Freedom: A History of US

Webisode 7. Segment 1
A Wounded Nation

The Civil War was over, and all across the land mothers and fathers buried their sons, wept, and tried to forgive the enemy now that all were once again pledging allegiance to the same flag See It Now - Burying the Dead. Most people seemed to understand that the country had to be made whole again. Its wounds needed to be bandaged. President Lincoln had been determined to use kindness in bringing the South back into the Union. Southerners were still part of the family, he had said. But Lincoln was dead now, killed by the assassin John Wilkes Booth See It Now - John Wilkes Booth. And, as the author Mark Twain recalled, some passions were hard to put away See It Now - Mark Twain. He wrote: Hear It Now - Mark Twain "In the South, every man you meet was in the war, and every lady you meet saw the war. The war is the great chief topic of conversation. The interest in it is vivid and constant; the interest in other topics is fleeting. In the South, the war is what A.D. is elsewhere: they date from it."

Did you ever lose a fight? Were you embarrassed and angry? White southerners were angry, confused, hurt, and miserable. Their lovely, elegant, aristocratic South was in ruins See It Now - Ruins of Charleston, South Carolina. Their sons were dead. Everything they had fought for seemed gone. "Gone with the wind," said one Southern writer in a famous book. A generation of white Southern men was dead. Those who came home brought wounds with them. In 1866, the year after war's end, Mississippi spent one-fifth of its revenues on artificial arms and legs for returning veterans. Sidney Andrews, a visitor to Charleston, South Carolina, wrote this about the city: Hear It Now - Charleston Visitor "A city of ruins, desolation, and vacant houses, of rotting wharves, deserted warehouses, and grass-grown streets. That is Charleston. The beauty and pride of the city are dead Check The Source - "A City of Ruins"." Most of the South's cities were in the same shape. And the countryside? Here are the words of a Virginian after the war: Hear It Now - Virginian "We had no cattle, hogs, sheep, or horses, or anything else. The barns were all burned, chimneys standing without houses and houses standing without roofs, or doors, or windows See It Now - Ruins in Hampton, Virginia."

Southern whites had to blame someone for their misery, and the former Rebels blamed the Northerners. They said that everything that went wrong after the war was the Northerners' fault. And as for the Civil War itself, all they had tried to do, they said, was form their own nation. How could they forgive the North for stopping them? Many Northerners were angry too. After all, the South had started the war. And it had been more terrible than anyone could have imagined. Should the South be punished? Some said that since the Rebel leaders were traitors, they should be hanged See It Now - Revenge Against Jefferson Davis. But President Lincoln had felt differently. He had said, "Enough lives have been sacrificed. We must extinguish our resentments if we expect harmony and union."

The fierce northern General William T. Sherman See It Now - General William T. Sherman had once visited Abraham Lincoln See It Now - Abraham Lincoln, 1865 in the White House. He remembered it this way: Hear It Now - Gen. Sherman "I inquired of the President if he was all ready for the end of the war. He said he was all ready; all he wanted of us was to defeat the opposing armies, and to get the men composing the Confederate armies back to their homes, at work on their farms, and in their shops. I was more than ever impressed by his kindly nature and his deep and earnest sympathy with the afflictions of the whole people. His earnest desire seemed to [be to] end the war speedily, and to restore the men of both sections to their homes See It Now - Confederate Soldiers."

What of the four million black Southerners who were now freed men and freed women Check The Source - "The Day of Freedom"? What were they to do now? Where were they to go Check The Source - "There Will be a Day of Reckoning"? Should they be paid for all their years of work Check The Source - A Sharecrop Contract? Should the government give them land of their own and mules, as General Sherman himself once promised Check The Source - "Forty Acres and a Mule"? Millie Freeman was a former slave. She wrote: Hear It Now - Millie Freeman "It seemed like it took a long time for freedom to come. Everything just kept on like it was. We heard that lots of slaves was getting land and some mules to set up for theirselves. I never knowed any what got land or mules nor nothing See It Now - Sharecroppers."

Blacks had a set of ideas about freedom: it meant access to education, protection against violence, the right to work under conditions not just dictated to them Check The Source - "Sheep in the Midst of Wolves". It meant the same civil rights as white people had, and it meant access to land ownership Check The Source - Francis L. Cordoza: On Breaking Up of the Old Plantations. Most of these ideas Check The Source - "We Want Homesteads" were heavily opposed Check The Source - Rufus Saxton: On Whites and Blacks in the South by Southern whites. So how was freedom going to be instituted?

Across the South everything seemed in collapse. There was no government, no courts, no post offices, no sheriffs, no police. Guerrilla bands looted at will. Racist whites committed violence against blacks See It Now - A Klan Attack Check The Source - "To Kill a Negro They Do Not Deem Murder". Outside help was badly needed.

The time in the South after the Civil War, when people attempted to reorganize and remake the region—without slavery—is called Reconstruction. How did it go? With a whole lot of confusion. It was the most promising, despairing, noble, awful, idealistic, reactionary, hopeful, hopeless time in all of American history.




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