Davis’s former Mississippi seat in the U.S. Senate was occupied for a time in 1870 by a free-born black Southerner, Rev. Hiram Revels, and Mississippi in 1875 chose Blanche K. Bruce, born a slave, as one of its Senators.  Supported by most abolitionists although under fire for corruption, Grant’s presidential administration (1869-77) did make some renewed serious efforts to protect the new civil and voting rights of African-Americans in the South and to suppress the Klan’s terrorism in South Carolina and Louisiana.  Klansmen were put on trial and jailed.  At the same time, some of the formerly redoubtable congressional defenders of black rights among Republican politicians – including George W. Julian and Lyman Trumbull, the author of the Freedmen’s Bureau and Civil Rights bills that Congress had passed over President Johnson’s veto – abandoned their commitment and urged North-South white-to-white reconciliation instead.   Most Northerners, including those who were avowedly anti-slavery, had always held racist views and had never shared the vision of Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner for full black and white racial equality.  (Stevens who died in 1868 asked to have his body interred in a colored cemetery in Lancaster, Pennsylvania as one final protest against racial segregation and inequality.)

Once protective federal troops were withdrawn from the South – the last ones being withdrawn in 1877 as part of a closed-door political bargain between the Republicans and Democrats to keep a Republican as President following a contested election – political control in the Southern states reverted largely into the hands of the former slaveocracy under the aegis of the Democratic Party.  Alexander Stephens, the former Vice President of the Confederacy, was back in his old seat representing his Georgia district in Congress, and  unrepentant Confederate general Wade Hampton was now South Carolina’s governor.    The conservative U.S. Supreme Court aided in this back-sliding.  In its 1876 Cruikshank decision, it refused to intervene in defense of the 1st amendment right of assembly and the 2nd amendment right to bear arms in a case involving black Republican Party members who had come under murderous attack from white Democratic Party supporters in Colfax, Louisiana.  Following, in 1883, the Court declared unconstitutional the last piece of Reconstruction-era legislation passed by Congress, the Civil Rights Act of 1875 which Charles Summer fought for as his crowning (and dying) achievement that prohibited  race-based discrimination in public accommodations.  Some Republicans in Congress made one final ditch effort in 1890 to protect black voting rights in the South by proposing legislation to enable federal  officials to monitor elections.  However, this legislation was defeated through a filibuster by Southern Senators, a tactic that would be used by reactionaries to block progressive legislation for many decades.

In the “redeemed” Southern states, restrictions were soon instituted by the elite white governments that kept most blacks from voting through literacy tests, poll taxes, and grandfather clauses.  Along with the ongoing racial terrorism  – well over 3,000 African-Americans were lynched between 1882 and 1968 — the notorious system of racial segregation known as “Jim Crow” – separate and blatantly non-equal – was deployed in practically all walks of life to keep the African-Americans population humiliated and in a subordinate position.   The Supreme Court declared this to be constitutional in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). Racial segregation and discrimination was also used to divide blacks and working class whites and keep them from finding common cause as they had begun to do in the South under Reconstruction.  By 1913, the White House had a Southern-born occupant, Woodrow Wilson, who instituted segregation in federal government office buildings.  The Reconstruction years were now being disparaged as a time of misrule in the South dominated by the alleged governmental incompetence and corruption of blacks, Northern carpetbaggers and poor whites, with Ku Klux Klan night-riders and cross-burners now being portrayed as the saviors of States’ Rights and the virtue of white womanhood, a view spread broadly by D. W. Griffith’s movie, Birth of a Nation.  Inexcusably, most Caucasian historians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line aided and abetted this inaccurate revisionist historical narrative (which is what I would be taught growing up and going to school in Virginia during the 1960s).  It would take a handful of African-American activists and historians, most notably the great radical W.E.B. Dubois with his Black Reconstruction (1935), to begin to set the record straight.  As Dubois observed, the ill consequences of an aborted revolution in the American South were felt not only in that particular section of the country and in the U.S. as a whole but indeed all over the world:

And the United States, reenforced by the increased political power of the South based on disenfranchisement of black voters, took its place to reenforce the capitalistic dictatorship of the United States, which became the most powerful in the world, and which backed the new industrial imperialism and degraded colored labor the world over.  This meant a tremendous change in the whole intellectual and spiritual development of civilization in the South and in the United States because of the predominant political power of the South, built on disenfranchised labor.  The United States was turned into a reactionary force.  It became the cornerstone of that new imperialism which is subjecting the labor of yellow, brown and black peoples to the dictation of capitalism organized on a world basis. . .

As we all know, the 1950s and 1960s brought renewed forward motion in the field of civil rights for African-Americans in the South in the context of a worldwide wave of freedom movements waged by people of color.  Liberal court rulings and new laws were made and enforced through federal actions, including the dispatch of troops where necessary to break racist resistance.  And yet here we are in the year 2017 still having to deal with fucking neo-Confederates and neo-Nazis who march at night with  torches, shoot off guns at anti-racist activists and run them down with speeding automobiles.  Plus, we have a racist cretin of a President who finds “good people” among these idiots.  Toppling the statuary honoring the Confederate losers – along with supporting our brave Antifa fighters — has to happen even more strongly under these circumstances.  However, it’s likely that none of this awful stuff would have happened, or still be troubling us today, if the Southern society had been properly reconstructed in the first place with the leading racist secessionist rebels punished and with their land base confiscated and redistributed. Mao Tsetung once observed, “Make trouble, fail, make trouble again, fail again . . . until their doom – that is the logic of the imperialists and all reactionaries the world over. . .”  And this is the historical lesson of the U.S. Civil War.  Reconciliation with utter reactionaries is impossible.  They will never go quietly from the stage of history.  So they need to be put firmly down.  Above all, they have to be fully deprived of the economic foundations underlying their capacity to re-exercise political power.

Jay Moore is a radical historian who lives and teaches (when he can find work) in rural Vermont.  He was born and raised on a Civil War battlefield in Virginia.  He can be reached at

Jay Moore is a radical historian who lives and teaches (when he can find work) in rural Vermont.