Was Reconstruction a Success or Failure? And Why It Matters.
By Paul Richards PhD
Part 2: Our Civil War Was a Revolution (See Part 1)
W.E.B. DuBois, who was born in 1868 shortly after the end of the Civil War, viewed the civil war as a revolution. Today, in the United States, the only “revolution” we study is the American Revolution of 1776 which was in fact a war of independence. It substituted an American ruling class for the British ruling class. As he wrote in Black Reconstruction, DuBois considered the destruction of slavery a revolutionary change and its primary actors were the black slaves themselves. This key insight illuminates the historical roots of the role of armed self defense by the black community in the 1960s so well described in Charles E. Cobb, Jr.’s This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed.
Destroying a class system is what revolutions do, not just substituting one group of rulers with another. In Russia in 1917, the Russian Revolution liquidated the Tsar and the land owning aristocracy and armed and freed the peasantry. No one would seriously dispute that it was a revolution. In the United States in the 1860s, the Civil War liquidated the slave owning class and abolished slavery, arming and freeing the slaves. Beyond self defense, the insurrectionist, revolutionary role of guns in the hands of black slaves was key to the success of our only real revolution and the Union’s victory. And for that very reason, it is ignored and lied about to this day. Just as slave rebellions are ignored and vilified, along with John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry that is dismissed as the act of a mad man. If you think that way, you cannot possibly give credit to the incredible, heroic role of armed blacks in destroying slavery and reconstructing a free south from the ashes of the Civil War.
The Emancipation Proclamation came about in 1863 because the war was going badly for the north. Slaves were being forced to support the Confederacy’s war efforts, to supply food, and support Confederate troops. The Emancipation Proclamation was a war time measure directed against the enemy. Many politicians at the time saw it as a temporary measure that should be rescinded when the war ended. Except for the fact that slavery itself was at the heart of the Civil War.
Once the abolition of slavery was in place in 1863, the logic of freedom propelled blacks into the struggle, undercutting the confederacy on many fronts and supplying much needed extra forces for the Union army. DuBois called this “The General Strike.” Cobb points out that one fifth of the black population went into the Union army. Lincoln and the generals knew they needed black troops to win and they forced a reluctant Congress to go along.
Black soldiers in the Union army were committed to fight the Confederacy to the death, with none of the doubts that might have plagued white soldiers and politicians. Even if the country did not understand that slavery had to end if the war was to be won, those fighting the war did. At the end of the war, when victory was in sight, the United States ordered General William Tecumseh Sherman to march to the sea, doing as much physical damage to slave owning classes and their property as he could, burning plantations and freeing slaves as he cut a wide swath across the heart of Dixie from the Mississippi river to the coast of Georgia. Tens of thousands of black slaves marched to the sea in his wake. Their numbers grew as the flames rose. Sherman’s march to the sea was the Hiroshima of the Civil War.
In spite of Sherman and the Union victory, however, slave owners attempted to reestablish their power during the “first Reconstruction” through such measures as the Black Codes passed in 1865 and 1866 in most southern states. The resurgent slave owners were attempting to re-enslave blacks and restore their power base. The specter of a renewed Confederacy forced the Union to take steps to complete the revolutionary destruction of slavery and to consolidate their hard won victory on the battlefield.
Radical Reconstruction was as much a war measure as the Emancipation Proclamation. Northern troops occupied recalcitrant southern states, and along with armed blacks, kept slavery from coming back. Black ex-slaves were the only group in the south that could carry the fight to destroy the slave owning class through to completion on the ground. Blacks and allied whites (scallywags and carpetbaggers we have called them) in the legislatures ratified laws to make it happen. Congress and the nation were forced to pass the 14th Amendment to the constitution guaranteeing equal protection under the law to all citizens. Southern states had to ratify it if they wanted to regain representation in the US Congress. Union soldiers in the south during Reconstruction made sure the process was not suppressed.
Armed force alone was not enough, though, to end slavery. Northern capital and capitalists moved south to set up a non slave economic system, buying land and setting up businesses, banks, mercantile networks, etc. that would pose no threat to the newly restored nation. Ex-slave owners and their allies bought into the “New South” and its carpetbagger money when they saw it was their only real choice. Defeated slave owners either moved out of the south (to California’s central valley, for instance) or became capitalists employing free labor, which included sharecroppers. They may not have liked it, but they did it.
Conversion to non slave capitalism was accomplished by 1877 through economic transformation on the ground enabled by state governments relying on blacks voting at the polls and in legislatures, and holding guns in their hands. Then, satisfied that the New South would play along, the Congress withdrew support for black civil rights and let racist southern locals have their brutal way, including racial segregation and disenfranchisement (but not slavery).
The shining rhetoric about freedom and equality coming out of the halls of power in the 1860s and 1870s was as much of a smoke screen then as it is now with our transparent wars in the oil rich middle east. Such rhetoric during Reconstruction covered the real motives of the economic power brokers in their drive for completing the victory of the Civil War. Abandoning the freed slaves to the merciless hands of the New South, once their usefulness was over, demonstrated the real nature of our economic system of government and power. Redemption, sharecropping and segregation was acceptable as long as it did not restore slavery. Slavery ended at the point of a gun and armed black ex slaves made it real. And that was a revolution no matter how you look at it. That made Reconstruction a success, in spite of what came later. The New South may have wrecked our democracy but it did not restore slavery. The civil rights movement completed the restoration of democracy that slavery and “Redemption” had compromised.
I celebrate Radical Reconstruction, a brief moment of glory, no matter how blindly and halfheartedly we, as a nation, did it. I celebrate my great grandfather’s (Robert Richards) service in the Civil War with the Wisconsin Volunteers and his combat in Mississippi where he was wounded. Did Reconstruction end racism? No. Does that make it a failure? No again. Considering it a failure is like considering the civil rights movement a failure because it only abolished segregation and not racism. In history, the possibilities of any epoch are what people understand and grasp. These possibilities are shaped by history. As Cobb so ably describes, armed black sharecroppers understood what was possible in the 1960s and took steps from there. Armed black union soldiers understood it in the 1860s in the same way. Abolition of slavery was a possibility then and they made it happen.
From this standpoint, Mr. Joe’s triumphant reclaiming of his shot gun from the hands of the sheriff (see Part 1) casts a direct light on the fact that during the Civil War and Reconstruction, armed black citizens had earned their right to bear arms. The lessons of history do not have to be taught in school to be real.
“Redemption” and racial segregation that followed the overthrow of Reconstruction was a racist nation’s gift to its defeated white southern brethren. White unity in an orgy of racism helped relaunch the U.S. drive to world dominance that had been briefly derailed by the civil war. International affairs played a role in the modern era too, when the continuation of segregation in the anti-communist post World War II era openly contradicted the United States’ pretensions about spreading democracy against the evils of communism and made it imperative to end it. These kinds of considerations may get votes in the legislatures, but they do not play in the local power structures motivated by much more immediate concerns. There, white supremacy got its way but knew its limits. And if anyone forgot the limits, black rifles were there to remind them. Our history cannot be reduced to propaganda for the current occupants of powerful offices. It goes deeper and beyond politics.
Charles E. Cobb, Jr. has made great contributions to our history, first as a field secretary for SNCC in the 1960’s and now as an historian and author of This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed, helping us to open our eyes to the realities that ended segregation. These realities, including armed self defense by the black community, go all the way back to the civil war. To understand what happened, we have to add the notions of class struggle and revolution back into our world views and vocabularies. Because that is the only way to make it comprehensible and the only thing that can give us the tools we need to make a better future.