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Reconstruction: The Continuing Civil War?

I have long thought that the surrender of the Confederacy’s field armies in the spring of 1865 and the final collapse of the effort to secure the independence of the Confederate States of America to be as much a moment of transition as a definite end to conflict. After all, one could argue that much – too much – remained unanswered at that time. Sure, the Union was preserved, but how would one define that Union? Surely it was not the same Union that existed in 1860. And if emancipation throughout the American republic took root during the American Civil War, it remained unclear as to what exactly freedom meant for some four million African Americans who could celebrate the final death of slavery with the ratification of the 13th Amendment in December 1865.

That said, it is clear that peace did not come in the spring of 1865. Rather, the conflict underwent a transformation. To be sure, there would be no large-scale gray-clad field armies operating across the American South, but even by the summer of 1865 there was growing evidence of continued, low-level violence and clashes that within a year would spark a series of major violent outbreaks at Memphis, New Orleans, and elsewhere. The development of local white supremacist terrorist groups and the advent of the Ku Klux Klan promised a renewal of hostile resistance to efforts to establish civil (let alone political) rights for adult African American males: it’s worthwhile to remember that these outbreaks came well before Congress passed the Reconstruction Acts of 1867, and so they cannot be justified as a way to protect “home rule” and “social order” from Republican legislative initiatives. Violence played a major role in several elections over the next ten years, from Georgia in 1868 through North Carolina in 1870-71, South Carolina in 1871-72 and 1876, Louisiana from 1872 to 1877, Mississippi in 1874-75, and other former Confederate states. Klan violence (as Jim Hogue has pointed out in an essay posted on this blog) morphed into paramilitary resistance; there were attempts, some successful, to conduct a coup d’etat in several states; by 1877 Republicans in the North had admitted frustration with the failure of federal intervention to secure black rights in the postwar South.

In short, if we limit our definition of the American Civil War to the period 1861-1865, we do ourselves a disservice in historical understanding. There was violence before (Bleeding Kansas, John Brown) and violence after (Reconstruction). What happened during Reconstruction helped shaped what the Civil War achieved (and what it didn’t achieve), and perhaps its time that people who profess to be interested in the Civil War take a new and broader look at the extended conflict. One may recall John B. Gordon’s performance at the surrender triangle near Appomattox Court House, but how many of you recall Gordon’s participation in the overthrow of the Republican regime in Georgia? And yet the latter fact demonstrates the conditional and limited submission evident in the former image.

Comments (3) to “Reconstruction: The Continuing Civil War?”

  1. It was pretty simple wasn’t it? The South would fight on for white supremacy, but not for the Confederacy. The North was prepared to fight for the Union, but not racial equality. So the difference in aims is pretty clear; the question then is of means and methods. We are told that the reason the Confederacy relied primarily on conventional armies is the fact that southern society was not suited to guerrilla war–and yet there it was in Reconstruction. Would it be too much to describe the Southern Democratic party as a terrorist organization? Indeed, ask the folks in East Tennessee of the Unionist region of Texas if the Confederacy engaged in terrorism and you would probably get an emphatically affirmative response.

  2. The low-intensity conflict of the pre and post Civil War just doesn’t grab the imagination the way the usual battles and campaigns do. In a retelling of battle, one can block out the messy political/social/etc reasons for what’s going on and just dwell on the action. And so we get this image of a conflict that ended in 1865 with all problems solved. As if.

  3. It’s interesting that Jesse James does grab the imagination, but that most people still don’t think of him as a white supremacist terrorist. You can see a lot of continuity from the Kansas conflict in the 1850s, through the guerrilla war in Missouri during the civil war, to the operations of the James-Younger gang and other bushwhacker veterans in the reconstruction era.