Echoes of Reconstruction: Roundup of Recent Books
ECW is pleased to welcome back Patrick Young, author of The Reconstruction Era blog
Many of us expanded our reading during the lonely days of the Pandemic by taking old books off the shelves to read anew. I just settled in with some newly published works. The last year has been a good one for books on Reconstruction and on how modern ideas of race were molded in the period. Some exciting new books looked at how the developing memory of the Civil War reinforced the post-Reconstruction triumph of Jim Crow. Here are a few that I really liked.
Until Justice Be Done: America’s First Civil Rights Movement, from the Revolution to Reconstruction by Kate Masur (W.W. Norton, 2021)
Kate Masur shows that a coherent civil rights movement grew in the Northern states after those states, one after another, ended slavery following the Revolution. While most “Free States” tried to limit Black civic participation and control the movement of African Americans soon after their early 19th Century abolitions of slavery, Blacks and their allies organized and agitated for equal rights in the North and for the recognition of Blacks living in states like New York and Massachusetts as equal citizens of those states. And sometimes they won.
This impulse was present from the earliest days of Northern Emancipation. Masur writes:
The revolutionary era’s abolitionist movement sought not only the end of race-based slavery but also the recognition of the fundamental rights of the newly freed. At the behest of abolitionist activists, states passed laws designed to protect free African Americans from kidnappers who looked for vulnerable people to steal into slavery farther south.
Masur shows how this 19th Century civil rights movement used lawyers, organizers, politicians, and orators to fight and win local and state battles in the North that created the possibility, even the expectation, that Emancipation in the South would bring more than just the end of slavery. When Black civil rights were recognized in Massachusetts, for example, the state began to advocate for its Black citizens who were arrested and imprisoned in places like Charleston while serving as merchant seamen. Legal arguments were developed as to why a Black man who was free in New Bedford did not lose his freedom when he travelled to South Carolina.
This is also the civil rights movement that pushed back against whites who hoped that freed slaves could be persuaded to leave the U.S. or be deported to “colonies” in Africa where whites would never be troubled by them again. The activists were able to come to a common set of goals for life after Emancipation, and it would not include mass deportations because there was an organized bi-racial movement to oppose the “Colonizationists.” Full Review
Robert E. Lee and Me by Ty Seidule (St. Martin’s Publishing, 2021)
This is the book that Confederate Heritagers love to hate. Brigadier General Ty Seidule, raised to revere Robert E. Lee, writes that “As a schoolkid in Virginia, I never received an honest accounting of slavery. Many historians have now given us a clear look at the slave trade, plantation life (that is, life on the enslaved labor farms), and slave rebellions. Every aspect of slavery was just as evil as the abolitionists and the peerlessly honest former slave Frederick Douglass described it. If anything, the conditions were worse. The only way to argue for slavery, then or now, is to believe that the enslaved weren’t real human beings. That the lives of those who had darker skin had less worth; that the color of skin meant the difference between human and not quite human. And that is the hideous lesson my Virginia history textbook taught schoolchildren in the Old Dominion.”
This is one man’s personal journey from a childhood belief in the majesty of Robert E. Lee and the Confederates, reinforced by every institution of white power in the South, to being confronted by his wife with the implications of his belief, to his own deeply researched understanding of the Confederacy and his subsequent commitment to opposing white supremacy in his own life, in the Army and at West Point. Full Review
Life of a Klansman: A Family History in White Supremacy by Edward Ball (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020)
This was not the breakout hit that Ball’s earlier Slaves in the Family was, and, frankly, it drags a little at the beginning. Too much on the history of New Orleans! Ball writes about Constant Lecorge, a relative who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War and participated in several White Supremacist terrorist groups during Reconstruction.
While Constant is out of New Orleans in the fight to preserve slavery, his wife Gabrielle remains behind in Union-occupied territory. The city is being transformed from the premier slave market in the United States into a place where new Black freedoms are on display. By October 1863, 1,700 Black children were enrolled in the new schools begun in the wake of Union General Ben Butler’s revolutionary reforms, which included allowing Blacks to testify against whites in court and to ride the street cars. When Gabrielle is seven months pregnant she slips out of New Orleans to give birth to her new child with her husband at his army camp. They are hard core. Constant does not leave the Confederate Army until May 28, 1865, a month and a half after Lee’s surrender.
