Thursday, April 8, 2010
The Bloody South
Those Terrible Carpetbaggers: A Reinterpretation (1982), Richard Nelson Current.
Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War (2006), Nicholas Lemann.
Junior high school and high school history classes of at least the first three-quarters of the 20th Century taught that after the South lost the Civil War, its soldiers returned home to depredations worse than any they had suffered on the fields of battle. For after the war, northerners with no experience or love for the South descended on her to make common cause with white race traitors called scalawags and ignorant, inferior freed slaves. The goal of these carpetbaggers was simple: To exploit a defeated, helpless region for political power and pecuniary gain. As the humiliations mounted, white southerners had no real choice but to resist by force of arms, however regrettable a turn to violence might be.
This wasn't only the account of textbooks and teachers. John Kennedy's Profiles in Courage offered an admiring account of Mississippi senator segregationist L. Q. C. Lamar and called Reconstruction a "black nightmare." (Lamar eventually ascended to the Supreme Court.)
The climax Birth of a Nation (1915), the first great full-length film, unapologetically showed a heroic band of Klansman rescuing Lillian Gish from attempted rape by a lascivious mulatto named Silas Lynch (possibly based on Mississippi Congressman John Lynch, whose distinguished and patriotic career included a ten-year stint in the Army begun at age 54). The Klan then intimidated freed slaves from voting, and everyone lived happily ever after. An impressed President Woodrow Wilson stated that the movie was "like writing history lightning. And my only regret is that it is all terribly true."
Gone With the Wind (1939) includes a brief scene in which a black carpetbagger anw white scalawag ridicule wounded Confederates making their way home. After the war, Ashley Wilkes leads a band of night riders to "clean out" an encampment of mostly black men, two of whom had attempted to assault Scarlett O'Hara. Melanie Hamilton observes with distaste that it is the kind of thing that "our Southern men" have had to be doing.
And many westerns included as a stock character a noble former Confederate who extended southern manners to fragile white women and who sometimes died protecting them from Indian hordes.
As it turns out, they all lied to us.
Post-Civil Rights movement Reconstruction scholarship turned its attention to extensive contemporaneous sources, including meticulous congressional investigations, state financial records, diaries and letters, and baldly racist newspapers that incited violence against blacks and Republicans. What they discovered painted a radically different picture than what we had been taught.
As Richard Nelson Current explains in Those Terrible Carpetbaggers, almost all of the carpetbaggers had military experience in the Civil War and remained in the south to seek their fortunes. Most regarded the freed slaves as inferior beings and questioned the wisdom of the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed black citizens the right to vote. Some, like Mississippi Governor Adelbert Ames, became radicalized by events; others, like the accommodating South Carolina Governor Daniel Chamberlain, became even more conservative. Though usually dealing with corrupt legislatures, all were by the standards of the time honest, and some scrupulously so.
Whether governor or county sheriff, they worked diligently to correct the lackadaisical fiscal standards of pre-War southern state governments and often allied with conservative Democrats to attract railroad interests to a state. They undertook public works projects ranging from roads to buildings to schools for the children of freed slaves. To finance the latter, the carpetbaggers taxed wealthy planters, who objected strenuously to their money educating former slaves.
But their insistence on equal political rights for the former slaves, who served as the base for post-War Republican politics, trumped all. Even the accommodationist Chamberlain discovered that in the end there was nothing he could do to co-opt Democrats bent on restoring a society based on race supremacy.
Lemann's book is the strongest at analyzing the motives of the ex-Confederates who exerted their will with increasingly gruesome violence. Southerners had long lived in fear of a slave uprising, and that fear carried forward after the war to include newly enfranchised blacks. Terrorism was constantly justified as having a rumored (but never proven) black uprising bent on massacring whites. How this might happen given that the blacks, being completely untrained and much less well-armed than the whites, was never considered.
In scene after scene, Redemption, which describes the race terror of the last two years of Reconstruction, examines the nature of the violence that repeated itself across the Deep South. Armed whites arrived at a heavily black Republican political rally looking for a pretext to disrupt it. At some point, a gun went off, which whites afterward usually attributed to an armed black. The whites began firing into the crowd, forcing it to disperse. They then spent the following days hunting black citizens, murdering them, whipping them, and forcing them to promise not to vote Republican. As a result, black Republican turnout dropped like a stone and the Conservative Democrats carried heavily Republican areas, gaining for themselves electoral majorities in State Houses.
Lemann suggests that repeated nature of these acts was too similar to be random, that a coordinated effort must have been at work. The White Leagues or White Liners as they called themselves, obtained up-to-date military technology, although the sources of that remain murky. Bands of paramilitary guerrillas calling themselves Redeemers crossed state lines to assist their white brethren in dirty work that they had all by now convinced themselves was a necessary and noble calling.
Budiansky leans especially hard on contemporary newspapers accounts to show how the media incited violence (this may sound familiar). His portraits of A. T. Morgan, the Republican sheriff of Yazoo County (MI), who married a mulatto schoolteacher and eventually fled for his life, and James Longstreet, the former Confederate general who sacrificed his reputation because he believed that the South must accept its defeat, are especially moving, as is his account of the Hamburg Massacre.
Why didn't the North intervene despite repeated calls from the carpetbagger governors for Federal troops? President Grant acted fairly decisively at first, but wearied of the constant requests for action. Scandals plaguing his administration returned northern Democrats to power, and they operated from a firm conviction that it was a state responsibility to enforce Constitutional rights. The North itself had little stomach for military action to enforce equal rights for blacks. The contested presidential election of 1876 put Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in office in exchange for and end to the federal prsence in the South and thus an end to Reconstruction. This, of course, opened the way to the Jim Crow laws that the Civil Rights movement successfully brought down after a century of lynchings, abject poverty, and subjugation enforced by the Ku Klux Klan.
So, while the South lost the Civil War, it won the bloody aftermath and left the nation with a legacy from which it is still recovering. When the Governor of Virginia proclaims that April as Confederate History Month and fails to include slavery as a cause of the Civil War, one cannot help but wonder whether the wounds will ever heal and if the children of the perpetrators will ever admit to their forebears responsibility for opening the wounds. Yes, the governor caved in to pressure and changed the language of the proclamation. But we already know where his heart is.