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Book Review: Redemption

[ 1 ] April 30, 2007 |

Nicholas Lemann’s Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War, focuses on the activity of Adelbert Ames, a former Union officer who became governor of Mississippi during Reconstruction. Ames presided, unwillingly, over the collapse of Reconstruction in his state. We often think of the failure of Reconstruction as a tragedy, but Lemann carefully details the literal butchery through which the white supremacist state that was the American South was created and enforced after 1870.

The central white supremacist strategy of Reconstruction was to argue that black mobs were on the very verge of launching orgies of rape and destruction against helpless white populations in a variety of Southern towns. Of course, such orgies were virtually non-existent, but they did serve as pretext for dozens, perhaps hundreds, of brutal massacres perpetrated by heavily armed white Southerners. The Union military presence in the South significantly ameliorated this problem, as white Southerners were unwilling to confront regular United States Army units in a combat situation. This meant that, in large part, the civil rights of black Southerners depended on the willingness of the North to exert military force in the Southern states.

It would be wrong to say that no will for the exertion of such force existed in the North. No one in the North wanted to believe that the sacrifices of the Civil War had been in vain; over 350000 Northerners had died to save the United States from the depredations of the white Southern slaveholding elite. Little sympathy existed in the North for that elite, but the political will necessary to enforce Reconstruction was also limited. The defense of Reconstruction didn’t cost all so much in the way of blood, but it did require considerable treasure, and it endangered Republican electoral prospects. Adelbert Ames was forced to deal with both with white Mississipians who resisted Reconstruction in every way they knew how, and with the Grant administration, which could only do so much to support the Union occupation of the South. Republican victory in the South depended on black voting, but black voting rights were difficult to enforce, and the price of enforcement was votes in Ohio.

In the end, of course, white Southerners were able to outlast the willingness of the North to enforce racial equality. African-American elites were co-opted or eliminated. Northerners slowly but surely became unwilling to enforce Reconstruction. As each state in the South flipped, it became progressively more difficult to defend black equality in the rest. White supremacist mobs could take refuge across state lines, and the “White Line” gave moral support to supremacists who wanted to overthrow the new order in their particular locality. In the end, the areas of racial equality winked out, one by one, until the 1876 compromise ensured that the North would not interfere in the efforts of white Southerners to create and enforce an apartheid state. Lemann details all of this, in a depressing narrative that describes the destruction of democracy in Mississippi.

Redemption inevitably brings to mind the question of the treatment of the Confederate elite following the Civil War. The Confederate elite were well-represented in the forces that successfully fought Reconstruction, and provided leadership for the resistance movement. Had the North decided on a policy that was more punishment-oriented, much of this elite might have either hanged or served long prison sentences. It’s unclear how much of an effect this would have had on the resistance. The pre-emptive elimination of elite leadership can substantially weaken an insurgency, but the tactic doesn’t always work. It’s also unclear to me how critical the Confederate elite were to the political conflict of Reconstruction. Without a slaveholding elite, the Civil War never happens; the war was not particularly popular among non-slaveholding whites, who were often brutally conscripted into Confederate armies and who deserted whenever the opportunity presented itself. However, to say that the cause of slavery wasn’t worth a war to lower class Southern whites is NOT the same a saying that they would have willingly accepted Reconstruction and the promise of African-American equality. Purging the Confederate elite might have forestalled resistance, but it would not have solved the basic political problem of black emancipation amongst a hostile white populace. On the other hand, purging the Confederate elite might have served to even up the conflict in the South, such that African-Americans and their allies in the Union Army and the Federal government could have enforced black equality.

Could a more vigorous punishment policy have made the situation in the South even worse? The Southern insurgency, in both its Klan and post-Klan iterations, focused on attacking African-Americans instead of attacking Union troops deployed in the South. At the end of the war, the Confederate elite decided against continuing the conflict through guerilla tactics. A punishment policy might have altered this decision, and might have eliminated what eventually became an important brake on violence in the South. Wealthy, propertied elites, as a general rule, don’t favor disruptive guerilla conflict, which is one reason the Confederate elite essentially held to conventional tactics throughout the war. It’s possible that a combination of resentment over the punishment policy and the absence of the segment of white Southern society most reluctant to engage in a full insurgency might have produced widespread violent resistance to Union control. Now, given how badly Reconstruction went for African-Americans anyway, it’s perhaps a bit perverse to argue that this would have been a “worse” outcome, but it’s possible to construct a narrative in which the situation in the South would have grown even bloodier.

On these final points, I’m reminded of David Levering Lewis’ discussion of Reconstruction and early Jim Crow in his wonderful two part biography of W.E.B. Dubois. The embrace of the Booker T. Washington programme by the white Southern elite seems to amount essentially to an attempted alliance between upper class blacks and upper class whites, aimed at least partially against lower class whites. It didn’t work out, in part because upper class whites never really restrained lower class whites, and in part because property and economic rights are indefensible without civil rights and the protection of law. It’s interesting to think about whether or how this deal might have gone down if elements of the Southern white aristocracy had been eviscerated after the Civil War. I’m sure there’s some excellent work on the class/race structure of the South after Reconstruction, and I don’t doubt that our fine resident historians have a good grasp on the literature…

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  1. [...] America’s most tragic period, the aftermath of the Civil War saw a too-brief attempt to enforce ex-slaves’ civil rights, before it succumbed to violent counterattack. The [...]

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