Posts Tagged ‘American Civil War’

Our Forgotten Labor Revolution

After the Civil War, workers struggled to make wage labor go the way of chattel slavery.

Slaves shown working in the sweet potato fields on the Hopkinson plantation, located on Edisto Island, SC.

Slaves shown working in the sweet potato fields on the Hopkinson plantation, located on Edisto Island, SC

The new issue of Jacobin, commemorating the 150th anniversary of Union victory and emancipation, is out now.

The Founding, the Civil War, the New Deal. The holy trinity of the American political tradition.

In the beginning was the word, the sacred text celebrating the end of arbitrary colonial government and the creation of a constitutional republic. Then there was the redemptive war, a punishment for the original sin of slavery and whose reward was the Union reborn. The new United States declared the primacy of the national state, declared free labor the foundation of its economy, and established national citizenship. Finally, the third deed put a human face on the capitalism that the Civil War unleashed.

This, anyhow, is how the standard undergraduate syllabus is arranged. It is how publishing houses organize their books; it is how the typical historical survey punctuates the American story. To be sure, other moments, like the Civil Rights Movement and the Reagan revolution get honorable mentions.

But they receive their meaning primarily as decorative fabric stretched across the tripartite scaffolding: the Founding, the Civil War, the New Deal. We are supposed to believe that there is nothing to remember in those historical voids. If we go looking, all that we will discover is a series of errors, like Jim Crow, that we have since corrected.

How then to think about the fall of 1887, when a small group of labor organizers connected to the Knights of Labor, started agitating among sugar cane workers deep in the Louisiana bayou?

In August, the Knights started talking to the mostly black cane-cutters who were now working for their former slave masters. They promised higher wages, an end to payment in “scrip” rather than money, and even the hope of running a plantation “on the co-operative plan” instead of under the thumb of a boss. By September thousands had joined the Knights, by October they were ready to stop working if the local planters refused to raise wages, by the first of November they were on strike.

Three weeks later they were slaughtered. With the aid of a judge and state militia leader, white vigilantes disarmed the strikers, corralled them into the town of Thibodaux, Louisiana and unleashed a three-day orgy of violence. “No credible official count of the victims of the Thibodaux massacre was ever made,” writes historian Rebecca Scott, but “bodies continued to turn up in shallow graves outside of town for weeks to come.”

Precise body counts were beside the point. The question of who ruled town and country, plantation and courthouse, had been answered. As a mother of two white vigilantes put it, “I think this will settle the question of who is to rule, the nigger or the white man? For the next fifty years. . . .”

Where does an event like this fit in our national history? Who were the Knights? What was their vision of society? What was the threat they posed?

These are questions we cannot answer by reference to the “holy trinity” narrative. That is because between Reconstruction and Jim Crow was a forgotten time in which the emancipation of slaves inspired a further movement to emancipate workers from the domination of the labor market. It was a moment of promise and of danger — the promise of freedom, the danger of challenges to class power.

If we want to understand our history, rather than just congratulate ourselves about it, we have to abandon the prevailing, comforting narrative of progress that carefully extrudes those moments that do not fit with America’s national image as a self-correcting liberal democracy.

Looking back at forgotten labor struggles is therefore not just an exercise in setting the record straight, it is an exercise in emancipating our own thinking from attempts to discipline and control it.Reconstruction and its aftermath is an especially fertile period because it is when the language of liberty began to take new form, but had not yet been thinned out into the libertarian discourses that we know today.

Union soldiers of the First Massachusetts Cavalry posed in front of plantation house on Edisto Island, South Carolina.

Union soldiers of the First Massachusetts Cavalry posed in front of plantation house on Edisto Island, South Carolina.

The Promise of Reconstruction

The Civil War saw the largest, uncompensated expropriation of property in American history: the abolition of slavery. Nullifying slave owners’ property in persons meant returning personhood to the slaves. It also extinguished roughly half the value of all Southern assets, which in today’s prices amounts to roughly $3 trillion.

This expropriation was followed by “Recon­struction,” a period of constitutional dictatorship maintained by the North’s military occupation of the South. The purpose of occupation was not only to ensure orderly return of the South to the Union, nor just to secure passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, but also to coercively guarantee the freedom of former slaves against those who would resist it.

There was no extending of economic, civil, and political rights to former slaves without a period of coercion against the ancien regime. When communists today propose such measures it is denounced as the most horrible violation of the democratic spirit and personal liberty. But here, at the heart of our own history, is forced expropriation of one class to emancipate another.

And there is more. Reconstruction inaugurated a struggle over how to define the freedom in whose name the North fought. Abolition was just the beginning. What followed was the question of emancipation.

This might sound odd: didn’t the Thirteenth through Fifteenth Amendments abolish slavery, establish due process, and guarantee national citizenship? That would have been news to former slaves. They had been famously promised, as a part of their emancipation, “forty acres and a mule.” And not just them. In fact, in the Morrill Land Grant and Homestead Acts of 1862, the state had affirmed the idea that a fully free citizen was someone who had access to a piece of land — some share of the means of production — so that they did not have to be dependent on another.

Lincoln himself had declared, prior to the war, that free labor was not the same as wage labor: “The prudent, penniless beginner in the world, labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land, for himself; then labors on his own account another while . . . [This] is free labor.” The promise of American freedom was that everyone might enjoy this full independence.

More to the point, former slaves had learned that their emancipation was not something done to them but something they seized for themselves — they no longer had to ask for permission from a master. The connection between emancipation, independence, and self-assertion was found in the organization of black militias for the protection of civil rights, their seizure of land, and the working of this land individually or in self-directed labor companies.

Consider, for instance, these words from former slaves on Edisto Island, South Carolina, who occupied abandoned plantations and then were commanded, by a Freedmen’s Bureau commissioner, to return the land to former masters:

General we want Homestead’s; we were promised Homestead’s by the government . . . [without them] we are left in a more unpleasant condition than our former . . . we are at the mercy of those who are combined to prevent us from getting land enough to lay our Fathers bones upon.

Without land they were forced to work for former masters, or some other masters, for a pittance. To be formally free but possess no land was to find oneself “in a more unpleasant condition,” since in principle one might even find oneself homeless, in even more abject dependence on an employer. The promise of land, whether worked individually or collectively, was that one would no longer work under the arbitrary command of another.

Here was a possible meaning of Reconstruction: all forms of economic dependence are incompatible with free citizenship. In the name of freedom, being without property and dependent on employers was a condition that also had to be abolished. Free people had a right to some share of the means of production — be it land or some other productive property. They even had a right to take it from those who opposed this equal freedom.

One expropriation would follow another and, as those same former slaves put it, each should enjoy the protection of the state. What made such ideas so dangerous was that they were not exclusive to the South. Northerners who fought in the name of this freedom or who supported the Northern cause also believed they had a right to property, to a full and equal freedom.

It is not hard to see how such ideas could unify workers in the North and the South and turn Reconstruction into a radical project of reform, one wholly consistent with, even motivated by, American ideals of freedom. That is just what happened, but what did it look like? Here is where the Knights of Labor, who preserved the free labor ideals of Reconstruction well past its official conclusion, matter so much.

The Red Banditti

The Knights of Labor first formed in 1869 and grew, by the 1880s, into the first national labor association ever to organize unskilled black workers together with whites on a mass basis — an effort not meaningfully duplicated in the United States for another fifty years. Their founding documents said they had come together “for the purpose of organizing and directing the power of the industrial masses.”

Casting their concerns in a familiar, post–Civil War idiom, they asked, “Is there a workshop where obedience is not demanded — not to the difficulties or qualities of the labor to be performed — but to the caprice of he who pays the wages of his servants?” They called the new wage labor “wage slavery” and they wanted “to abolish as rapidly as possible, the wage system, substituting co-operation therefore.”

To advance their mission, the Knights established assemblies everywhere from the male-dominated mines of rural Pennsylvania to the mostly women-employing garment factories of New York to the railroads of Denver.

The Knights’ expansion into the American South began in 1886 at their general assembly meeting in Richmond, Virginia. In a conspicuous show of racial solidarity, a black worker named Frank Ferrell took the stage to introduce the Knights’ leader, Terence V. Powderly, before Powderly’s opening address. To defend his controversial decision to have a black Knight introduce him, Powderly wrote “in the field of labor and American citizenship we recognize no line of race, creed, politics or color.”


After the general assembly the Knights spread throughout Southern states like South Carolina, Virginia, and Louisiana, setting up cooperatives, organizing local assemblies, and agitating for a new political order.

They enjoyed initial success in Louisiana. One district assembly in the Bayou region claimed 5,000 black members, more than forty local assemblies were spread across planter country, and the membership included some of the most influential local leaders from the headier days of Reconstruction. These were some of the same leaders who had served in politics, drilled self-defense militias, and organized labor companies in the 1870s, prior to the withdrawal of federal troops from the South.

