I Got Them Master’s Degree Reconstruction Blues!

142543-004-EAF35766It is one thing to be a Civil War buff, and another to get a Master’s degree in Military History. When I decided to write a biography of Elmer Ellsworth, I envisioned the inside flap of the book jacket. I asked myself, “Which sounds better–‘Meg Thompson, Civil War buff’ or ‘Meg Thompson, Historian?'” I went with Historian.

Almost five years later I can see the light at the end of the Military History tunnel, and it has been a challenging and wonderful trip–until now.

APU (American Public University) asks a Master’s candidate to take a core of courses in her subject, which is reasonable. My set goes from Ante-Bellum America to Reconstruction, with lots of Civil War in between. My professors are fantastic, my grades are good, my work is both challenging and satisfying–everything was wonderful until this term. This term I am taking Reconstruction (insert tolling bell).help1.bmp

Like most of you, if I may assume, Reconstruction was a bit hazy in my mind. It was after the war, was messy, and no one liked it, but it went away and, after all, slavery had been eradicated, three amendments had been added to the Constitution to make sure all went well, and America was becoming a world power. This was a case where, indeed, ignorance was bliss.

Now not so much. My stack of books by Eric Foner is over a foot tall and Paul Ortiz is one of my new gods. I have never in my life cried so much about events over which I have absolutely no control. I have begun to wonder just why the North ever thought the war was won, and this has caused me hours of angst and grief.

Eric Foner--Reconstructionist Extraordinaire
Eric Foner–Reconstructionist Extraordinaire

00000606In short, immediately after the war ended, Lincoln was killed, and I do not think there has ever been a more cataclysmic event in American history since the Declaration. Andrew Johnson was a Democrat and a racist, but he tried to administer Reconstruction as well as he could. The problem? Johnson was not very good at his job. Initially, black people could vote and were treated with a little more equality under the law, but as soon as each seceded state had its constitutional convention, wrote its new charter, and was received back into the Union, all hell broke loose.

What black people endured during Reconstruction and into the Jim Crow era, what little armed service in the Civil War, World War I or World War II meant, how men and women fought and died simply to cast a ballot, do a job, work in a safe environment, live in something other than squalor, be able to give their children the education they had been denied . . . there are not words enough, or tears, to describe. There have been times when the thought that slavery had at least been safer went through my mind, and that is an appalling concept!ah3_p124

No course, no books, no series of events or collection of words, has ever made me so sad, so angry, or so confused in my life as has this course. Even the Forums are different. Usually they are a lively discussion of which general was the most talented, why outflanking someone was so important to the outcome of the battle, or how common soldiers changed as they fought into four years of war. This time our Forum is silent, for the most part. I certainly do not know what to say. Even when someone offers a worthy insight, it is usually so awful that I just bow my head.

KKK lynchingI am beginning to question this war we all love so much. Again and again I hear, and write, that the two goals of the Union were to reunite America and end slavery. Before this course I assumed both goals had been met. I did not think anything could be worse than chattel slavery. If not worse, then Reconstruction, and all the years after it up to now, was equally terrible.

White Voters, remember!

White Supremacy

is being assaulted in our midst, and the most


                                                           institutions of the South

                                                           are being undermined by the enemy from within![1]

Frederick Douglass was not the only black man to speak with power and authority, but heMotto_frederick_douglass_2 is one of my favorites. “Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”

That we, as a society, have moved no further toward inclusion than we have makes me question whether or not those 750,000 or more Civil War soldiers did not die in vain. Because of this class, I have been, and continue to be, shaken to my core. If we claim to be students of the Civil War in order to honor those men who gave their “last, full measure,” then we should do better.Lynching_of_Laura_Nelson,_May_1911

When someone questions just why I choose to study war, I think I may now have an answer. It is only by studying the causes of war, and its aftermath, that we truly become aware of the sacrifice that war truly is. By understanding this sacrifice, hopefully we will value it, and think deeply before we ask others to make it again. And once made, we should remember that it should never be in vain.Lynching-1889

We simply have to do better. War is not glorious, but it is honorable, and sometimes necessary. Wherever you are in the world, please be aware, read, speak up against injustice, and vote. Build strength and competence and stand united. Now, more than ever, black lives matter–because all lives matter.

“Southern Trees Bear Strange Fruit”  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P8Lq_yasEgo

[1] “White Voters,” Miami Herald, November 1, 1920.

15 Responses to I Got Them Master’s Degree Reconstruction Blues!

  1. The Revolution founded the nation and the Civil War ended slavery, both among the greatest accomplishments of history. Both were a matter of altering governing institutions and laws through force in order to bring them into line with foundational principles. One could wish that these goals were accomplished with less sacrifice, but that seemed the only way for fallible humans to do it. What these conflicts did not accomplish, at least not immediately or completely, was the eradication of prejudice—a matter not just of institutions and laws, but of the human heart and therefore a far more difficult task. They were, however, a necessary precondition to that harder job and significantly advanced it. In the same sense, the Civil Rights movement of the last century further modified the laws, but this time with no war and very little violence, so we must have learned something. Again one could wish that it had happened quicker and with less suffering; Reconstruction was truly terrible. But we can’t change history, only try to understand it as you are doing so we can influence the present, and, God willing, build on the blood, sweat, and tears of our ancestors to make the future even better. Look at the entire four hundred years of this country’s history, starting with refugees seeking freedom and justice as they understood it, and here we are now with the most free, most diverse, most prosperous society in human history. There is always more to do, but that’s something to be proud of, even and perhaps especially given all the suffering it required.