He goes home to New Orleans where Black Union soldiers patrol the streets, Blacks walk freely through the town, Blacks demand citizenship and the right to vote. He becomes a follower of Alcibiade DeBlanc, a former Confederate officer. DeBlanc was the city’s leading advocate of violent resistance to Black equality. He soon founded the Knights of the White Camellia, a Louisiana manifestation of the spirit of the Ku Klux Klan.
Ball’s exploration of the attractions of White Supremacist terrorism for a man like Constant is among the strongest sections of the book. Constant is not a monster, but he supports monstrous acts against Blacks. His easy movement from the White Camellia to the Klan and the White League indicate that he and thousands of other discharged Confederates saw the militant struggle against civil rights as part of the same conflict they had been a part of during the Civil War. DeBlanc set out just weeks after Appomattox the terms by which many former Confederates would try to live in the post-war Southern society in a published manifesto:
“I write from the illustrious ruins of our departed Confederacy,” DeBlanc says. “I think now as I did on the day I enlisted as a soldier. Our cause was a just and sacred cause, and there is nothing of the past that I would repudiate. Had we been successful, the whole world would have courted our friendship … but we have failed, and we are now seen as criminals and traitors!” It is defiant talk. DeBlanc says that since the surrender, he has taken the loyalty oath and reluctantly “aligned” with the United States. Yet “I am loyal as long as the cost of that allegiance shall not be the degradation of our race.” DeBlanc says that the abolition of slavery is illegal, because slavery appears in the Constitution, and it is incontrovertible. Abolition is also irrational, he says. The end of slavery “is nothing less than the abolition of labor, and will convert our laborers into hordes of vagrants, useless to themselves, their families, and the state.”
One of the strengths of Ball’s earlier book Slaves in the Family is that it did not just tell the slave owner’s story, it also told the stories of the enslaved. Ball sought out the descendants of those his ancestors kept in bondage to try to add their voices to his book, While Constant did briefly own a couple of slaves, he was a white supremacist without extensive intimate contact with slaves or free blacks. Instead of locating someone owned by Constant, Ball tracked down a descendant of Louis Roudanez, the publisher of the city’s Black newspaper The New Orleans Tribune, and an opponent of all that Constant stood for in politics. On July 25, 1865 Roudanez wrote in opposition to DeBlanc:
As far as the ‘degradation of our race,’ I very much regret that Mr. DeBlanc uses these words, for he puts me in the position of answering that unfortunately, for some years now, the white race has generally been degraded by immorality. It has been degraded by … first-degree crimes committed in the cities, in broad daylight, on white abolitionists; by the mass killings at Fort Pillow … and that is not to mention the slaughters that have taken place on the boulevards, without any repercussions, sometimes even without burials. Is that the sublime race of Mr. DeBlanc, the one that cannot suffer degradation, the one of which he is so proud?
For those who believe that the United States has always been an English speaking country, it might come as a surprise that this argument was carried on in both French and English.
A short while later, former Confederate Colonel Fred Ogden helped draft the local Democratic Party platform which said; “Resolved, that we hold this to be a Government of White People, made and to be perpetuated for the exclusive political benefit of the White Race.… [We hold] that the people of African descent cannot be considered as citizens of the United States, and that there can in no event nor under any circumstances be any equality between the White and other Races.” Ogden would later form the paramilitary White League which Constant would join.