A spirit of self-assertion not seen for over a decade blew through the cane fields. The plantocracy knew it. The Thibodaux Sentinel, a racist local paper hostile to the Knights’ organizing efforts, warned “against black self-organization by trying to remind whites and blacks of what happened a generation earlier, in the days of black militias, and white vigilantism” and evoked “the old demons of violence and arson by ‘black banditti’.”

But the Knights brushed aside these warnings. Just four hundred miles away, near Birmingham, Alabama, the Knights had already founded cooperative settlements, including a collectively managed iron foundry and cigar works. They hoped to reproduce such efforts in Louisiana, starting in the cane fields. If planters would not raise wages and pay in proper currency rather than useless scrip, the Knights were ready to call a strike. The planters refused and the workers struck.

But it was not to be. First the Louisiana state militia showed up, sporting the same Gatling guns that had, only a few decades before, been used for the first time in the North’s fight against the South. The militia broke the strike and forced thousands of defenseless strikers and their families into the town of Thibodaux, where a state district judge promptly placed them all under martial law. A group of white citizen-vigilantes called the “Peace and Order Committee,” organized by the same judge that had declared martial law, then took over and went on their three-day killing spree.

The Knights’ influence was broken. Farming a plantation “on the co-operative plan” was not even a dream deferred — it was easy to forget it had ever been possible for cane cutters.

The officially sanctioned mob violence at Thibodaux was one of many such instances over the course of Southern history. In each instance, a challenge to race-based class rule was met with vigilante justice in the name of white supremacy.

In this case, however, it is worth recalling that the Knights articulated their challenge in a specific, usually overlooked, language of freedom. This was that same conception of liberty that led former slaves during Reconstruction to refuse to work for former masters, even when offered a formal labor contract and wages. It was the same idea of emancipation that motivated them to seize land and work it in “labor companies,” to organize their own militias, to vote as they wished, to hold local and national office. This radical moment of Reconstruction was momentarily suppressed and its end appeared to spell the defeat of any but the narrowest interpretation of what emancipation would mean.

When the Knights of Labor swept into Louisiana speaking the language of freedom, they not only revived old hopes for self-organization and economic independence, but also integrated these regional aspirations of former slaves into a recast national ideology of republican freedom.

Former slaves were now modern workers and the Knights trumpeted the same emancipatory language throughout the nation, heralding “co-operation” as a solution to the problems facing wage laborers everywhere. They sought a reconstruction not just of the South but of the entire country.

This program of liberation through cooperative self-organization, articulated in the trans-racial language of making all workers into their own bosses, scared Northern industrialists just as much as Southern planters. Indeed, if we see the Thibodaux massacre only as a story of Southern racism, we run the risk of unintentionally and retrospectively ceding too much to the planter class and its attempts to control labor relations by transforming economic conflicts into questions of racial superiority.

After all, wherever the Knights went and wherever their message of cooperation and independence took hold they were met with a violence not all that different from that of Louisiana’s “Peace and Order Committee.” Throughout the 1870s, ’80s, and ’90s, the Knights faced violence from employers and their hired guns, most notoriously the Pinkertons. The Pinkertons operated in legal grey zones, sometimes with outright legal sanction from the courts, and often in cooperation with the police, state militia, and federal troops.

Indeed, on occasion it was the public violence of the state that was responsible for spectacular acts of legally sanctioned murder and coercion. Perhaps the most famous was the Haymarket incident in Chicago, in May 1886, when workers and police died during marches for an eight-hour working day.

But even before Haymarket, in Chicago no less than the bayou, capitalist overlords had been baying for blood. “Load Your Guns, They Will Be Needed Tomorrow to Shoot Communists,” read oneChicago Times headline from 1875, responding to a possible demonstration of socialists and reformers against the city’s half-hearted efforts to address poverty. Republican Chicago was a hotbed of bourgeois financing of labor repression. In 1877, a business group called the Citizens Association responded to strike riots by raising $28,000, which they used to buy rifles, cannons, cavalry equipment, and a Gatling gun.

In 1886, after the famous Haymarket incident, an organization of Chicago’s wealthiest businessmen raised $300,000 in private donations to buy land and equipment for a fort and an armory located near the city. In Haymarket, and numerous other strikes, capital got what it paid for.

Labor reformers labeled this unholy alliance of the state with capital, its private guards, spies and “provocative agents,” a kind of “Bonapartism in America,” threatening to turn “the free and independent Republic of the United States of America” into the “worm-eaten Empire of Napoleon the Third.” Just as in Thibodaux, the lines between vigilante violence and legal coercion blurred into a haze.

What, then, was the idea of freedom that triggered such extreme responses? It was nothing less than the promise of the Civil War itself. Or, put more precisely, it was a particular interpretation of the ideal of republican liberty that free-labor abolitionists so frequently invoked before and during the Civil War. It was the ideal that all citizens should live in an economy in which they determine their fate rather than find themselves subject to the arbitrary will of another.

The language the Knights used was shot through with the antislavery ideal. William H. Seward’s famous abolitionist line that there is an “irrepressible conflict” between Northern freedom and Southern slavery was echoed in the Knights’ own slogan that “there is an inevitable and irresistible conflict between the wage-system of labor and the republican system of government.” Whether Southern agricultural worker, Northern shoemaker, or Western switchman, wage-laborers were propertyless and therefore dependent, seeking the same kind of freedom as the freed slaves of Edisto Island.

Here was the source of their “co-operative plan,” which they found equally applicable to the cane fields of Louisiana or the shoe factories of Massachusetts. The Knights wrote the cooperative program into their official constitution, the Declaration of Principles of the Knights of Labor, and, at their peak, organized thousands of cooperatives across the country. This ideal threatened Southern planters, Northern industrialists, and Western railroad owners alike because it struck at the dominant industrial relations between employer and employee.

Affording all workers shared ownership and management of an enterprise, whether a sugar plantation, newspaper press, or garment factory, was, according to the Knights, the only way to secure to everyone their social and economic independence.

While these ideas had been around well before the Civil War, it was only the abolition of chattel slavery and the rise of industrial capitalism that allowed the republican critique of wage labor to come forward as a unifying, national cause — one that had its roots deep in the critique of slavery itself. As Ira Steward, a child of abolitionists and prominent postwar labor republican, wrote in 1873, “something of slavery still remains . . . something of freedom is yet to come.”

Freedmen’s School. Edisto Island, South Carolina.

Freedmen’s School. Edisto Island, SC.

The Revolution Betrayed

Northern Republicans agreed to end Reconstruction of the South when the industrialists, merchants, and financiers that made up the heart of the party started to fear that workers were taking the promise of emancipation too seriously. A few of the most radical Republicans were won over to elements of labor reform, perhaps most famously Wendell Phillips. But by 1877, the bourgeois heart of the Republican Party was beating a different pulse.

Violent railroad strikes in 1873–74 foreshadowed the Great Strike of 1877, which not only paralyzed the country but briefly witnessed workers taking over St. Louis and running the railroads themselves — cooperatively, without bosses. They were quickly brought to heel by a mixture of armed guards, local police, and the newly reformed National Guard. Indeed, the National Guard was created out of the compromise of 1877, in which federal troops would no longer be allowed to enforce domestic law — as they did during Reconstruction — but with an exemption written in for cases of “insurrection,” namely, strikes.

Republicans had lost the heart for Reconstruction of the South because they were losing control of its meaning. The constitutional dictatorship that Northern leaders had imposed on the South had lost its charm, especially as freed slaves demanded redistribution of property, or, as in cases like Edisto Island, just seized that property themselves. Employers worried they now needed armed forces back home, to control workers, rather than bringing the former Confederacy to heel. Strikebreaking looked like a much better use for federal troops and state militia than helping redistribute property in the name of emancipation.

It was time to proclaim former slaves free, close up shop, and turn to making money.

Those former slave-owning planters now looked like less threatening, even useful, allies in the project of disciplining labor. And, in any case, for the Northern investors in US wartime debt, it was time to get freed blacks back onto plantations, picking cotton, so that it could be sold on international markets. After all, an influx of foreign exchange was needed to help put the dollar back on the gold standard, stabilize the currency, and allow them to cash in.

It was well and good to have freed the slaves but enough was enough. The limits of bourgeois universalism had been reached. It was time for Northern capitalists to make a deal, end Reconstruction, and get back to the business of making money.

Work Left Unfinished

Official Reconstruction might have been bargained away in the halls of Congress but, as the Knights of Labor reminds us, the ideals of Reconstruction had not been put to rest. Rather they had been nationalized and radicalized.

In fact, the Knights were not even the most dangerous of those who sought to extend the new freedom into the industrial economy. After all, they rejected revolutionary violence. Yet even their vision of an alternative future had to be suppressed. Their demand for an egalitarian economy, of nationalized public utilities like telegraphs and railroads, and built around producers’ cooperatives was still considered far too dangerous to the emerging capitalist order.

