Rebuilding the South After the War
Historians review the problems of re-building a region destroyed by four years of bitter war.
What kind of destruction did the South suffer?
Eric Foner: The great army of the West, commanded by General William T. Sherman, enters Savannah, Georgia, at Christmas of 1864. They have just come on their march to the sea, starting out in Atlanta. They have marched through the heart of Georgia... They have destroyed everything in their path that could be of use to the Confederacy: railroad tracks, they have burned plantations. They have liberated tens of thousands of slaves, enforcing the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln... Sherman says when he starts out on the march, "I can make Georgia howl." He's bringing the war to the civilian population. He doesn't kill civilians. He doesn't attack them, but he destroys property; he destroys their livelihoods and he liberates their slaves.
He's trying to demonstrate that the South has no power that can prevent the North from prevailing in this war. If he can march right through the heart of one of the most important Southern states without any opposition even, wreaking devastation and liberating the slaves... And for generations afterward, the name Sherman will be a byword for cruelty in the minds of white Southerners and white Georgians who experience this.
What did Southerners find when they returned home?
Dana Nelson: Fan Butler describes the terrible conditions on her trip down [to her Georgia rice plantation]. You know, they're following Sherman's path, so it's desolation everywhere. Cities have been burned out. Fields have been burned out. And of course they can't find decent accommodations there. The train tracks have been blown up, so they have to portage across a river because the bridge has been blown out, and then be pulled backwards in a train car from another part of the track. They stay in miserable accommodations on the way down.
The lands haven't been cultivated for four years, and anybody who has a garden knows what happens if you don't till it and plant it every year. So the lands were in shambles and the houses had been gutted. All the furniture was gone. The houses were in real disarray. Fan complains about all the rain coming in, and all the mosquitoes, her utter inability to run a household in the way that she was accustomed to running one. And so they really had to make do. The interesting thing is that many of the newly freed residents of those islands had kept some of their goods in their possession, and so there was a trickle of household materials that came back to them, that had been saved by their former slaves for their return.
Did Northerners realize how bad conditions were down South?
David Blight: Like the destroyed abbeys of 17th-century England in the English civil war, which are still all over the English landscape... the South now was a landscape with ruins -- ruined plantations... in the immediate aftermath of the war, ruined cities. In fact, in the immediate aftermath of the war, many major magazines and newspapers in the North sent correspondents traveling in the South, writing story after story, which were published into very popular books about the conditions of the South, the landscape of the South, what battlefields looked like, the old trench works, what the old plantations now appeared to be. America for the first time was a society with the experience of all-out war, that had given them ruins.
What were the main intentions of the federal government's reconstruction efforts?
Ed Ayers: A good way to think of Reconstruction is a set of goals that the Republicans in Washington had in mind. And those goals are for the South to rebuild the social order along the lines of the North: free labor, free ballot box, and general equality before the law. That's all. And when those things are in place, then the South is back in the Union. But as simple as that sounds, in practice it is remarkably complicated.
How did the nation approach the process of rebuilding?
David Blight: There was no script for Reconstruction. If anything, winning the war, by comparison, was easier than now that agonizing statesman like political process of planning what to do about Reconstruction. Reconstruction was a massive logistical, political, Constitutional, economic challenge like the country had never faced.
It had now faced the challenge of all-out war. It had mobilized to defeat the South. It had created the largest armies in the history of the world to conduct this war. It had found generals who could prosecute the kind of war that it took to win. There was always a rich debate, since 1863, over plans of reconstruction, which was essentially a Constitutional debate. What authority would the federal government have? How would Southern states be restored to the Union? How quickly would they be restored to the Union? And there was the beginnings of a debate about the question of black manhood suffrage: Would that occur or would that not occur? But there was not much of a debate yet about what to do with four million freed slaves, hundreds of thousands of starving white refugees, a conquered, defeated, devastated South, a destroyed economy in many regions of the South, rivers that now had to be dredged because boats had been sunk in them, cities that had been burned. Americans faced for the first time in their history a landscape of ruins, cities in ruin, crops in ruin, an economy in ruin, and a whole section of the population with their psyche, their spirit, their society in ruin. And the responsibility now was to come up with a plan to reconstruct this, to restore this society.
How did philosphies about rebuilding differ?
Eric Foner: The land issue is really one of the cruxes of the whole debate over Reconstruction, because so many different issues come into the land question. For African Americans, land is essential to really enjoying freedom. The person who is dependent, economically dependent on someone else for their livelihood, is not truly free. Now, that's not an idea that was limited only to African Americans. Jefferson had said the same thing: The truly free person is the small farmer, the yeoman farmer. Lincoln had said the same thing many times: The person who works for wages his entire life is not truly free. This was a very common idea in 19th-century America. The basis of freedom is economic independence. And in a rural, agricultural society, the only way you're going to get economic independence is by owning land. Land's not a panacea. Plenty of white farmers are having trouble at this time. But land at least gives you the wherewithal to decide for yourself how you're going to work, when you're going to work, what crop you're going to grow, not being under the direction of white either slaveowners or employers. So for blacks, land is essential to freedom.
Many in the North think that distributing land will be a punishment. "These slaveowners, these rebels, have led the South into the Civil War. They're responsible for this terrible destruction and loss of life. Take away their land. Then you will really destroy the planter class, which has been the cause of so much trouble." This is what Thaddeus Stevens, the Congressman from Pennsylvania says...
And then there's the question of what is going to be the nature of the Southern economy after the war. If the plantations remain intact, it'll still be an aristocratic society with a small group owning all the major economic resources, and then you have landless workers working for them. Is that really a democratic society? No. The South should be modeled on the North. The North is a society of small farmers out in the West, the Midwest. That's what the South should be. In other words, if you're going to really change Southern society and get away from the social structure of slavery as well as the ownership of man by man of slavery, you're going to have to break up these big plantations.
In practice, what made rebuilding so hard?
David Blight: Taxation was a huge problem. It's not the most exciting subject in history to some people, but think about it. It was a huge problem in the Reconstruction states. How do you fund public facilities? How do you fund the public school? How do you build a hospital? How do you fund the dredging of a river? How do you rebuild Charleston, South Carolina? How do you rebuild Richmond? Where would the money come from? What do you tax? Do you tax land? Do you tax livestock? You can't tax slaves anymore because they don't exist. Who gets taxed, at what level? So they're debating public policy of the most important kind. They're debating the establishment of new roads. They're debating the nature of elections. They're debating redistricting of states. In the old days, the districts of a state were gerrymandered by the planter class, so that basically the states were controlled by planters... from those regions.