Echoes of The Reconstruction Era: July 2020

ECW is pleased to welcome back guest author Patrick Young, author of The Reconstruction Era Blog.

No period in United States history echoes as truly today as the Reconstruction Era. While many see contemporary parallels in the Civil War, let’s face it, we are not arguing in 2020 about whether African Americans should be slaves nor will we soon see state forces violently attack Federal installations. However, we do hear heated arguments over the voting rights of non-white Americans, the citizenship status of the children of immigrants, and the policing of people of color. These were all central to the political and legal history of Reconstruction. While the 13th Amendment’s status has been secure for over 150 years, the 14th and 15th Amendments from the Re-Founding Fathers have lain in contested territory since they were ratified.

The other echo of Reconstruction is the sound of the bullet. We will not see massed armies a la Gettysburg in 2020, but we have seen increasing violence of a sort. Over the coming months I will discuss my research on the Reconstruction Era, alert you to new resources where you can explore the world the Civil War created, and I will review emerging scholarship on this crucial time when African American voices were heard as more than chattel slaves.

Over the last month my Reconstruction Era Blog has been looking at how Southerners welcomed Union troops into the heart of the Confederacy, joined the Union armies by the thousands, and celebrated the reunion of South and North. The Confederacy was riven by dissenters from its war effort. Confederate partisans knew that in many regions, a majority of the population looked to the Union for liberation.

To understand why Southerners of African descent were often overjoyed by the arrival of Union troops, I looked at an article from the pro-Confederate Tri-Weekly State Gazette from Austin Texas.  The article comes from the summer of 1863, and it describes race relations in the year after New Orleans was liberated by combined Union naval and land forces. The newspaper says that African Americans in New Orleans are now “as free here as in Boston.” It complains that white women sometimes cannot find seats on trains because Blacks can now sit in the same cars as whites.

The reporter complains that African Americans, always barred from testifying against whites during slave times, were now able to speak in court and give evidence. The article is particularly concerned that Black servants might now disclose the pro-Confederate utterances of their white employers. In the example given, the newspaper alleges that a Black woman testified that a white woman had played the pro-Confederate song Bonnie Blue Flag. While the newspaper hoped to convey the hell that New Orleans had become for white people, any Texas slave hearing the report would assume that the Crescent City was heaven!

The recruitment of Black men into the Union Army began in earnest in 1863. African American soldiers suffered discrimination in pay and promotion. Barred in almost all cases from being commissioned as officers, Black soldiers served under white officers. While they were treated badly at times, the newly enlisted men of the United States Colored Troops had friends and defenders. I recently found a circular from the Commissioner for the Organization of Colored Troops in Tennessee telling racists to stay away from applying to serve as officers! He insisted that “it is the aim…to make colored troops equal” to whites. Officers who disdained their men were not suitable for the USCT.

While everyone reading this is likely familiar with “The Brave Black Regiment,” the 54th Massachusetts, which other Black regiments do you know? I have profiled one outfit, the 26th USCT, recruited in New York State, with men from Long Island to Ithaca. With one veteran of the regiment buried just a few miles from my home in Westbury on Long island, this was a tribute to a “neighbor.”

One of the greatest days in many Southern communities in 1865 was the day the first Black company or regiment marched into town. This was the moment Black Southerners could see their dreams of the “bottom rail on top” realized for the first time in their lives. The Augusta Daily Constitutionalist, a pro-Confederate newspaper from Georgia, gave a brief account of the formerly enslaved people of Augusta turning out to greet a regiment that included many former slaves from South Carolina.

After the war ended and the army freed slaves still illegally held in bondage, Southerners of African Descent began to organize celebrations and ceremonies to mark their demand for full incorporation in American life.

One myth I have heard a lot about was that the City of Vicksburg in Mississippi stopped celebrating the Fourth of July during the Civil War and did not resume observing the holiday for eight decades. It is true that many white Vicksburgers stopped recognizing the holiday. The Confederate Army in Vicksburg surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant on July 4, 1863. This defeat, and the Confederate failure at Gettysburg the day before, would come to be seen as the beginning of the end of the Slaveholders’ Rebellion.

White people in the city stopped holding fireworks shows and they kept their businesses open on the holiday. But the myth that Fourth of July celebrations ended is true if only white lives matter. African Americans in the city celebrated July 4th every year during Reconstruction, even though their observances were sometimes violently attacked by white supremacists. For them it was their day of liberation from slavery.