The radicalization of the promise of freedom was not only why Reconstruction had to be ended but why a certain memory of that period has had to endure.

Emancipation had to be understood as abolition, abolition had to be understood as the end of just slavery, and Reconstruction had to be told as a purely Southern question. These days, the dominant story about the Civil War and Reconstruction is so powerful that some dismiss the very idea of freedom as conservative, or at least “bourgeois.” But it is worth remembering that Reconstruction ended not because freedom had been achieved but because it started to become dangerous.

The quest for independence had transcended the abolition of slavery and become a call for self-organization and the redistribution of property. One expropriation threatened to follow another. A proper reconstruction of America meant that the majority should seize its freedom, through its own efforts, by turning the economy into a reflection of the democratic ideal. That is not just an ideal worth remembering but one worth recovering.

Reconstruction matters because it is dangerous.

Alex Gourevitch is an assistant professor of political science at Brown University and the author of From Slavery To the Cooperative Commonwealth: Labor and Republican Liberty in the Nineteenth Century.

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Why Are So Many Distraught to Learn that Slavery Was the Cause of the Civil War? 

HNN   July 19, 2015

We would all like to be able to believe stories and events that we have heard throughout our life. Regardless of where we acquire them, no one likes to feel as though they need to fact check. In history as well as other disciplines, the need to corroborate the narrative is simply a given. We refer to this study as historiography. Essentially the examination of not just the history, but who is telling the history. Who are the individuals, are they objective in recording the events, and do they have biases that would alter what we would otherwise take as truth? More importantly, it is an excellent life lesson, being able to be critical in a constructive manner. In other words, not being gullible.

I always begin the semester by showing my classes a clip of Ron Paul giving a lecture on the origins of the Civil War. To sum up this lengthy talk, he is advocating that the Civil War was fought solely based on state’s rights issues, little to do with slavery. That being said, today nearly all scholars would argue that this belief is a complete fallacy. The catalyst for the Civil War was one hundred percent based on the issue of slavery, more specifically the expansion of such. However, the more imperative issue I try to convey to my students is who wrote such a narrative that made its way into our country’s story and there became taken as truth?

The answer is actually surprisingly simple, the losers. There was a massive campaign throughout the South, years following the Civil War, to illustrate the South did not fight for such an institution, but for individual rights. The comparison of the South to our Founding Father’s similar fight during the American Revolution is a noteworthy example. Of course, over time this becomes even more deeply engrained, even making its way into the textbooks.

Why? Because who in the middle of the twentieth century wanted to admit great grandpa fought for something other than an honorable and admirable ideology. Ron Paul would be the product of this faulty narrative being taught in school and he would then go on to proliferate that same message. An individual who did not study the American Civil War in depth, would potentially take what a well thought of leader such as Ron Paul said simply as the truth, without hesitation.

It is normal and expected to trust individuals whom we admire or appear to be knowledgeable on a topic. There are countless times I find myself falling into this same trap. Whether it is our banker, our politicians, or others, history teaches us that a society that flourishes questions what has always been accepted as reality. Therefore we enable modifications to the status quo and perhaps affect positive change.

South Carolina recently signed a bill to remove the Confederate flag from their capitol. Despite the arguments of a loss of history to some degree, we could argue questioning the meaning of a Confederate flag flying above a government institution in the twenty-first century leads us to be more sensitive to race relations and equality in a progressive nation. Regardless of whether we agree or disagree with the flag’s removal is irrelevant. The significance is to applaud the idea that we are being constructively critical, questioning what our ideology as a society may be lacking, and possibly teaching our younger generations to follow suit in the world they will be creatimg.

Dale Schlundt holds a Master’s Degree in Adult Education with a concentration in American History from the University of Texas at San Antonio. He is currently an Adjunct Professor for Palo Alto College and Northwest Vista College. Dale has two new books available, Tracking Life’s Lessons: Through Experiences, History, and a Little Interpretation and Education Decoded (A Collection of My Writings) now available on Amazon.

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America’s Long History of Racial Fear


We’re History  June 24, 2015
An Amalgamation Waltz

An Amalgamation Waltz. Edward Williams Clay, 1839 (Photo: American Antiquarian Society)

Calling Wednesday’s shootings in Charleston a “tragedy” makes this explosion of murderous violence seem like an accident. It isn’t an accident. It is the legacy of an excruciating history that began with racial slavery and continued through the post-Civil War campaign to maintain white supremacy – a campaign that has persisted to the present day and which shapes how many white Americans think about and respond to black Americans.

At the heart of Wednesday’s violence is America’s history of chattel slavery, a labor system built on violence, in which all whites were effectively authorized to do violence to African Americans in order to keep them at work and prevent them from challenging their enslavement. But this brutal system also produced rebellions. Whites – even those who never owned a slave – lived with the fear that that racial order might be turned upside down, destroying everything that they held dear. In other words, whites attributed to blacks the same desire for domination that they themselves were exercising. It is no accident that the alleged shooter is reported to have said: “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country.”

The history of chattel slavery, upended in the Civil War, was followed by the history of Reconstruction, a moment during which America’s racial hierarchy was unsettled, and black people were able to claim a measure of political and civil equality. But the moment was a brief one. White conservatives all over the South, abetted by many white northerners, denounced the new interracial Southern governments as exactly the “world turned upside down” that they had feared during slavery. They overthrew those governments by force and fraud and set about reconstructing white supremacy as best they could without the law of slavery as a foundation.

The Reconstruction years thus gave way to another history: the continuing struggle by white supremacist activists to create and enforce Jim Crow’s exclusion, segregation, and lynching. This struggle took a lot of work, and it required that whites remain intensely fearful of blacks. One of the greatest victories of white supremacy in this era was to persuade whites that they confronted an epidemic of black men raping white women. Despite overwhelming evidence that this claim was unfounded (especially as revealed by Ida B. Wells-Barnett), the fantasy that predatory black men routinely victimized white women became the justification for lynching. Those fears may have run deepest in the South, where the great majority of the black population resided well into the twentieth century, but they found a home in the North and West as well.

As Jim Crow began to crack beneath the blows of the post-WWII black freedom movement, politicians drew on that history to sustain white racial domination. Scare campaigns against the Civil Rights Movement promised that civil and political equality would unleash black men’s alleged sexual ambitions and, once again, overturn a well-established racial hierarchy. The power and persuasiveness of those arguments helped explain the residential segregation and redlining across the North that lies at the heart of so many of today’s inequities. It lay behind the differential sentencing laws for powder and crack cocaine and undergirded the fearful discussion of “super-predators” in the 1980s and 1990s. It is still used to justify the overwhelmingly disproportionate police scrutiny, arrest, and conviction and incarceration of African Americans.

America’s long racial history of imagining blacks as fearsome, criminal, and bent on political and sexual domination has never gone away. This is not because the fantasy is real, but because it has played such a powerful role for hundreds of years. No wonder that it is so readily wielded as a weapon, whether through cynicism, ignorance, or ruthlessness. No wonder that its murderous version of history was so easy for Dylann Roof to find and embrace.

Dylan Roof’s murderous night is not simply a South Carolina tragedy. It is an expression and a consequence of American history – a history that the nation has hardly reckoned with, much less overcome.

About the Author

Stephen Kantrowitz

Stephen Kantrowitz is Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of several books, including Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy.

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The Hypocritical and Shameful History of the Democratic Party Before the Civil War 

HNN  June 15, 2015

Hoosier William Kennedy was apoplectic in July 1854. “We may expect no better of such as Douglas and Pettit and all the Northern Doughfaces that Followed in their wake,” Kennedy wrote furiously to his congressman. “They have made themselves far beneath Judas he got thirty pieces of silver for betraying his lord and master but they have betrayed him in his ministry.” Clearly, Kennedy felt deceived. But what could have made him so angry? The answer is plain: His Congressional representatives disregarded the desires of their constituents when they voted in favor of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Many Northern Democrats were stunned when their congressmen supported a bill that violated Northern free soil sentiment by permitting the expansion of slavery into the western territories.

