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Q&A: The Myths of Reconstruction

Reconstruction may be one of the most misunderstood eras in American history. Versions of the era like the early motion picture Birth of a Nation (1915) and the novel Gone With the Wind (1936) -- which was made into one of the best-loved American movies of all time -- popularized a view of the Old South as a genteel society of gallant aristocrats, a lost world shattered by Northern violence. These myths, of course, ignored the injustices of slavery, the era's rampant racism, and the shocking violence of the time. They also missed the significance of the era's advances in civil rights and justice.

Historians review some myths and misconceptions about the Reconstruction era.

Myth: The North subjected the South to military rule during Reconstruction.

David Blight: This is the great myth of Reconstruction... that it was an oppressive set of regimes sent into the South to invent the Republican Party, using the black vote, running the legitimate leadership of the white South out of town and out of business, and putting Americans under a kind of oppressive rule by the federal government. Part of that whole story is also deeply rooted in this American tradition -- which isn't just Southern -- of localism, of faith in states' rights, that the federal government is an oppressor when it crosses state lines to create institutions, to expand liberties. And part of the myth of "Negro rule," or the tragic legend, is rooted in this states' rights reaction to the use of federal power. This has been at the heart of our debate about the nature and meaning of Reconstruction ever since. Was it truly a military occupation? You could argue, no, it really almost never was. The numbers of troops still left in the South by 1875 and '76 at the end, were tiny. And most of them were garrisoned in forts along the coast, never had anything to do with the enforcement or operation of the internal politics of Southern states. They guarded no state houses. They didn't even guard ballot boxes, which they should have, in most states by the middle of the 1870s. It really wasn't a genuine military occupation after 1868, in any sense of the term we've come to understand military occupations in the 20th century.

David Blight

Eric Foner: The idea that the South was under military rule and military occupation is really a myth. The Union army was demobilized very, very fast at the end of the Civil War. Some people thought, too fast, because there was so much chaos and violence in the South. By 1866, there are 10,000, 12,000, maybe 15,000 soldiers left in the South. But most of them are in Texas, fighting the Indians. You could go for months and months in the South without ever seeing a federal soldier. There were small encampments of federal soldiers around. And if there were outbreaks of violence, they would sometimes be brought in to try to suppress it. Sometimes the Freedmen's Bureau would call in a few soldiers to arrest a planter who refused to pay his workers or something like that. But no. Law and order was in the hands of governments, not of the army. And military rule was very, very brief. And the occupation was quite short-lived, really, in any practical sense.

Eric Foner

Myth: Yankees and blacks conspired to exploit the South after the war.

David Blight: There's a deep and complicated legend... that Reconstruction was essentially a Yankee conquest, the occupation of the Southern states and the oppression of the Southern people; that they were put under so-called "Negro rule" or "carpetbag rule." And this is all based on the ideas that Southern state legislatures under the radical regimes, from 1868 on, were really ruled by blacks and by Northerners who came South. There was only one Southern state legislature that ever had a majority of blacks and carpetbaggers.

There were a few carpetbag governors -- that is, Northerners who came South. The vast majority of carpetbaggers, Northerners who moved South, moved there early. They moved there right after the war. They moved there because the South was now the new pioneer society... It was a place of opportunity.

And we need to remember that there was a good deal of skullduggery and "get rich quick" motivation among some carpetbaggers. But since when is it not a great American tradition to go where the main chance is, to go where the new opportunities are, to go where entrepreneurship is so welcomed? The South dearly wanted Northern investment. It's one of the ironies of this. Early on, they wanted Northern investment. They wanted federal investment to help them rebuild their harbors and build some railroads and rebuild towns and cities, re-establish agricultural production. Most Northerners that went South and became carpetbaggers were already there in 1865 or '66, before the radical regimes are even created. So that idea that they all went there to exploit and establish radical Republican political organization is not exactly the case.

David Blight

Myth: The Klan was a small group of renegades from Southern society's fringes.