In 1866 the Democratic mayor of New Orleans beefed up the police as a force to put Blacks back in “their place.” He also encouraged the carrying of weapons by “respectable” white people to increase control of white over Black. As with other parts of the South, the top of the white agenda in New Orleans was the reestablishment of the racial hierarchy. Constant and hundreds of other Confederate veterans took up the challenge and joined in the 1866 New Orleans Massacre during which 34 Blacks were killed and over one hundred were wounded. Ball struggles with what the meanings of his ancestor’s acts of violence against African Americans are for him today:
The reality is that Constant, my grandmother’s grandfather, is a murderous actor on behalf of his family—on behalf of us. And it is a vile taste in the mouth. I must own it, in some way. He was a fighter for our gain, for my benefit. To say anything else is to prevaricate. It is not a distortion to say that Constant’s rampage 150 years ago helps, in some impossible-to-measure way, to clear space for the authority and comfort of whites living now… [p. 207]
The following year Constant involved himself in an ongoing terror campaign against Blacks through the newly organized Knights of the White Camellia led by DeBlanc. On April 17, 1868 the Knights announced their intentions by killing a Black man who called for ratification of the new color-blind Louisiana constitution. That Spring, the Knights adopted a constitution of their own. It says:
You are being initiated into one of the most important Orders which have ever been established on this continent.… Our main and fundamental object is the MAINTENANCE OF THE SUPREMACY OF THE WHITE RACE. History and physiology tell us that we belong to a race which nature has endowed with an evident superiority over all other races. The Maker intended to give us over inferior races a dominion from which no human laws can derogate.… It is a remarkable fact that as a race of men is more remote from the Caucasian and approaches nearer to the black African, the more fatally that stamp of inferiority is affixed to its sons, and irrevocably dooms them to eternal imperfectability and degradation. We know, besides, that the government of our Republic was established by white men, for white men alone, and that it never was in the contemplation of its founders that it should fall into the hands of an inferior and degraded race. It then becomes our solemn duty as white men to do everything in our power in order to maintain, in this Republic, the supremacy of the Caucasian race, and restrain the black or African race to that condition of social and political inferiority for which God has destined it.
On June 4, 1868 Constant was inducted into the Knights in a solemn ceremony. The script for the ceremony went like this. A guard brought Constant to the door where the ceremony was to take place and knocked. The Commander opened the door and asked the guard:
COMMANDER: Who comes there?
GUARD: A son of your race.
COMMANDER: What must be done?
GUARD: The cause of our race must triumph.
COMMANDER: What must we do?
GUARD: We must be united as are the flowers that grow on the same stem.
COMMANDER: Let him enter.
The Commander then asked these questions of Constant:
COMMANDER: Do you belong to the white race?
CANDIDATE: I do.
COMMANDER: Did you ever marry any woman who did not, or does not, belong to the white race?
COMMANDER: Do you promise never to marry any woman but one who belongs to the white race?
CANDIDATE: I do.
COMMANDER: Do you believe in the superiority of your race?
CANDIDATE: I do.
COMMANDER: Will you promise never to vote for any one for any office of honor, profit, or trust, who does not belong to your race?
CANDIDATE: I do.
COMMANDER: Will you take a solemn oath never to abstain from casting your vote at any election in which a candidate of the negro race shall be opposed to a white man attached to your principles?
CANDIDATE: I will.
COMMANDER: Are you opposed to allowing the control of the political affairs of this country to go in whole or in part, into the hands of the African race, and will you do everything in your power to prevent it?
COMMANDER: Will you under all circumstance defend and protect persons of the white race in their lives, rights and property, against all encroachments or invasions from any inferior race, especially the African?
Constant then swore the Knights’ oath. Full Review
Congress at War: How Republican Reformers Fought the Civil War, Defied Lincoln, Ended Slavery, and Remade America by Fergus M. Bordewich (Knopf, 2020)
Too many Americans think of the political direction of the Civil War in simplistic terms of what Lincoln did, as though he was a dictator, but the structures of government in a republic never respond to the will of just one man. American republicanism was particularly mistrustful of an all-powerful chief executive. Congress was used to playing its Constitutionally defined roles as lawmaker and check on the powers of the president. Just a decade before the Civil War, the Senate triumvirate of Clay, Calhoun, and Webster had been the giants of American politics and the changing presidents were comparative dwarfs. This new book by Fergus Bordewich puts Congress on center stage as an important collective player in waging war and reconstructing America.
Of course Bordewich can’t depict the actions of every member of the Civil War Congresses, so he focuses on Congressmen Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania and Clement Vallandigham of Ohio and Senators William Pitt Fessenden of Maine and Benjamin Wade of Ohio. This is an exciting political history. Full Review
The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory by Adam H. Domby published by University of Virginia Press, 272 pages (2020)
Historian Adam Domby, author of The False Cause, is a witty guide to the lies behind the ideological edifice that is The Lost Cause distortion of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Where other authors have shown the racism behind the Lost Cause, Domby demonstrates that time and again, Confederate apologists just simply made stuff up! Whenever it was in their interests, Confederates and those who were Confederate adjacent invented whatever details they needed to show that the Confederate rebellion against the United States was fully justified and honorable. In doing so, they hoped to convince their fellow Americans that white Southerners, far from being barbaric defenders of slavery and oligarchy, were the class of men entitled to rule the South and control the bodies and labor of African Americans.