Kennedy understood in the summer of 1854 what most Northern Democrats would not realize until the winter of 1857 – that a significant portion of Northern Democratic office-holders held anti-democratic principles; that they favored minority rule over the majority will, and had no qualms about ignoring their own constituents in order to implement such policies and further their own careers. These few Democrats, unfortunately, held the balance of power both within the party and in the federal government, casting the crucial Northern votes for pro-slavery candidates and legislation, causing, in the end, the fragmentation of their party and the near destruction of the Union. Kennedy and Northern Democrats would find the 1850s a troubling time as their Congressmen seemed to be serving Southern slaveowners rather than Northern free men. Southern minority domination was what they sought, but civil war was what they wrought.1

Democracy, and its kin concept of egalitarianism, was at the heart of the political and social rhetoric of the antebellum Democratic Party. In fact, the party was commonly known as simply “the Democracy,” primarily by its adherents. Democratic Party icons Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson employed this rhetoric with astonishing success, claiming that the party was the sole defender of individual liberties and the laboring masses against the evils of special privilege and concentrated wealth, while they, themselves, were wealthy, powerful, and privileged. The rhetoric masked a deeper, darker agenda that was, ironically, largely contradictory to the party’s professed principles. From its inception under Jefferson in the 1790s, the Democratic Party was controlled by Southern slave-owners, and aggressively pursued a pro-Southern, pro-slavery program, often at the expense of its own Northern wing. Nevertheless, the rhetoric was potent enough to hold the loyalty of a generation of Northerners, even as many of them recognized the uneven nature of the coalition. The banner may have read freedom, equality, and democracy, but the reality was an organization dedicated to slavery, concentrated wealth in the form of land and slaves, and anti-democratic, minority rule.

Southern power and slavery expansion were the fundamental principles of the antebellum Democracy. The party structure, itself, was designed to protect and further these objectives and was a glaring example of minority, anti-democratic rule. From the beginning, Southerners used parliamentary procedure to preserve control of the party apparatus, despite the North’s fast increasing population. In the 1810s and 1820s, they employed the secret caucus, then, after widespread backlash against that practice, the “two-thirds rule,” which required the consent of two-thirds of convention delegates to achieve passage of resolutions, platforms, and nominations. The two-thirds rule successfully prevented any Northerner who did not endorse slavery from gaining the presidential nomination, as well as prevent any anti-slavery notions from sneaking into resolutions. (Indeed, it was enough to thwart former President Martin Van Buren’s bid for the nomination in 1844, despite the fact that a majority of the convention supported him. The Southern-controlled meeting instead turned to the slave-owning expansionist James Polk of Tennessee.) While a two-thirds rule might seem to ensure the will of the majority, it was, in practice, a form of minority domination. Southerners, though a numeric minority, could, with the aid of a few willing Northerners, dictate policy and candidates.

Surprisingly, by the 1850s Democrats no longer bothered to hide their anti-democratic values, especially Northern Democrats who were well-aware that their actions violated the will of their constituents. Their votes on pro-slavery legislation were clear enough, but in the halls of Congress, in partisan presses, and in personal correspondence, they bragged about their disregard for the populace. Furthermore, they weaved warped arguments about the dangers of majority rule and the necessity for unfettered elected officials. When former Democratic Senator Daniel Dickinson of New York was asked in 1853 why he had repeatedly turned a deaf ear to both his constituents and the New York state legislature, he struck a cavalier attitude: “I should best discharge my duty to the constitution and the Union by disregarding such instructions altogether; and although they were often afterwards repeated, and popular indignities threatened, I disregarded them accordingly.”2

In both word and deed, Democrats advocated for anti-democratic minority rule. The most potent example is the Lecompton Constitution of Kansas. Created by a small minority of pro-slavery militants in the summer of 1857, the Lecompton Constitution was designed to force slavery on the free-state majority of that territory. In the fall of that year, the document was sent to Congress for approval. If Congress accepted it, majority rule would be discarded and minority, pro-slavery rule would be enthroned against the will of the people. By employing parliamentary tricks, presidential influence, and outright bribery, Democrats were able to push the bill through Congress (though the people of Kansas rejected it regardless).

In addition to their votes, Democrats gave voice to a virulent strain of anti-democratic, minority rule theory that has heretofore been ignored by scholars. Though Southern Democrats had been vocal about their fear of the majority for generations, such words were shocking from the mouths of Northern Democrats. The first, and most prominent argument in favor of minority rule was that the crisis in Kansas had created a national calamity that needed to be brought to a swift end. A conclusion to the crisis, Northern Democrats asserted, could only be achieved through a speedy acceptance of the flawed Lecompton Constitution, regardless of the will of the territorial majority.

A second argument reasoned that it made no difference whatsoever that Lecompton violated the will of the majority, only that the process of its creation appeared to be legal. Others fashioned an alternative view of history in order to rationalize forcing Lecompton onto Kansas, emphasizing the dangers of the mob and claiming that the federal government had been designed by the Founding Fathers to prevent majority rule.

Still others justified their actions in the service of the Slave Power by claiming that Congressmen, once elected, were free to follow their own judgment, regardless of the wishes of their constituents. And finally, a fifth rationale maintained that the public could not always be trusted to vote on legislation and constitutions, and therefore the sentiments of majorities – either in Kansas or the nation as a whole – were sometimes irrelevant. These themes, though distinct, often operated simultaneously in the reasoning of Northern Democrats as they struggled to defend their service to the South.

From President Buchanan’s message on the first day of the first session of the Thirty-Fifth Congress, to closing remarks and final votes on Lecompton in April 1858, determined Democrats labored to convince their colleagues and the nation that pro-slavery, minority rule in Kansas was both desirable and necessary. The first argument, that of expediency, was the most common. Following Buchanan’s lead, Democrats asserted that “Bleeding Kansas” and the crisis over slavery in the territories could only be brought to a conclusion through a speedy, unceremonious acceptance of Lecompton. It mattered not, they argued, that Lecompton was unrepresentative, fraudulent, and enormously unpopular. Rather, it was the only bill before Congress that would bring the territory into the Union immediately; Lecompton and Kansas were just waiting for admission, and all Congress had to do was vote “aye.”

Like the plea for expediency, the second rationale – the veneer of legality (provided by administration recognition) was enough to accept Lecompton, despite its many flaws – appeared in the arguments of several Democrats. President Buchanan’s message to Congress on December 8, 1857 provides an example of this line of thought. Downplaying election frauds in Kansas, Buchanan declared that since the elections that produced the constitutional conventional in Lecompton appeared legal, the results must be binding, regardless of the will of the majority. The free-state majority that boycotted the elections, he reasoned, had been given every opportunity to exercise their voting rights and chose not to do so, thus forfeiting its right to oppose the outcome. “A large portion of the citizens of Kansas,” he explained, “did not think proper to register their names and to vote at the election for delegates; but an opportunity to do this having been fairly afforded, their refusal to avail themselves of their right could in no manner affect the legality of the convention.” Or, as Senator Graham Fitch of Indiana later stated, “That many, and perhaps a majority of the citizens of Kansas did not vote either at the election of representatives to the Territorial Legislature, or delegates to the convention, may be true. Where is your remedy? You cannot compel men to vote. They can only be permitted and invited to do so.” This rationale stunned Northern voters who saw clearly that the Kansas free-state majority had boycotted the elections because of widespread electoral fraud and violence.3

The third argument against majority will – that majorities are dangerous – can be seen in Senator Fitch’s comments in late December. The Hoosier senator argued that citizens should not have control over their own constitutions, and that popular approval of constitutions was undesirable. “The recognition of popular sovereignty by the repeal of the Missouri line,” he claimed, “consisted in the fact that it placed the question of slavery where all others previously were. It did not provide, nor did it contemplate, nor did its supporters imagine, nor did its author intimate, that it contemplated the submission of every bank proposition, every internal improvement project, every school system, every election qualification in a new constitution, to the people, before the people by and for whom it was formed should be admitted to the Union.” Fitch then launched an attack on majority rule in general. “Our Government is one of checks and balances; and some of its checks apply even to the people themselves. Among the objects of our government, one is to protect the legal rights of the minority against an illegal assumption or a denial of those rights by a majority . . . If a majority resolve itself into a mob, and will neither vote nor observe law or order, the minority who are law-abiding, who form and obey government, cannot be deprived of the benefits and protection of that government by such majority. Is mobocracy to be substituted for democracy?” By equating majority rule with “mobocracy,” Fitch dismissed any opposition to Lecompton as catering to the ignorant masses and violating the intent of the Founding Fathers.4

In addition to Fitch’s surprising attack on majority rule, still another argument was raised in defense of the Slave Power. Senator Jesse Bright, also from Indiana, took the floor in March 1858. His lecture on republican government presents a fourth theme in the fight for Lecompton and minority rule. He argued that congressmen, once elected, were no longer bound to follow the wishes of their constituents. Their election, he maintained, constituted a moral and political blank check, regardless of the manner of election. “Nothing . . . can be clearer to my mind than the proposition that the act of delegates legally elected, and acting within the scope of the powers conferred upon them, is the act of the people themselves. According to the genius and theory of American constitutions, it is entirely immaterial by what majority such delegates are elected, or what number of voters appeared at the polls.” It did not matter, reasoned Bright, if the election was fraudulent or unrepresentative, only that it occurred; the will of the majority was irrelevant.5

Bright’s lecture led him to a fifth argument in favor of ignoring the will of the majority – that the American people could not be trusted to make decisions. The practice of submitting constitutions to a popular vote, or subjecting legislation to the majority will, he asserted, was destructive to American government. “So strong . . . is my conviction of the viciousness of the principle of submitting to a direct vote of the people the propriety of the enactment or rejection of laws, that for one I am prepared to extend the same objection to the submission of entire constitutions to the same tribunal.” The people, either the majority in Kansas or the nation as a whole, should have no voice in government, except at elections, and then only as long as the will of the people did not run counter to the interests of the Slave Power. Though Bright explained it best, many other Democrats used this rationale to defend their own actions in the service of slavery. These five arguments in favor of minority rule rationalized their disregard for their constituents and their support for a highly unpopular and blatantly undemocratic policy in Kansas.6

It is clear, then, that the antebellum Democratic Party was democratic in name only. By practicing minority rule within the party, trying to force slavery on an unwilling populace, denying people the right to vote, and arguing that majority rule was dangerous and disagreeable, Democrats’ violated their own professed principles.