Eric Foner: Most of the leaders of the Klan were very respectable members of their communities, business leaders, farmers, ministers. You know, there was sort of a myth, that "Oh, this is just a bunch of young toughs, you know, and the real established Southerners wouldn't do this." But actually, in the [Klan] trials it became very clear that they were very respectable people, so to speak. And all that comes out in these hearings and trials. It really puts a face on Klan activity, and you see the victimization and the terrible injustices that have been suffered.

Eric Foner

Myth: Confederate soldiers were heroes because their cause was noble.

Drew Gilpin Faust: To honor the dead, you have to enhance the cause. So this wasn't simply about [Confederate] men; it was also about the loved ones; it was also about the cause for which they died. Now, we have to think about white Southern women doing this in a context of a national federal effort, federally funded effort, to move through the South and find every Union soldier, buried or unburied, identify him, and put him in a national cemetery. Three hundred thousand Union soldiers across the South were reburied with the financing of the federal government. This is not happening for Confederate soldiers. So this becomes a private activity, undertaken by women's organizations. I think this fuels the Lost Cause. I think it really helps the Lost Cause take off, because as these women get involved in the activity of arranging for the transportation of the dead, setting up these burial societies, those almost segue inevitably into celebrations of what these men died for...

As the war years fade a little bit into the distance, the memorialization of the dead takes on more and more of a political tone, and becomes more tied up with the actual issues of the past, not so much just the individual dead and their graves. Instead, it becomes a celebration of Confederate victories, of Confederate heroes, of the Confederacy itself... And this is when the United Daughters of the Confederacy really takes off and almost takes on a professional role of remembering the war, and making the memory of the war real for those who don't remember the war, for people born after the war. So that into our own time, we have organizations: the Children of the Confederacy, the U.D.C. chapters. I attended the burial of Stonewall Jackson's horse in the summer of 1997, celebrated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. So that these kinds of ties to the past are very vivid into the 20th century.

The U.D.C. tried to provide support and assistance for Confederate veterans. We can see here a differentiation between North and South, and one that I'm sure fueled the Lost Cause in the late 19th century. The biggest expense of the federal government in the late 19th century was war pensions. That went exclusively, of course, to Union soldiers, those who'd served in the Union army and the widows and families of those who'd served in the Union army. So that Southerners were entirely excluded, understandably, since they had risen in revolt against the government, but nevertheless, if you were a taxpayer in 1890, when you saw all this money going to Northern veterans and nothing coming into the South, that might well fuel a certain sense of sectional rivalry, hostility. The U.D.C. tried to arrange for support for veterans of the Confederacy, families of veterans of the Confederacy, who were not being supported by federal pensions. Some states in the South also issued pensions and support for former officers and soldiers and their families. But the U.D.C. felt it should do this as a way of honoring these noble veterans who had served valiantly in the cause, and it was a way of kind of rehabilitating the Confederacy and honoring the Confederacy as well as the individuals themselves...

The whole U.D.C. movement became very tied with the racial politics of the late 19th century. And often the image of the white woman needing to be protected, appearing in a white dress on a float at a U.D.C. celebration with the logo "Protect Us" over it, was a way of saying to the late 19th-century South, "We continue to be concerned about racial violence, about the purity of our white women." This is an issue when lynching is becoming a significant factor in the South, when the demonization of African American men, when the origins of segregation are appearing, Jim Crow. So that the U.D.C. and its embrace of this particular set of values gives a continuity to this racism that plays a very destructive political role in the late 19th century.

Drew Gilpin Faust

Myth: The black legislators elected during Reconstruction were all corrupt.

Ed Ayers: For generations, the dominant story about Reconstruction in the white South and... the eyes of the nation was that it was a time of corruption, and that it was a time when ignorant former slaves stole the taxpayers' [money]... Was there some corruption during Reconstruction? Yes, there was. And were some of the former slaves and other black legislators involved? Yes, they were. Was it on an unprecedented or unparalleled scale at the time? No. Was it solely in the hands of Republicans and not the Democrats in the South at the time? No. Was it black property and not white property as well? No...