As The Lost Cause elevated Confederates to the status of heroes and designated their leaders like Robert E. Lee as brilliant, moral, and gentle, they dehumanized former slaves. Domby writes:
The identity of white southerners in the postwar South—which “justified segregation and disenfranchisement”—was heavily based on a narrative of the past. Other historians have shown that terrible crimes against humanity can be committed by “unifying” a group “around what is effectively a false or skewed version of their history.” For the Jim Crow South, the Lost Cause served as part of what one historian calls “a carefully fabricated version of southern history” that justified racial discrimination. The ties between memory and white supremacy have proven impossible to ignore because, since its inception, the Lost Cause’s “very existence depended upon dehumanizing a group of people.”
By 1900, says Domby, the white South’s memory of the Confederacy was based less on “selective memory,” and more on “pure fabrication.” Full Review
The Saddest Words: William Faulkner’s Civil War by Michael Gorra (Liveright, 2020)
“The Great American Civil War Novel” of the 20th Century is undoubtedly Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! in which the story of a family’s Civil War suffering is told three times, from three unreliable perspectives. The book’s sales were hampered by its scandalous account of Confederate warriors risking their lives for the preservation of slavery and compromised in their community’s ideals of White Supremacy by their own sexual dominance of Black women and the precarious racial territory the offspring of those physical relations would produce. Published in 1936, the same year as Gone With the Wind, it offered a shocking alternative vision of a slave society on the verge of self-immolation, one in which the sweet smell of magnolias was replaced by that of sour decay.
But the Civil War and its legacy are echoed in much of Faulkner’s writing. In Intruder in the Dust, the story of the framing of a mixed race “Black man” for murder, appears one of Faulkner’s most famous Civil War reflections. Really a reflection on how the Civil War was remembered a half-century later and how the Lost Cause could not be let-go, the passage references Pickett’s July 3, 1863 charge at Gettysburg:
“For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two oclock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armstead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t even need a fourteen year old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain.”
Michael Gorra, in his new examination of Faulkner’s Civil War writing, says that the passage is the “most delusional bit of romance in all of Faulkner’s work.” It expresses the porousness of time in the post-war South that persisted into the mid-20th Century. If time could have been stopped and Lee’s brigades had not marched out of the woods, perhaps the unexamined and unchecked power of white slaveowners could somehow have been preserved. White Southerners were not so much living in the past, they were trying to maintain a façade that the past existed simultaneously with the present. As one of Faulkner’s characters says in a later novel, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Gorra’s book demonstrates the centrality of the Civil War and Reconstruction to many of Faulkner’s works and dissects the fictionalized version of Mississippi that he created. If you have read Faulkner and you are interested in the period, this is an invaluable book. It is largely a literary work, but it offers biographical insights, including Faulkner’s disappointing political opinion that Blacks needed to “go slow” in their struggle for civil rights. Full Review
7 Responses to Echoes of Reconstruction: Roundup of Recent Books
Love Patrick being Patrick. The Union’s version of a Lost Cause trumpet blower. I’m hardly a Confederate sympathizer, but his reviews are little more than a FB rant, with frequent hilarious references to white southerners purging themselves of worship of false idols. At least no one will confuse him with Faulkner!
“I’m hardly a Confederate sympathizer.”
Yeah, I’m doubting that statement. Most people wouldn’t need to claim that.
I could care less. I’ve frankly observed more blind devotion to myth on the part of those who correctly attack slavery, but then embrace the soothing illusion that the Union was going to war to destroy it. Some Slave states stayed in the Union because they believed they were adequately protected against social transformation by the existing Constitution. The last four states to secede had originally declined to go out for the same reason. As they say, the passage of time and military necessity changed things. But tragically, not so much that the Union showed staying power for the hard lifting of Reconstruction.
Lest John Pryor create a false impression, I never “embrace the soothing illusion that the Union was going to war to destroy” slavery.
I enjoyed Gorra’s book; the characterization of the book above is appropriate. I recently watched the You Tube video of a 100 minute speech by Jeff Robertson entitled “The Truth About the Confederacy in the United States”(July, 2020). Armed with strong audiovisual exhibits, Robertson makes a compelling case showing the persistence of the Lost Cause in modern America. One theme: The North won the war, the South won the peace with its revisionist history.
Thanks for reading the article grandad!
My discussion of Robert E. Lee and Me by Ty Seidule is suggested reading for today’s news.