1 James Shields to Charles Lanphier, Oct 25, 1854, Charles Lanphier Papers, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library; William Kennedy to John G. Davis, July 1, 1854, John G. Davis Papers, Indiana Historical Society.

2 Daniel Dickinson to Henry E. Orr, Sept 13, 1853 in Daniel S. Dickinson, Speeches, Correspondence, Etc., of the Late Daniel S. Dickinson, of New York. Ed by John R. Dickinson (New York: G.P. Putnam & Son, 1867), 476-481.

3 CG, 35C-1S, 4-5, 138; Appendix to the CG, 35C-1S, 1-5.

4 CG, 35C-1S, 137-138.

5 Appendix to the CG, 35C-1S, 163-166.

6 Appendix to the CG, 35C-1S, 163-166.

Michael Todd Landis, an Assistant Professor of History at Tarleton State University, is the author of Northern Men with Southern Loyalties: The Democratic Party and the Sectional Crisis.


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How the Civil War Changed the Constitution

disunion45The most obvious constitutional result of the Civil War was the adoption of three landmark constitutional amendments. The 13th ended slavery forever in the United States, while the 14th made all persons born in the United States (including the former slaves) citizens of the nation and prohibited the states from denying anyone the privileges and immunities of American citizenship, due process or law, or equal protection of the law. Finally, the 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, prohibited the states from denying the franchise to anyone based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

These amendments, however, have their roots in the war itself, and in some ways can been seen as formal acknowledgments of the way the war altered the Constitution. Other changes came about without any amendments. Thus, the war altered the Constitution in a variety of ways. A review of some of them underscores how the Union that President Lincoln preserved was fundamentally different — and better — than the Union he inherited when he became president.

The first and most obvious change involves slavery. The 13th Amendment was possible (as were the other two Civil War amendments) only because the war broke slavery’s stranglehold over politics and constitutional development. The Constitution of 1787 protected slavery at every turn. Although framers did not use the word “slavery” in the document, everyone at the Constitutional Convention understood the ways in which the new form of government protected slavery. Indeed, the word “slavery” was not used at the request of the Connecticut delegation and some other Northerners, who feared that their constituents would not ratify the Constitution if the word was in the document — not because the delegates objected to the word itself.

It would take many pages to review all the proslavery features of the Constitution, but here are some of the most significant ones. The three-fifths clause gave the South extra members of the House of Representatives, based on the number of slaves in each state. Without these representatives, created entirely by slavery, proslavery legislation like the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 could never have been passed.

Equally important, votes in the Electoral College were based on the number of representatives in the House, and so slavery gave the South a bonus in electing the president. Without the electors created by slavery, the slaveholding Thomas Jefferson would have lost the election of 1800 to the non-slaveholding John Adams.

The “domestic insurrections clause” guaranteed that federal troops would be used to suppress slave rebellions, as they were in the Nat Turner Rebellion in 1831 and John Brown’s attempt to start a slave rebellion in 1859.

An image from Harper's Weekly showing the House of Representatives during the passage of the 13th Amendment, Jan. 31, 1865.

An image from Harper’s Weekly showing the House of Representatives during the passage of the 13th Amendment, Jan. 31, 1865.Credit Library of Congress

Finally, it took two-thirds of Congress to send a constitutional amendment to the states, and it took three-fourths of the states to ratify any amendment. Had the 15 slave states all remained in the Union, to this day, in 2015, it would be impossible to end slavery by constitutional amendment, since in a 50-state union, it takes just 13 states to block an amendment.

The political power of the slave states meant that the nation was always forced to protect slavery. Thus the South in effect controlled politics from 1788 until 1861. Slave owners held the presidency for all but 12 years between 1788 and 1850. All of the two-term presidents were slave owners. Three Northerners held the office from 1850 to 1860 — Fillmore, Pierce and Buchanan – but all were proslavery and they bent over backward to placate the South.

It took the Civil War to break slavery’s stranglehold on politics and fundamentally alter the nature of constitutional law and constitutional change.

The demise of slavery began with slaves running away and the army freeing them. But the key moment was the Emancipation Proclamation, which was the first important executive order in American history. In order to destroy slavery — and save the Union — Lincoln found new power for his office.

Secession and Nullification
Since the beginning of the nation, claims that states could nullify federal law or even secede had destabilized American politics and constitutional law. Sometimes Northerners made these claims, such as the disgruntled New Englanders who organized the Hartford Convention to oppose the War of 1812. But most claims of nullification came from the slave South. In 1798 Jefferson secretly wrote the “Kentucky Resolutions,” while his friend James Madison wrote the “Virginia Resolutions”; both asserted the right of the states to nullify federal law.

From the earliest debates over the Union, in the Second Continental Congress, until the eve of the Civil War, numerous Southern politicians publicly advocated secession if they did not get their way on issues involving slavery and other issues. In 1832-33 South Carolina asserted the right to nullify the federal tariff, and then officially (although mostly symbolically) passed an ordinance to nullify the Force Law, which authorized the president to use appropriate military or civil power to enforce federal laws. At this time Georgia also brazenly declared it did not have to abide by a federal treaty with the Cherokees. In 1850 Southerners held two secession conventions, which went nowhere. In the debates over what became of the Compromise of 1850, Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina asserted the right of the South to block federal law.

Some Northern opponents of slavery — most notably William Lloyd Garrison — argued for Northern secession because they rightly understood that slavery dominated the American government. But Garrison had few followers, and even many of them never accepted his slogan of “No Union With Slaveholders.” In the mid-1850s the Wisconsin Supreme Court declared the Fugitive Slave Law unconstitutional, but when the Supreme Court upheld the law the Wisconsin Court backed off.

In short, nullification and secession were not new ideas in 1861, when 11 states left the union, but had been part of the warp and weft of constitutional debate since the founding. But the Civil War ended the discussion. The question of the constitutionality of nullification or secession was permanently settled by the “legal case” of Lee v. Grant, decided at Appomattox Court House in April 1865. Grant had successfully defended the Constitution and the idea of a perpetual Union. Secession lost, and the United States won. The Supreme Court would weigh in on this in Texas v. White (1869), holding that secession had never been legal and that the state governments in the Confederacy lacked any legal authority.

Money and National Power
From the beginning of the nation there had been debates over whether the United States government could issue currency. Indeed, before the Civil War there was no national currency, only “bank notes” issued by private banks or state banks. For two periods (1791-1811 and 1816-1836) the federally chartered Bank of the United States circulated bank notes that functioned as a national currency. But Andrew Jackson vetoed the bank’s recharter on the grounds that it was unconstitutional, and for the next 25 years the nation’s economy was hampered by the lack of a stable, national currency.

civil-war-sumter75-popupThe war changed this, too. In order to finance the war, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase developed a policy that led to the issuing of “greenbacks,” and suddenly the constitutional issue was settled — not in court, but by the exigency of the conflict. The Supreme Court was perplexed by this new policy and after the war the court briefly declared that issuing greenbacks was unconstitutional, but then quickly changed its mind. Since then, the dollar has emerged as the most important currency in the world. Although no longer backed by gold or silver, American currency remains “the gold standard” for international transactions.

Military Law and Civilians
The war also created a new set of rules — laws that are still with us — for when and how military tribunals or martial law can apply to civilians. For example, when the war began there were no federal laws prohibiting acts of sabotage or for preventing civilians from forming armies to make war on the United States. Nor was there any national police force. Thus, President Lincoln suspended habeas corpus along the railroad route from Philadelphia to Washington and used the Army to arrest pro-Confederate terrorists, like John Merryman, who was tearing up railroads leading to Washington, D.C., and trying to organize a Confederate army in Maryland.