The same pattern was seen in locations across the former Confederacy. Whites who had allied with the rebellion sometimes either ignored the holiday or mocked those who observed it. African Americans reinvigorated the Glorious Fourth with parades, festivals, and programs promoting civic participation. You can read about that here.

Leave a comment telling me what you learned in school about the subjects I covered in this month’s column. Was this taught at all?




18 Responses to Echoes of The Reconstruction Era: July 2020

  1. I’m afraid my own schooling is so far in the distant past I don’t recall, but I think that even in Maine, we were still pretty Dunning the 1970s.

    Teaching now, I remade my unit on Reconstruction with the new materials coming out for the 150th, including yours, Pat!

    1. I am glad some of it is helpful Matt. I re-read my old history text “The Oxford History of the American People” and even though it was was written by a couple of Northerners, it was heavily influenced by Dunning.

      1. I structured the unit after Foner’s article in the Atlantic a few years back. But the students responds to individuals’ stories and voices the most.

  2. Reconstruction was glossed over so fast in high school history classes that I have no recollection of anything being taught about it. Thanks for the good work you are doing on such an important topic, Pat.

  3. My primary and secondary education took place in Alabama during the 60’s. I do not recall what text was used, but I do know I emerged from that time with a very positive view of Lincoln, and of the Reconstruction period. As I recall it was in 4th and 5th grade that this history began to be taught, and continued through my high school years. It wasn’t until I began to peruse primary sources on my own that I came to realize the period of Reconstruction was not motivated primarily by egalitarian ideals. Here are a few quotes, often suppressed by today’s historians, to provide some much needed balance and transparency:

    “Underneath all the avowed [Republican] motives . . . lay a deeper cause . . . the determination to secure party ascendency and control at the South and in the nation through the negro vote. If this is hard saying, let anyone now ask himself . . . if it is possibly credible that the [1867] reconstruction acts would have passed if the negro vote had been believed to be Democratic.” Daniel Chamberlain, the last Carpetbag governor of South Carolina.

    “[Given universal black suffrage in the South] . . . a majority of [the former Rebel] States will within twelve months, send here Senators and Representatives who think as we think, speak as we speak, and vote as we vote, and will give their electoral votes for whoever we nominate for President in 1868.”
    Massachusetts’s junior senator and Grant’s second VP, Republican Henry Wilson.

    “Since reconstruction, the masses of my people have been . . enslaved in mind by unprincipled adventurers, who, caring nothing for country, were willing to stoop to anything, no matter how infamous, to secure power to themselves and perpetuate it. My people are naturally republicans and always will be, but as they grow older in freedom so do they in wisdom. A great portion of them have learned that they were being used as mere tools, and, as in the late election, not being able to correct the existing evil among themselves, they determined, by casting their ballots against these unprincipled adventurers, to overthrow them… In almost every instance these men who have aided us have been cried down by the socalled republican officials in power in the State. My people have been told by these schemers when men were placed upon the ticket who were notoriously corrupt and dishonest, that they must vote for them; that the salvation of the party depended upon it; that the man who scratched a ticket was not a republican. This is only one of the many means these unprincipled demagogues have devised to perpetuate the intellectual bondage of my people. To defeat this policy at the late election men irrespective of race, color, or party affiliation united and voted together against men known to be incompetent and dishonest. I cannot recognize, nor do the masses of my people who read recognize, the majority of the officials who have been in power for the past two years as republicans. We do not believe that republicanism means corruption, theft, and embezzlement. These three offenses have been prevalent among a great portion of our office-holders; to them must be attributed the defeat of the republican party in the State if defeat there was; but I, with all the lights before me, look upon it as an uprising of the people, the whole people to crush out corrupt rings and men from power… The bitterness and hate created by the late civil strife has, in my opinion, been obliterated in this State, except, perhaps, in some localities, and would have long since been entirely obliterated were it not for some unprincipled men who would keep alive the bitterness of the past and inculcate a hatred between the races, in order that they may aggrandize themselves by office and its emoluments to control my people, the effect of which is to degrade them.” Hiram Rhodes Revels, the first African-American to serve in the United States Congress.

