The American Civil War will always be one of the most defining moments in United States history. Effects from the conflict are still being felt to this day as America continues to grapple with political division, inequality, and violence. The savageness of the war was not lost on its participants but in schools across the nation, the gory details of the battles that were fought are left out of discussions. Further, the truth about President Abraham Lincoln’s (1809-1865) decisions and actions is often told partially and the belief that he “freed the slaves” has held in place for decades. The truth is far more complicated and much darker. America has never been able to shake the ghost of the war and it continues to haunt us. Discussions and physical altercations have taken place over the presence of the Confederate flag and application of free speech. In 2015, South Carolina finally removed the Confederate flag from its capitol building after decades of protests. Supporters of the flag claimed that it was a symbol of heritage and not hate and had a historical relevance. Opponents of the flag believed that it was a constant reminder of an ugly chapter in American history. The Union’s victory in the war had given America an opportunity to effect profound change, but with hindsight we know that did not happen. The South slowly rebuilt itself and replaced slavery with the infamous Jim Crow. But if the war was over the issue of slavery and blacks had been given their freedom afterwards, then why did the Reconstruction Acts fail? The Republican party was determined to never see the Confederacy rise again and wanted blacks to obtain the rights, freedoms and opportunities that had been denied to them, through state governments and even federal policy under Democrat administrations. Their plans were ambitious but ultimately a failure. In 1961, John Hope Franklin (1915-2009) wrote this gripping account of the Reconstruction era following the Civil War and in it are the answers to questions readers may have about the crucial period after the United States came apart at the seams. This edition contains a foreword by American historian Eric Foner.
Lincoln did not live to see the war’s conclusion but his assassination on April 14, 1865, helped seal the fate of the Confederacy. His successor, Andrew Johnson (1808-1875) assumed the presidency and inherited a government that was on the verge of transforming American society in the wake of the war. But Johnson was a Southerner at heart and his actions helped derail reconstruction efforts. However, it is much too simple to demonize Johnson and ignore the actions of others who were determined to keep blacks disenfranchised, illiterate and in the grip of white supremacy. Even Lincoln himself had no desire to see blacks and whites on equal footing after the war. As Franklin explains:
“Lincoln’s plan excluded all blacks from participation either in oath-taking, voting, or holding office. Governments under presidential reconstruction were to be governments by white men.”
That might be hard for some to accept, in particular those who have always believed that Lincoln was a savior to blacks. Above all, Lincoln’s goal was to keep the Union intact and freedom for blacks and individual rights were sometimes an afterthought. Despite those shortcomings, Lincoln was an astute politician in his era. Though he lacked critical foresight on some matters, the Radical Republicans in his party did not and had they prevailed, Washington might have broken the back of the South for good. Thaddeus Stevens (1792-1868) was a member of the radicals and strong opponent of the president’s policies that allowed the South the recover and regain its strength. The battles between Johnson and Congress are explained and show that Washington was nearly at war with itself over the issue of reconstruction. If the radicals had been successful at impeachment, Johnson may have made an early exit from the White House. Almost from the beginning of his term, the former Confederate states knew that they would not be made to suffer brutally for the war and piece by piece, Republican efforts at reconstruction came apart. And as I read through the book, I began to see how the stage was set for nearly 100 years of racial unrest in America. Franklin captures the reality that set in for frustrated and outraged politicians in Washington when he states:
“The Confederacy was beaten, but it refused to die. The spirit of the South and the principles underlying it were very much alive. More than that, those who had fought against the Union were in control, pursuing most of their prewar policies as though there had never been a war. This was reconstruction, Confederate style!”
As the former Confederate states regain strength, their new goal began to prevent the education of blacks and suppression of rights that were guaranteed under federal law. And it is here that readers will see the origins of separate but equal and the widening of the gap in inequality that has reverberated for decades. The South spared no expense and went to any length to prevent blacks from being educated so that white supremacy would reign over all non-white individuals. Any tool that could be of use in this plan was utilized including extreme violence. The rise of the Ku Klux Klan, also discussed in the book, helped energize Southern racists determined to “keep blacks in their place”. Readers sensitive to descriptions of racial violence will find some sections challenging to read. However, Franklin pulls no punches and shows the ugly and demoralizing truth about Washington’s failures to help blacks and poor whites in the North and South. Some blacks were allowed to serve in Southern governments and hold positions of limited power but for millions, very little changed in way of life. And for those who were permitted to serve, the threat of violence was never far away. The law may have said blacks were free for all intents and purposes, the South continued as if nothing had changed. For blacks, 40 acres and a mule would have never been enough.
Some readers will find it astonishing that former members of the Confederacy who went to war with the Union were able to resume life as if the war never took place. Corruption and loyalty to the South cast a dark cloud over Reconstruction from the very beginning. But the Republicans did unleash their own arsenal in the battle to break the south. The Fourteenth Amendment takes center stage as the Radicals go on the attack against those who fought against America. Their onslaught was brutal and it is a miracle that a second war did not break out. In the years that followed the passage of the amendment, the battle heated up and Republicans refused to let up. As Franklin explains:
“If Democrats had betrayed their country during the war, Republicans had come close to destroying it during reconstruction. No holds were barred in the battle of 1876.”
The Republicans had their goal in sight but never fully reached it. The reasons are contained here in the book and as the years pass, the drive to reconstruct the South becomes more of a fairy tale than a reality. By the time the 1800s came to a close, the Reconstruction movement was nearly dead. Its demise and the resurgence of the South are some of the darkest and most regrettable moments in American history. For Republicans, their efforts had been exhausting and largely unsuccessful. To the North, the South’s resurgence and defiance of federal law were the ultimate betrayal of those who fought to save America. The Civil War had placed America in a position to effect true change and given the Republicans their chance to rebuild the Union as a true democracy for all people. Sadly, that did not happen and millions of blacks soon began to see that life in America would continue to be difficult and white supremacy was as powerful as it had been before. Franklin reaches the end of the discussion with these words that sum up the feeling held by many blacks who believed that they too could live the American dream:
“The party of great moral ideas,” said the editor T. Thomas Fortune, “relinquished its right to the respect and confidence of mankind when, in 1876, it abandoned all effort to enforce the provisions of the war amendments. . . . The black man, who was betrayed by his party and murdered by the opponents of his party, is absolved of all allegiance which gratitude may have dictated.”
If you are curious about the Reconstruction era, this book is must read and should have a place in classrooms across America. Highly recommended.
For more information on Reconstruction and in particular the early fight against the Ku Klux Klan, I strongly recommend Charles Lane’s Freedom’s Detective: The Secret Service, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Man Who Masterminded America’s First War on Terror , which will capture your attention from the start. The book is a phenomenal account of how Washington succeeded and failed at stopping an organization that began to terrorize America.