Again, this was a matter of necessity, not ideology: Congress was not in session, and so Lincoln acted on is own authority. Indeed, if Merryman had been successful, members of Congress would have been unable to reach Washington to meet. Congress later approved Lincoln’s actions and authorized even more-massive suspensions of habeas corpus. Thus, the Constitutional rule from the Civil War is that in a dire emergency the government may act to restrain people to preserve public safety.

But what happens when the immediate and pressing emergency is over? May the military still be used to arrest and try civilians? The answer from the Civil War is an emphatic no. During the war military officials in Indiana arrested Lamdin P. Milligan for trying to organize a Confederate army in that state. There was no combat in Indiana at the time, civil society was smoothly functioning, and even Milligan’s allies were not blowing up bridges or destroying railroads as Merryman had been doing. Nevertheless, the Army tried Milligan and sentenced him to death. In 1866, in Ex parte Milligan, the Supreme Court ruled that the trial was unconstitutional. The military might arrest Milligan because of the emergency of the war (just as it had arrested Merryman), but the court ruled that if the civilian courts were open, as they were in Indiana, it was unconstitutional to try a civilian in a military court.

This has generally been the law of the land ever since. In the aftermath of 9/11 the Supreme Court upheld the rule that civilians (even terrorists in the United States) could not be tried by military tribunals, but could only be tried by civilian courts. The Justices relied on Milligan.


Racial Change and the Movement Toward Racial Equality
When the war began, federal law denied African-Americans virtually all constitutional rights. In Dred Scott v. Sandford, decided in 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney ruled that blacks could never be citizens of the United States, even if they were treated as citizens in the states where they lived. This led to the oddity that blacks could vote for members of Congress and presidential electors in six states, and could hold office in those states and some others, but they were not citizens of the nation. Federal law nevertheless supported Taney’s rulings. For example, before the war blacks could not be members of state militias, serve in the national army, receive passports from the State Department, or be letter carriers for the post office.

During the war all this began to change. In 1862 Congress authorized the recruitment of blacks in the national army and in state militias. While most black soldiers were enlisted men, some served as noncommissioned officers, and a few served as officers. Martin Delaney held the rank of major. Just as striking, Eli Parker, a member of the Seneca nation, served on Ulysses S. Grant’s personal staff as a lieutenant colonel and was promoted to brevet brigadier general at the very end of the war.

The war also broke down racial and ethnic/religious taboos and attitudes. Abraham Lincoln became the first president to meet with blacks, and in the case of Frederick Douglass, seek out their advice. In 1864 and 1865 Congress gave charters to street railway companies that required that there be no discrimination in seating. Congress also changed the law that limited military chaplains to ministers of the gospel, thus allowing rabbis and Roman Catholic priests to become chaplains. During the war Congress created the office of recorder of the deeds for the city of Washington. The first officer holder was Simon Wolfe, a Jewish immigrant, but after that, the office was held by African-Americans for the rest of the century, including Frederick Douglass, Blanch Bruce, a former senator, and Henry P. Cheatham, a former congressman. In his last public speech Lincoln called for enfranchising black veterans and other members of their race. Five years later the Constitution would reflect that goal in the 14th and 15th amendments.

Today we rightly look back at these two amendments, and the 13th, as the most important lasting constitutional legacies of the Civil War. And that they are. But it is also important that we look at how America’s understanding of the Constitution, especially as it related to racial and ethnic equality, changed during the course of the war, and not simply as a consequence of it. Put differently: The Civil War amendments changed the Constitution. But even if, somehow, they had never happened, the war itself would have altered the way Americans saw one another, and their government.


Paul Finkelman is a senior fellow in the Penn Program on Democracy, Citizenship and Constitutionalism at the University of Pennsylvania and a scholar-in-residence at the National Constitution Center.

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Did the American Civil War Ever End?

A giant bust of Lincoln by the artist David Adickes in a field outside of Williston, North Dakota.

A giant bust of Lincoln by the artist David Adickes in a field outside of Williston, North Dakota.Credit Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

disunion45When did the Civil War end? Many have answered never. As late as 1949, in an address at Harvard, the writer Ralph Ellison said that the war “is still in the balance, and only our enchantment by the spell of the possible, our endless optimism, has led us to assume that it ever really ended.”

Still, there was an ending of sorts, in 1865. Sometimes, it came cleanly, as with Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox on April 9. At other times, the war just seemed to give out, as soldiers melted away from their regiments and began to find their way home. Other generals in more distant theaters fought on gamely: Not until June 23 did Stand Watie, a Cherokee chief and a Confederate brigadier general, sign a cease-fire agreement at Doaksville, in what is now Oklahoma. The last Confederates of all were the furthest away: After evading capture in the North Pacific, the confederate raider Shenandoah sailed all the way to Liverpool, where its crew surrendered on Nov. 6, the fifth anniversary of Lincoln’s election.

Then there was Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. This sickening act of violence, when added to all the others, brought a definitive feeling that an era had ended, as surely as Lincoln’s election in November 1860 had precipitated it. The funeral train that carried Lincoln’s remains home to Springfield, Ill., drew millions, and while the tragedy felt senseless, it also offered the nation a chance to mourn something much larger than the death of a single individual. To the end, Lincoln served a higher cause.

After he was laid to rest, on May 4, the armies united for an epic display of glory, worthy of Rome. Over two days, on May 23 and 24, more than 150,000 soldiers marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington before a reviewing stand where President Andrew Johnson and Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant stood.

That was a political as well as a military statement, for this vast army did not exactly disappear. The Grand Army of the Republic, founded in 1866, would become a potent lobbying force for veterans. Its immense gatherings helped to choose Lincoln’s successors for decades.

More than a year later, on Aug. 20, 1866, President Johnson proclaimed that final pockets of resistance in Texas were “at an end.” We could call this, too, the close of the war.

But much remained “in the balance,” as Ellison said; uncomfortable, unfinished. Certainly, the presence of so many veterans was a new fact for Americans, and kept the war alive, simmering, for decades.

More than a few required help to cope with their trauma, and the federal government, which had grown so much during the war, grew again to address their needs. It paid out pensions, it built hospitals, it maintained service records, and it assumed more responsibility for the mental and physical health of those who had given so much. That was an important precedent for the New Deal and the Great Society.

To this day, as a recent Wall Street Journal article reported, an elderly North Carolina woman, Irene Triplett, collects $73.13 a month for her father’s pension. He served in both the Confederate and Union armies: His tombstone avoids that complexity by saying simply, “He was a Civil War soldier.”

Reintegrating these former soldiers took decades. What we now regard as the best Civil War fiction, such as the work of Stephen Crane and Ambrose Bierce, did not even appear until the 1890s, as if the war’s memory was too potent at first.

A new product, Coca-Cola, was introduced in 1885 by a former Confederate officer, John Pemberton, who had been slashed by a saber in the final fighting of the war, after Appomattox, then wrestled with an addiction to morphine, to dull the pain. A pharmacist, Pemberton experimented with a mysterious formula that derived from the coca leaf and the kola nut, to ease his suffering. The early marketing for the elixir suggested that it could reduce the symptoms that veterans suffered from, including neurasthenia, headaches and impotence.

Many veterans retained their sidearms, including Confederate officers, and weapons were easily available, thanks to an arms industry that had done great service to the Union cause. They could hardly be expected to voluntarily go out of business. With new products (like Winchester’s Model 1866 rifle), sophisticated distribution networks and a public eager to buy, the industry entered a highly profitable phase. Winchester’s repeating rifles needed hardly any time for reloading, and sold briskly in Europe, where American arms tipped the balance in local conflicts.

The Winchester was easily transported to the West, where new military campaigns were undertaken against Native Americans, and few could be blamed for wondering if the Civil War had in fact ended. Many of the same actors were present, and it could be argued that this was simply another phase of the crisis of Union, reconciling East and West, rather than North and South.

This tragic epilogue does not fit cleanly into the familiar narrative of the Civil War as a war of liberation. Peoples who had lived on ancestral lands for thousands of years were no match for a grimly experienced army, eager to occupy new lands, in part to reward the soldiers who had done the fighting.

Natives called the repeating rifles “spirit guns,” and had no answer for them. They fought courageously, but in the end had no choice but to accept relocation, often to reservations hundreds of miles away. Adolf Hitler would cite these removals as a precedent for the Nazi concentration camps.

In other ways, the war endured. The shift westward created a huge market for building products, furnishings and all of the technologies that had advanced so quickly during the fighting. One skill that amazed observers was the speed with which Americans could build railroads and the bridges that they needed to cross. Between 1865 and 1873, more than 35,000 miles of tracks were laid, greater than the entire domestic rail network in 1860.

This activity was very good for business. Huge profits were made as those who had become wealthy supplying the war effort adapted to the needs of a civilian population eager to start anew. Indeed, it is difficult to tell from the 1870 census that any war had taken place at all. The 1860 census had valued the total wealth of the United States at $16 billion; 10 years later, it was nearly twice that, $30 billion. So many immigrants came between 1860 and 1870 that the population grew 22.6 percent, to 38.5 million, despite the massive losses of war dead.

