Dearth of a Nation

In the American-history textbook I used in my public high school, the chapter that covered Reconstruction included a photo of Thaddeus Stevens, the nineteenth-century radical Republican congressman from Pennsylvania, who appeared, to judge by the evidence of this daguerreotype, to have been in a foul mood. I distinctly remember how the photo’s caption referenced Stevens’s glowering, stormy countenance as an outward and visible sign of his spiteful scorn for the vanquished Confederacy. As far as the textbook’s authors were concerned, such vengeance—and only such vengeance—accounted for what they seemed to believe was overly harsh and restrictive federal rule over the South in the years immediately following Appomattox and the Lincoln assassination.

Bear in mind that I had come across this picture sometime in the school year of 1968–69, by which time Martin Luther King Jr. had lived and died, as had so many other civil rights leaders, activists, and dreamers. But even in the relatively enlightened New England city that raised and schooled me, the idea of Yankee conquerors unfairly strong-arming postbellum Southern whites was so embedded in the American mind that it was all but taken for granted. This was true even in my predominantly black, inner-city high school—though I do remember a furtive question lurking, unarticulated, deep within my fifteen-year-old head: Why, exactly, was it a bad thing to be hard on the South for going to war over enslaving black people? As best as I can recall, nobody else in my class asked the question, either—at least not out loud.

By the late 1960s, there had been scholars—notably the peerless W. E. B. Du Bois—who’d produced persuasive counternarratives about Reconstruction that, among other things, exalted the farsightedness of Stevens and his Massachusetts ally in the Senate, Charles Sumner. Nevertheless, the consensus view of the postbellum years still treated Reconstruction as an experiment that failed mostly because of duplicitous, vindictive, or (at best) naive white liberals and brutish, lazy, or (at best) ill-prepared freed slaves.

In the age of Obama, it’s easy to share the exasperation filtering through Douglas R. Egerton’s The Wars of Reconstruction, the latest and fiercest corrective to this outworn and inaccurate assessment of the brief interlude of congressional rule over the South that introduced a faint measure of racial justice to the former Confederacy. Egerton’s account rides upon the shoulders of such notable predecessors as Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution (1988), Leon Litwack’s Been in the Storm So Long (1979), and Du Bois’s groundbreaking Black Reconstruction in America (1935)—a tour de force that Egerton rightly exalts as the first historical work to rehabilitate the tarnished reputations of Stevens and Sumner, and also to focus upon what Du Bois viewed as Reconstruction’s “real hero”: “the slave . . . being emancipated.”

Thomas Nast’s The Emancipation of the Negroes, January 1863—the Past and the Future, an illustration from Harper’s Weekly.
Thomas Nast’s The Emancipation of the Negroes, January 1863—the Past and the Future, an illustration from Harper’s Weekly.

Egerton’s narrative doesn’t equivocate in naming Reconstruction’s villains, victims, and heroes. The latter two groups were too often interchangeable. They included former slaves who tried to claim their rights to vote, own property, earn fair wages, and secure decent education for themselves and their families; black and white schoolteachers who were threatened, assaulted, and, in some cases, murdered for trying to help black children and their parents shake off the illiteracy forced upon them by the “peculiar institution”; and white legislators, magistrates, and soldiers who were resolved at all levels of government to enforce postwar guarantees of civil liberties to newly enfranchised black citizens.

All of these efforts, and hundreds more like them, came about in pretty much the most unaccommodating national political environment one could imagine, short of outright Confederate rule: They were obstructed at almost every turn by the pro-Union, pro-slavery accidental president Andrew Johnson, whom one political observer of the time branded “as decided a hater of the negro . . . as the rebels from whom he had separated.”

Still, Johnson’s attitudes—or his veto power, for that matter—couldn’t stop the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1866. Along with the passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, this landmark law cracked open possibilities for a more just and equal society that have taken an unconscionably long time to find their way into the legal codes of Southern states. As Egerton notes, the state of Mississippi didn’t actually ratify the Thirteenth Amendment—you know, the one officially abolishing chattel slavery in the United States—until 1995.

