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Losing the Peace

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We enjoyed celebrating the 150th anniversary of crushing treason in defense of slavery. Time to start bemoaning the 150th anniversary of losing the peace.

As Reconstruction got underway, former Confederates again and again invoked their interpretation of the Appomattox terms, and particularly the “remain undisturbed” clause, as a shield against social change. Republican efforts to give freedpeople a measure of equality and opportunity and protection were met by white Southern protests that such a radical agenda was a betrayal of the Appomattox agreement — that the prospect of black citizenship, as one Virginia newspaper put it, “molests and disturbs us.”

None of Lee’s lieutenants did more to register such protests than John Brown Gordon, a leader of Georgia’s Ku Klux Klan and future senator and governor. In his 1871 congressional testimony, he gave a stalwart defense of his region against charges of brutality and lawlessness, repeatedly invoking the Appomattox terms. Back in April 1865, Gordon argued, Confederates had been gratified by the “deferential” treatment they received at the surrender. “We should not be disturbed, so long as we obeyed the laws”: this was the pledge, Gordon said, that Grant had made to the Confederates. Peace would have come swiftly and surely, Gordon continued, if Radicals had not betrayed the spirit of Appomattox by telling Confederates “your former slaves are better fitted to administer the laws than you are.”

Trafficking in the toxic myth that congressional Reconstruction was a time of white Southern prostration and vindictive “black rule,” Gordon claimed, “our people feel that the faith which was pledged to them has been violated.” Southerners were “disturbed” by the congressional program, “deprived of rights which we had inherited — which belonged to us as citizens of the country.” If they had known what indignities and disabilities awaited them, Gordon surmised, Confederates would not have surrendered on April 9, 1865.

Gordon’s message was clear: The only way to restore peace was to leave the white South alone to manage its own affairs.

I believe April 10, 1865 marks the day when the Civil War stopped being about slavery for the white South.

Also, thanks to Malaclypse for uncovering the above image, which is pretty much my favorite image in U.S. history.

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