To careful observers in 1865, it was palpable that something important had already happened during the war. To organize victory, a grand consolidation had taken place, in which leading concerns had improved their organizations, crushed their smaller rivals and strengthened distribution networks. The railroad was a key part of this consolidation; so was the telegraph, often built along the tracks. Military goods needed to move quickly around the country to supply armies, and all of those skills were instantly transferable to private enterprise. One firm, an express freight delivery service founded in Buffalo, moved its goods slightly faster than the competition. It was, and is, known as American Express.

civil-war-sumter75-popupInformation was vital to make all of these systems work. During the war, the Military Telegraph Corps built 8 to 12 miles of telegraph line a day; and the military alone sent 6.5 million messages during the war. By the end of 1866, more than 80,000 miles of line existed, and these were rapidly extended into the West and South, reknitting some of the strands of Union.

Entirely new sectors of the economy had sprung up as well. In 1859, on the eve of the conflict, oil was discovered in northwestern Pennsylvania, and throughout the war, its value became clear to a war economy that urgently needed to lubricate the machinery of production. John D. Rockefeller bought a refinery in Cleveland in 1863, a major step on the way to the creation of Standard Oil. As soon as the war ended, the search for oil in new locations began: The first well in Texas was dug in 1866, in Nacogdoches County.

Many veterans, having paid so dearly for freedom, were troubled to come back from the war, only to find a new economy, dominated by industrial barons, quite a few of whom had paid substitutes to do their army service. Lincoln’s words about freedom continued to move people, but his emphasis on equality seemed to fade as the power of money rose to new heights. It was not only that a small elite had become extremely wealthy; but money itself seemed to move in new ways, fast and loose.

In other words, it was unclear to many Americans what, exactly, they had won. A great evil had been defeated; and Union forcibly defined and defended. But so rapid were the changes unleashed by the war that soldiers blinked their eyes in amazement when they returned home. Like Ulysses, the Greek hero their commander was named after, they often did not recognize the country they came back to.

Perhaps the most complicated legacy of the war was its claim to have liberated millions of African-Americans from slavery. This was not the official purpose of the war when it began in 1861, but it became so, especially after the scale of the war required a cause worthy of so great a sacrifice.

But when did slavery actually end? Was it the national ratification of the 13th amendment, on Dec. 6, 1865? Or the day Mississippi ratified it, in 1995? Or the gift of full citizenship (including voting rights) to African-Americans? There are those who would argue that we are still waiting for that Day of Jubilee. To read the stories that came out of Ferguson, Mo., Cleveland and Baltimore in the last year — all communities that remained in the Union — is to realize how distant the victory of the Civil War feels to large numbers of African-Americans.

Of course, that does not minimize the importance of the Confederacy’s defeat. It ended forever a way of life and politics that had dominated the United States from its founding. It accelerated the demise of slavery where it still existed, in Cuba and Brazil, and encouraged liberals around the world to push for greater rights. In the fall of 1865, Victor Hugo wrote in a notebook, “America has become the guide among the nations.”

In France, Napoleon III was destabilized by Lincoln’s victory, and pulled back from his adventure in Mexico, where his puppet, Maximilian, was shot by a firing squad in 1867. Three years later, he was removed after his defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, and the transfer of the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine to Germany left a bitterness that would fuel the world wars of the 20th century.

Without the Civil War, and its tempering of the national character, would the United States have been able to mount a great global campaign against fascism? Surely it would have been feebler, without the manufacture of war matériel across all the regions, or the rhetoric of freedom Franklin D. Roosevelt used to inspire the world.

Nearly all of the national triumphs of the last century, from the civil rights movement to the exploration of space to the birth of the digital age, stemmed from the contributions of Southerners, Northerners and Westerners working together. We have had failures too — we see them on a daily basis. But the refusal to fall apart in 1861 made a difference.

Ted Widmer is an assistant to the president for special projects at Brown University, and the editor of “The New York Times Disunion: Modern Historians Revisit and Reconsider the Civil War from Lincoln’s Election to the Emancipation Proclamation.”

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How the Civil War Became the Indian Wars

The New York Times    May 25, 2015

These two conflicts, long segregated in history and memory, were in fact intertwined. They both grew out of the process of establishing an American empire in the West. In 1860, competing visions of expansion transformed the presidential election into a referendum. Members of the Republican Party hearkened back to Jefferson’s dream of an “empire for liberty.” The United States, they said, should move west, leaving slavery behind. This free soil platform stood opposite the splintered Democrats’ insistence that slavery, unfettered by federal regulations, should be allowed to root itself in new soil. After Abraham Lincoln’s narrow victory, Southern states seceded, taking their congressional delegations with them.

Never ones to let a serious crisis go to waste, leading Republicans seized the ensuing constitutional crisis as an opportunity to remake the nation’s political economy and geography. In the summer of 1862, as Lincoln mulled over the Emancipation Proclamation’s details, officials in his administration created the Department of Agriculture, while Congress passed the Morrill Land Grant Act, the Pacific Railroad Act and the Homestead Act. As a result, federal authorities could offer citizens a deal: Enlist to fight for Lincoln and liberty, and receive, as fair recompense for their patriotic sacrifices, higher education and Western land connected by rail to markets. It seemed possible that liberty and empire might advance in lock step.

But later that summer, Lincoln dispatched Gen. John Pope, who was defeated by Lee at the Second Battle of Bull Run, to smash an uprising among the Dakota Sioux in Minnesota. The result was the largest mass execution in the nation’s history: 38 Dakotas were hanged the day after Christmas 1862. A year later, Kit Carson, who had found glory at the Battle of Valverde, prosecuted a scorched-earth campaign against the Navajos, culminating in 1864 with the Long Walk, in which Navajos endured a 300-mile forced march from Arizona to a reservation in New Mexico.

That same year, Col. John Chivington, who turned back Confederates in the Southwest at the Battle of Glorieta Pass, attacked a peaceful camp of Cheyennes and Arapahos at Sand Creek in Colorado. Chivington’s troops slaughtered more than 150 Indians. A vast majority were women, children or the elderly. Through the streets of Denver, the soldiers paraded their grim trophies from the killing field: scalps and genitalia.

In the years after the Civil War, federal officials contemplated the problem of demilitarization. Over one million Union soldiers had to be mustered out or redeployed. Thousands of troops remained in the South to support Reconstruction. Thousands more were sent West. Set against that backdrop, the project of continental expansion fostered sectional reconciliation. Northerners and Southerners agreed on little at the time except that the Army should pacify Western tribes. Even as they fought over the proper role for the federal government, the rights of the states, and the prerogatives of citizenship, many Americans found rare common ground on the subject of Manifest Destiny.

Fort Sumter

During the era of Reconstruction, many American soldiers, whether they had fought for the Union or the Confederacy, redeployed to the frontier. They became shock troops of empire. The federal project of demilitarization, paradoxically, accelerated the conquest and colonization of the West.

The Fetterman Fight exploded out of this context. In the wake of the Sand Creek Massacre, Cheyennes, Arapahos and various Sioux peoples forged an alliance, hoping to stem the tide of settlers surging across the Plains. Officials in Washington sensed a threat to their imperial ambitions. They sent Maj. Gen. Grenville Dodge, who had commanded a corps during William Tecumseh Sherman’s pivotal Atlanta campaign, to win what soon became known as Red Cloud’s War. After another year of gruesome and ineffectual fighting, federal and tribal negotiators signed the Treaty of Fort Laramie, guaranteeing the Lakotas the Black Hills “in perpetuity” and pledging that settlers would stay out of the Powder River Country.

The Indian wars of the Reconstruction era devastated not just Native American nations but also the United States. When the Civil War ended, many Northerners embraced their government, which had, after all, proved its worth by preserving the Union and helping to free the slaves. For a moment, it seemed that the federal government could accomplish great things. But in the West, Native Americans would not simply vanish, fated by racial destiny to drown in the flood tide of civilization.

Red Cloud’s War, then, undermined a utopian moment and blurred the Republican Party’s vision for expansion, but at least the Grant administration had a plan. After he took office in 1869, President Grant promised that he would pursue a “peace policy” to put an end to violence in the West, opening the region to settlers. By feeding rather than fighting Indians, federal authorities would avoid further bloodshed with the nation’s indigenous peoples. The process of civilizing and acculturating Native nations into the United States could begin.

disunion45This plan soon unraveled. In 1872, Captain Jack, a Modoc headman, led approximately 150 of his people into the lava beds south of Tule Lake, near the Oregon-California border. The Modocs were irate because federal officials refused to protect them from local settlers and neighboring tribes. Panic gripped the region. General Sherman, by then elevated to command of the entire Army, responded by sending Maj. Gen. Edward Canby to pacify the Modocs. A decade earlier, Canby had devised the original plan for the Navajos’ Long Walk, and then later had helped to quell the New York City Draft Riots. Sherman was confident that his subordinate could handle the task at hand: negotiating a settlement with a ragtag band of frontier savages.

