The War of Reconstruction
(Cross-posted from Blog Them Out of the Stone Age)
After Colfax: Gathering the dead and wounded
My colleague Hasan Jeffries and I are organizing a conference, to be held at the Mershon Center on November 9-11, entitled “The War for the American South, 1865-1968.” About a third of the nearly dozen discussants are military historians; of the rest, all but one are historians of Reconstruction or the Civil Rights movement. (The one is a political scientist who specializes in the Zimbabwean liberation struggle, because I thought a comparative case might be useful.)
Like the “History of War in Global Perspective” conference a couple of years ago, this one will take the form of four structured conversations. To help make the most of these conversations, I’ve asked each of the nearly dozen discussants to suggest one or two article- or chapter-length readings for us to read ahead of time. This morning I received a paper from discussant James K. Hogue, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and author of Uncivil War: Five New Orleans Street Battles and the Rise and Fall of Radical Reconstruction, which was just published by Louisiana State University Press. The paper, entitled “The 1873 Battle of Colfax: Paramilitarism and Counterrevolution in Louisiana,” nicely captures why it makes sense to speak of a war for the American South after 1865.
The paper begins:
In 1873, in the town of Colfax, Louisiana, a thirteen day siege, battle, and massacre took place between black and white Civil War veterans that played a critical role in destroying Radical Reconstruction, not only in Grant Parish and Louisiana but throughout the states of the former Confederacy. In April of that year, hundreds of armed black militia and their families flocked to the parish seat; commandeered the parish courthouse; and formed themselves into organized squads and companies. Like any well organized militia of their day, they drilled in the streets; dug entrenchments; attempted to procure heavy weapons and reserves; and posted sentries to defend the limits of the area they commanded. Their leader, William Ward, was a former slave and a veteran of the Union Army. He was also the acknowledged black political leader of the parish, a state representative, and captain of a state militia company. Within days, a white paramilitary force from Grant Parish and the surrounding parishes gathered in the hundreds at an armed camp near the town. At last, they issued an ultimatum threatening an assault if the militia did not promptly vacate the town. Their leader, Captain C. C. Nash, was in some ways a curious mirror-image of his black counterpart: a captain in the Confederate army, Nash was a veteran of thirty six engagements in the Civil War– and apparently a number of vigilante actions in Louisiana since then. Before it was over, this showdown on the Red River resulted in the call-up of units from the Radical-controlled state militia, a military occupation by units of the federal Army, and a tragic anticlimax in a landmark case decided in the Supreme Court of the United States that defined the constitutional scope of the Fourteenth Amendment. But to understand the battle of Colfax first requires a deeper understanding of the historical forces at work in the wake of the Second American Revolution.
Hogue uses Colfax to illustrate the point that “at the grass roots level, Reconstruction as a revolutionary process was not so much ‘unfinished’ [to use Eric Foner’s well-known characterization] . . . as it was destroyed . . . like a house (or perhaps even more appropriately, a church) that was burned to the ground and whose inhabitants were massacred, exiled, or terrorized into submission. It makes little sense to map out the historical progress of Reconstruction as a revolutionary experience without at the same time delineating the actions of counterrevolutionary forces dedicated to effacing that progress.”
Hogue, a former Army officer, suggests that “one way to make sense of the dynamics of revolution and counterrevolution in Reconstruction might be to see the era as a kind of protracted civil war after the Civil War, whose ultimate prize was not an independent Southern nation, but the re-establishment of power over local and state governments across the former Confederacy.” Unfortunately, he says, existing scholarship has largely failed to see Reconstruction as falling within the purview of the American military experience:
For most historians of war, the era of Reconstruction — following directly on the heels of America’s largest and most dramatic war — scarcely seems to exist at all. Russell Weigley, probably the best known historian of the United States Army in the second half of the twentieth century, did not consider the Army’s role in Reconstruction significant enough to merit a passage, let alone a chapter, in his The American Way of War, even though Reconstruction lasted longer than the Civil War (twelve years versus five); embroiled the U.S. Army in a string of national crises revolving around civil-military relations (the impeachment of Andrew Johnson and the question of “bayonet rule” in both the national elections of 1872 and 1876); and consumed a significant portion of the attention of the Army’s leadership after the Civil War.
The failure of historians of war to treat Reconstruction with the same degree of attention that it has received from other historians stems in part from the conceptual problem of violence in Reconstruction. For many — if not most — military historians, defining a particular historical episode as “war” demands the presence of massed armies fighting great battles for organized governments. Reconstruction never presented so tidy a picture. After Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Confederate veterans never again took up arms in the hope of winning Southern independence from the United States. Nonetheless, their willingness to take up arms after 1865 became the cornerstone for numerous campaigns against local and state governments in the South that helped overthrew Reconstruction’s achievements “from the bottom up.” While not every Confederate veteran became a violent enemy of Reconstruction, every violent campaign against Reconstruction crystallized around the leadership and participation of Confederate veterans.