    “I felt that the Reconstruction policy, so far as it related to my race, was in a large measure on a false foundation, was artificial and forced. In many cases it seemed to me that the ignorance of my race was being used as a tool with which to help white men into office, and that there was an element in the North which wanted to punish the Southern white men by forcing the Negro into positions over the heads of the Southern whites. I felt that the Negro would be the one to suffer for this in the end.” Booker T Washington

    “I have reason to believe that Mr. Johnson is not going as far as Mr. Chase in imposing negro votes on the Southern States or any States. I never heard a negro ask for that and I think it would be his ruin. . . . I believe the whole idea of giving votes to the negroes is to create just that many votes to be used by others for political uses because I believe the negro don’t want to vote now when he is mixed up with whites in nearly equal proportion, making [the] ship dangerous.” General William T. Sherman

    “The stubborn fact remains that the negroes were ignorant and inexperienced . . . that in spite of the best intentions they were easily misled, not infrequently by the most reckless rascality. . . . [W]hen universal suffrage was granted . . . [to blacks] . . . universal amnesty [including voting rights] ought to have been granted [to ex-Confederates] to make all the resources of political intelligence and experience available for the . . . welfare of all.” Carl Schurz, Republican senator from Missouri.

    This is a mere sampling!

    Regarding Boston egalitarianism mentioned in the Austin paper, he obviously was misled by political propaganda of the day! Much of which was generated by Southern Statesmen (regarding Republican egalitarian goals) in order to place that Party at odds with the sentiments of its racist Northern constituency. Those egalitarian ideals were emphatically denied by Republicans! A great book exposing Northern anti-black sentiment is “Disowning Slavery – Gradual Emancipation and ‘Race’ in New England, 1780-1860.” In it Dr. Joanne Melish says that up to 1/3rd of all acts of all antebellum acts of mob violence against people of color occurred in New England.

  4. To what I remember, the Reconstruction Era was bridged over to jump straight into the Industrial Era in my history classes. I had American history in both middle school and high school (joys of jumping around the states) and neither really made a huge deal of the period. They mostly talked about the political nature of the era rather than the social conflicts. That’s interesting only because I attended middle school in the south, and then high school in the north and STILL the Reconstruction Era wasn’t gone over in that much detail in either region.

  5. What you say here cannot be reiterated often enough. Reconstruction is still woefully confused the minds of most white Americans and still willfully misrepresented in the white South, where the democratic aspirations of blacks and many poorer white who became Unionists was scrubbed out in favor of the racist authoritarian demanded by the so-called “Redeemers.”

    1. There was much focus on the Carpetbaggers who entered the South and exploited the desperation of those who were suffering from the devastation to enrich themselves

  6. Concerning what was taught in my classes, it really depended upon my history teacher. During my junior and senior year of high school, I had history teachers who taught a good amount on race, race relations, and the civil rights era. Reconstruction composed part of those lessons, though more minimally than other elements. It was certainly not absent, nor was it necessarily in line with the Dunning School.

    Recently, in the past several years, I have found myself doing more reading on the Reconstruction Era, and am just so gripped by it at the moment. Right now, I am working through Eric Foner’s updated Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution. It is one of the best reads so far this year. I am only a quarter of the way through the book, but have really enjoyed it. Thanks for the article. I look forward to checking out your blog.

  7. “We will not see massed armies a la Gettysburg in 2020, but we have seen increasing violence of a sort.”

    Really? Seems to me that one side today already has their ‘army’ in place conducting ‘operations’. The daily and nightly news footage from many an American city proves that. Several adages certainly come to mind that are quite relevant nowadays, to me anyways. “Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it”, and “A house divided against itself cannot stand”. I’ll also toss in “You reap what you sow”. Our country is as divided as at anytime in my life, and that includes the Vietnam era.

    So don’t assume or conclude that sides won’t concentrate and arm. This country’s institutions are being savaged, and that includes the Constitution. I hope I’m proven wrong, but it is my belief that the opening shots of the next Civil War have already been fired, and it’s going to make that dust-up of the 1860s look like Woodstock before it’s all said and done. But I DO hope I’m wrong..

  8. Our 8th grade teacher at a little rural Missouri Ozarks school about 1982 focused on the political-philosophical debate between the Radical & conservative Republicans, regarding Reconstruction. He was also a dairy farmer, big old boy, had these massive work-worn hands. I recall him holding one up while posing the question: can the fingers leave the hand? Analogizing the States as fingers, the Union as the hand. Must have been an effective teaching tool, as I still recall the debate from nearly 40 years ago.

  9. Sure, but to be fair, there were many abuses by black politicians during the period – many were simply not prepared to be the new top rail. There is no excuse for violence or terror, but it is mis-leading to suggest white Southerners were motivated only by racism.

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