Stevens, Sumner, and the other congressional backers of Reconstruction have lately enjoyed a surge of more positive renown, thanks to their sympathetic portrayal in Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film, Lincoln. But our major film directors have yet to catch up with such little-noted and long-forgotten African American enablers of democracy as Tunis Campbell. A New Jersey–born minister and abolitionist, Campbell went on to serve as a Reconstruction-era justice of the peace, political organizer, and state senator, helping black Georgians secure and protect their property. He was also among the first black men elected to office between 1866 and 1876—a crucial breakthrough of racial illumination and insight that would take almost a century to repeat. Egerton’s book is thorough and cogent in re-creating the stories of these fearless, articulate, and conscientious black activists and politicians. In addition to his mini-biography of Campbell, Egerton furnishes vivid thumbnail portraits of Mississippi US senators Hiram R. Revels and Blanche K. Bruce, South Carolina secretary of state Francis L. Cardozo, and P. B. S. Pinchback, who was governor of Louisiana for a scant but momentous thirty-five days. Egerton’s achievement here stirs fresh indignation over the deplorable depiction of black Reconstruction politicians in D. W. Griffith’s 1915 masterwork of racist propaganda, The Birth of a Nation, as drunken, subhuman louts.

But as Egerton makes clear, the pre-emancipation view of black people as sub- or nonhuman persisted and, to some extent, prevailed after the Civil War. White mobs in the South carried out violent, murderous acts against freed slaves and anyone who dared to help them. Not even women and children were spared such savagery. In at least one instance, whites breaking into a black man’s rural Southern home settled for shooting the man’s wife in the head after they couldn’t find him. In May 1866, a group of working-class white rioters in Memphis assaulted black Civil War veterans “and then turned their rage on the institutions those soldiers had protected: schools and churches” (by setting them on fire).

Nor was such bigotry and brutality confined to the South. Slavery may have been long gone from Northern states, but that didn’t forestall racial segregation on horsecars and in other public facilities; in states like New York, travel was segregated “by custom.” And in 1871, Octavius Catto, a thirty-one-year-old teacher, intellectual, and civil rights activist, died after he was shot three times in the back at close range on the streets of Philadelphia by an Irishman during an Election Day dispute over voting rights.

After a while, the grim progression of such incidents wears you down—nearly to the point that the specter of “Redemption,” the corrupt cessation of Reconstruction in exchange for Rutherford B. Hayes’s election to the presidency in 1877, can seem a reversion to some semblance of order, if not justice, equality, or peace. But that’s also a mirage: With federal oversight essentially lifted from the states of the former Confederacy, their white-supremacist leaders were able to “win” the peace through several generations of terror, violence, and indignity visited through custom and law upon African Americans.

Apologists for the South have long viewed the Compromise of 1877 as both inevitable and just. The Wars of Reconstruction begs to differ. Egerton cites the grim testimony of Robert Smalls—the ex-slave whose escape from Charleston Harbor to federal warships in 1862 would also make a swell movie someday—who estimated that some fifty-three thousand African Americans had been murdered, mostly in the South, between 1863, when Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and 1887, when Smalls gave up his seat in the House of Representatives.

There would, of course, be more to come. As Egerton’s title implies, these slain African Americans were all casualties of an ongoing war that, depending on where you stand and whom you ask, may not be over yet. The Wars of Reconstruction moves into more recent installments of this battle as it recounts the efforts of white Southerners to deny or revise the region’s postwar history. One important measure of this trend is the enormous number of statues and monuments devoted to Confederate generals and politicians versus the comparative handful of memorials devoted to the black activists who died seeking their democratic rights.

However, Egerton stops short of engaging the contemporary resonances of the Reconstruction wars, which could encompass New York City’s stop-and-frisk policing regime, the killing of Trayvon Martin, the not-always-subtle racist sniping at our twice-elected incumbent African American president, and the Supreme Court’s recent decision to allow states, many of them Southern, to reverse protections mandated by the 1965 Voting Rights Act. That may be the only significant oversight in this impassioned and comprehensive history of an era that was for far too long subject to far too many rank distortions and racist fabrications minted by the official guardians of our political tradition. It’s true that fighting for dignity—to be acknowledged as a human being—may not be as glamorous or as sexy to the popular imagination as fighting in a real, live shooting war. But as Egerton makes urgently clear, these are the fights that matter far more to a democracy’s survival—and to the discovery of one’s own true life horizons.

Gene Seymour has written about movies, music, politics, and other distractions for The Nation, Film Comment, the Washington Spectator, and the Los Angeles Times. He lives in Washington, DC.