What we have is an economy that's trying to get back on its feet. And to get back on its feet, you've got to have especially railroads. The South had been building railroads... in the late 1850s, and it had relied on railroads throughout the Civil War. Everybody knows that the new economy of the second half of the 19th century is going to be based on the railroads. But how do you induce railroad companies to build in a war-ravaged, impoverished place? You give them incentives. You give them easy land, just like they are [getting] in the West at this time. When they want to give you a bribe to lower the tax rate, you might do that, partly because you'd like to have the bribe -- times are hard -- also because you want to see the railroad come to your county, come to your state.

There's what we might think of as the gospel of prosperity. Everybody says, "If we can be prosperous, if we can raise the standard of living, a lot of this conflict that we're having will go away. A rising tide will lift all of us, black and white, Republican and Democrat. So let's see if we can't put some... money into all this, get the economy going again."

Now, this wasn't new in the South. The South had spent a lot of money on economic development before the Civil War. They had tried building canals like the Erie Canal in New York. They had put a lot of money in building state-supported railroads... they were trying to do the same thing again. So this wasn't the invention of Reconstruction. But what happened in Reconstruction is that the economy just refused to get better. In fact, it got worse. And so these investments that the Southern governments were making in railroads did not pan out. And the governments found themselves holding worthless stock; found themselves in debt; found things that they wanted to spend money for, they were unable to -- because they'd put all this money into railroads.

It's [in] this environment of the super-heated desperate economic development that corruption can flourish. And again, we're talking about a relatively few years. People are eager for the railroad lobbyists to come in and slap them on the back, say, "Here's some money to make sure that we're the ones who get to build a railroad into this rich area of the South." And these legislators, often who have no other source of income, who are living in these hard times, say, "Well, that doesn't contradict what I want to happen anyway. So go ahead and let me have it."

So this is one reason that you find that this is a general era of corruption in American government, because it is a time -- as we've seen in our own time -- when the economy is growing very rapidly, and there are great gains to be made; that people sometimes cut corners in order to get their share of this rapidly emerging bonanza. So most of the corruption of the Reconstruction era is the result of this economic environment that happened to be happening at the same time as Reconstruction.

Ed Ayers

Myth: Everyone in the South was happy before the war.

David Blight: For Americans beyond the South, for lots of Northerners, with time, the Lost Cause ideology... this idea of a Confederacy that was a bulwark against things modern -- was very popular. And it was particularly fashioned by popular fiction writers -- like Thomas Nelson Page and Joel Chandler Harris, and there are many, many imitators -- who fashioned a very popular form of American literature. They're doing it early, even in the 1870s, but particularly by the 1880s and 1890s. These were stories, story after story, about the old South, about this idyllic world of the plantation system, where everybody knew their place, and where blacks were essentially loyal retainers and happy darkies. They were real characters, and often they were eminently lovable characters.

In fact you could argue that the reconciliation of the Civil War, and even the reconciliation of much of the bitterness of Reconstruction, in the popular imagination, happened as thousands upon thousands, hundreds of thousands of American readers, most of them Northerners, [heard] the voice of loyal happy slaves in their ear, narrating these stories about this idyllic, romantic old South that had now been crushed by this unfortunate if necessary war. Oh, and maybe it's even good -- the stories would say -- that slavery was ended. It was good for the nation that slavery was ended. But look what else we lost. We lost this ordered civilization, this hierarchical society, this sense of a nation where everybody knew who they were and where they should be. And after all, what were they living in, by the 1880s and 90s, but an urbanizing country, a modernizing country, a complicated place, now full of all kinds of new immigrants from Eastern Europe and new ideologies like socialism, and an expanding economy full of technology that people didn't grasp and couldn't understand. And when the world gets confusing, and it changes rapidly, they did what most of us do. They harken back to another time. They find another world to live in. And the Lost Cause in some ways -- not just for Southerners, but for Americans broadly -- became a kind of other world to live in, in complicated times.

David Blight
 
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