    1. I am certain that I will come to this opinion–it is the one with which I started, and I love this particular time in history. But—it is a tough road just now!

  2. I went back for my M.A. in history at Wake Forest University, while working full-time. Five years later I was finished, and while I never regretted it, doubt it would do it again. It was important to me then, not so much now. I worked under Buck Yearns, and had a directed reading course, 5,000 pages, on Reconstruction. I agree it is a little understood and tragic period of our history, and we still feel faint ripples of it today.

    1. I am almost finished with my Master’s, and it has been a long 5 years for me as well. This particular course has thrown me for a loop, however. Sometimes the ripples aren’t so faint.

  3. Tragic yes. Your view is rather one-sided and does not question the punitive and humiliating measures of the Federal government to the former Confederacy or the crime of using the Freemen as pawns to facilitate this thus creating a backlash of hate and violence.

    1. The more I read, the less I believe that what you say is true:
      Richard Lowe, “Local Black Leaders During Reconstruction in Virginia,” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 103, no. 2 (April 1995).
      Barry A. Crouch, “‘Unmanacling’ Texas Reconstruction” A Twenty-Year Perspective.” The Southwestern Texas Quarterly, vol. 8, no. 3 (January 1990).
      Gilles Vandal, “Property Offenses, Social Tension and Racial Antagonism in Post-Civil War Rural Louisiana,” Journal of Social History, Vol. 31, No. 1 (Autumn, 1997).
      Horace Mann Bond, “Social and Economic Forces in Alabama Reconstruction,” The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 23, No. 3 (Jul., 1938).

      1. Of the twelve U.S. infantry regiment stationed in South Carolina during the Reconstruction, eleven of them were U.S. Colored Troops. While I realize they were U.S. soldiers, this can hardly be thought to not being humiliating and punitive to the white community and thus retarding reconciliation. Remember the restrictions on former Confederates- not being able to vote, carry firearms, serve in certain occupations. Nothing less than a recipe for bitterness, resentment, and retaliation.
        Contrast this with the New York Draft Riot violence which was perpetrated by white New Yorkers.
        It would seem the objective historian would examine and report the conditions of all involved in the period know as “Reconstruction.”

      2. David, there were 12 US regiments stationed in South Carolina in June, 1865– of that number, 7 were USCTs. By 1867, however, there were the equivalent of only 2 regiments in SC– 1 regiment and a battalion of whites and 1 battalion of USCTs. By 1876, when Hayes was elected and started the process of withdrawing troops, there were no whole regiments in the state, just scattered posts equaling about 700 men. I understand your point about how Southerners could see USCTs as punitive in garrison duty, but to say these troops served during the entirety of Reconstruction is off-base. My source for all these numbers is James Sefton’s “The United States Army and Reconstruction,” pages 261-262.
        Thanks as always for posting– conversations like these are more than welcome at ECW!

  4. To understand that gap in time betweeen the Grand Review and coming home, I would suggest Brian Matthew’s book, “Marching Home..Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War”. The Union veterans suffered greater hardships that Viet Nam vets, having no V.A. or social programs to help them adjust. Many one legged vets suffering PTSD. Then to see Johnson coddle the south and return them to Congress and let them get away with lynchings and anti freeman activities was another slap in the face. At the exact time we needed the strongest leader in our history, ours was being buried in Springfield. And Mr. Corbett I do say coddled. I would have been more punitive if I were in blue coated shoes.

    1. I read this book, and I agree that it is compelling–very much so. It has given me ideas for personal research concerning the VA and hospital care, especially. One idea that has occurred to me is that perhaps southern vets grabbed “righteous anger” as a way to deal with these same post-war issues. I don’t know–it plain bumfuzzles me.

      I agree that I would have been more punitive–my reading indicates to me that the South understood punishment pretty well.

  5. I too am working on a project for Reconstruction this spring. What becomes readily apparent is that 1) The South got off too easy– it was easy for them to jump into Redemption and Jim Crow because there were next to no ramifications for causing the recent unpleasantness. 2) It was the US Army that maintained the rights of freed persons in the aftermath of the war, and they needed to stay in the South longer– as soon as they were gone in 1877, everything fell even further apart. When we look at events like the Little Rock Nine, etc, in the future, the common denominator is the army protecting the rights and freedoms of minorities to enjoy the full privileges of American citizenship.

  6. I agree–when you look at images of units of the best warriors in the world, warriors who won world wars, being used to protect small children who only want to go to school–it is soul-wrenching. I cannot fathom this degree of hatred–maybe Holocaust survivors against the Nazis–and these are Americans who hate Americans–my brain turns to jelly sometimes.

  7. You can mistreat people with a clear conscience if you do not accept the fact they are indeed, fully human, just like you. This was the pillar on which slavery stood, and the only protection the slave had was paternalism. After emancipation, goodbye paternalism. Most whites, and I would include north and south, still viewed blacks as less than fully human after emancipation, so it was not hard for the unreconstructed to redeem, and for the North to turn its gaze elsewhere.

  8. Thanks to Meg for a very moving, insightful, and sobering commentary. One could also suggest that an event almost as cataclysmic as the assassination of Lincoln was the outcome of the election of 1876.

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