But on April 11, 1873, Good Friday, after months of bloody skirmishes and failed negotiations, the Modoc War, which to that point had been a local problem, became a national tragedy. When Captain Jack and his men killed Canby – the only general to die during the Indian wars – and another peace commissioner, the violence shocked observers around the United States and the world. Sherman and Grant called for the Modoc’s “utter extermination.” The fighting ended only when soldiers captured, tried, and executed Captain Jack and several of his followers later that year. Soon after, the Army loaded the surviving Modocs onto cattle cars and shipped them off to a reservation in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma).

President Grant’s Peace Policy perished in the Modoc War. The horror of that conflict, and the Indian wars more broadly, coupled with an endless array of political scandals and violence in the states of the former Confederacy – including the brutal murder, on Easter Sunday 1873 in Colfax, La., of at least 60 African-Americans – diminished support for the Grant administration’s initiatives in the South and the West.

The following year, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer claimed that an expedition he led had discovered gold in the Black Hills – territory supposedly safeguarded for the Lakotas by the Fort Laramie Treaty. News of potential riches spread around the country. Another torrent of settlers rushed westward. Hoping to preserve land sacred to their people, tribal leaders, including Red Cloud, met with Grant. He offered them a new reservation. “If it is such a good country,” one of the chiefs replied, “you ought to send the white men now in our country there and leave us alone.” Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull and other warriors began attacking settlers. Troops marched toward what would be called the Great Sioux War.

Crazy Horse and his band of Indians on their way from Camp Sheridan to surrender at Red Cloud Agency, 1877.

Horse and his band of Indians on their way from Camp Sheridan to surrender at Red Cloud Agency, 1877.Credit Library of Congress.

Early in 1876, Lt. Gen. Philip Sheridan, the Army’s commander on the Plains, insisted that all Indians in the region must return to their reservations. The Lakotas and Northern Cheyennes refused. That summer, as the nation celebrated its centennial, the allied tribes won two victories in Montana: first at the Rosebud and then at the Little Bighorn. The Army sent reinforcements. Congress abrogated the Lakotas’ claims to land outside their reservation. The bloodshed continued until the spring of 1877, when the tribal coalition crumbled. Sitting Bull fled to Canada. Crazy Horse surrendered and died in federal custody.

The final act of this drama opened in 1876. When federal officials tried to remove the Nez Perce from the Pacific Northwest to Idaho, hundreds of Indians began following a leader named Chief Joseph, who vowed to fight efforts to dispossess his people. Sherman sent Maj. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard, formerly head of the Freedmen’s Bureau, to quiet the brewing insurgency. As Howard traveled west, the 1876 election remained undecided. The Democrat Samuel Tilden had outpolled the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes by nearly 300,000 votes. But both men had fallen short in the Electoral College. Congress appointed a commission to adjudicate the result. In the end, that body awarded the Oval Office to Hayes. Apparently making good on a deal struck with leading Democrats, Hayes then withdrew federal troops from the South, scuttling Reconstruction.

Less than two months after Hayes’s inauguration, Howard warned the Nez Perce that they had 30 days to return to their reservation. Instead of complying, the Indians fled, eventually covering more than 1,100 miles of the Northwest’s forbidding terrain. Later that summer, Col. Nelson Miles, a decorated veteran of Antietam, the Peninsula Campaign and the Appomattox Campaign, arrived to reinforce Howard. Trapped, Chief Joseph surrendered on Oct. 5, 1877. He reportedly said: “I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”

One hundred and fifty years after the Civil War, collective memory casts that conflict as a war of liberation, entirely distinct from the Indian wars. President Lincoln died, schoolchildren throughout the United States learn, so that the nation might live again, resurrected and redeemed for having freed the South’s slaves. And though Reconstruction is typically recalled in the popular imagination as both more convoluted and contested – whether thwarted by intransigent Southerners, doomed to fail by incompetent and overweening federal officials, or perhaps some combination of the two – it was well intended nevertheless, an effort to make good on the nation’s commitment to freedom and equality.

But this is only part of the story. The Civil War emerged out of struggles between the North and South over how best to settle the West – struggles, in short, over who would shape an emerging American empire. Reconstruction in the West then devolved into a series of conflicts with Native Americans. And so, while the Civil War and its aftermath boasted moments of redemption and days of jubilee, the era also featured episodes of subjugation and dispossession, patterns that would repeat themselves in the coming years. When Chief Joseph surrendered, the United States secured its empire in the West. The Indian wars were over, but an era of American imperialism was just beginning..

Boyd Cothran is an assistant professor of United States Indigenous and cultural history at York University in Toronto and the author of “Remembering the Modoc War: Redemptive Violence and the Making of American Innocence.” Ari Kelman is the McCabe-Greer Professor of the Civil War Era at Penn State and the author of “A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek,” which won the Bancroft Prize in 2014, and, with Jonathan Fetter-Vorm, “Battle Lines: A Graphic History of the Civil War.” Cothran and Kelman are both writing books about the relationship between Reconstruction and Native American history

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The War of Northern Aggression

A leading Civil War historian challenges the new orthodoxy about how slavery ended in America.

Jacobin.com  Issue No. 7

EMANCI4 On November 6, 1860, the six-year-old Republican Party elected its first president. During the tense crisis months that followed — the “secession winter” of 1860–61 — practically all observers believed that Lincoln and the Republicans would begin attacking slavery as soon as they took power.

Democrats in the North blamed the Republican Party for the entire sectional crisis. They accused Republicans of plotting to circumvent the Constitutional prohibition against direct federal attacks on slavery. Republicans would instead allegedly try to squeeze slavery to death indirectly, by abolishing it in the territories and in Washington DC, suppressing it in the high seas, and refusing federal enforcement of the Slave Laws. The first to succumb to the Republican program of “ultimate extinction,” Democrats charged, would be the border states where slavery was most vulnerable. For Northern Democrats, this is what caused the crisis; the Republicans were to blame for trying to get around the Constitution.

Southern secessionists said almost exactly the same thing. The Republicans supposedly intended to bypass the Constitution’s protections for slavery by surrounding the South with free states, free territories, and free waters. What Republicans called a “cordon of freedom,” secessionists denounced as an inflammatory circle of fire.

The Southern cooperationists — those who opposed immediate secession — agreed with the secessionists’ and Northern Democrats’ analysis of Republican intentions. But they argued that the only way the Republicans would actually have the power to act on those intentions was if the Southern states seceded. If the slave states remained within the Union, the Republicans would not have the majorities in Congress to adopt their antislavery policies. And if the South did secede, all bets would be off. The rebellious states would forfeit all the constitutional protections of slavery. The South would get something much worse than a cordon of freedom. It would get direct military intervention, leading to the immediate and uncompensated emancipation of the slaves.

The slaves themselves seem to have understood this. They took an unusual interest in the 1860 election and had high hopes for what Lincoln’s victory would mean. They assumed that Lincoln’s inauguration would lead to war, that war would bring on a Union invasion of the South, and that the invading Union army would free the slaves.

But to read what historians have been saying for decades is to conclude that all of these people — the Democrats, the secessionists, the cooperationists, and the slaves — were all wrong. The Northern Democrats were just demagogues. The secessionists were hysterical. And the slaves were, alas, sadly misguided.

Unwilling to take seriously what contemporaries were saying, historians have constructed a narrative of Emancipation and the Civil War that begins with the premise that Republicans came into the war with no intention of attacking slavery — indeed, that they disavowed any antislavery intentions. The narrative is designed to demonstrate the original premise, according to which everyone at the time was mistaken about what the Republicans intended to do.

It’s a familiar chronology: Under the terms of the First Confiscation Act of August 1861, disloyal masters would “forfeit” the use of their slaves, but the slaves were not actually freed. Lincoln ordered General John C. Frémont to rescind his decree of that September freeing the slaves of rebels in Missouri, and several months later the President rescinded General Hunter’s order abolishing slavery in three states. As late as the summer of 1862, we are reminded, Lincoln was writing letters to Horace Greeley saying that if he could end the war without freeing a single slave, he would do so. Even after the President finally promised an emancipation proclamation, in September 1862, several months elapsed until the proclamation actually came on January 1, 1863.

Only then, according to the standard narrative, was the North committed to emancipation. Only then did the purpose of the Civil War expand from the mere restoration of the Union to include the overthrow of slavery.

In one form or another, this narrative is familiar to all scholars of the period. Historians who agree on little else will agree on this version of the story, even when they have entirely divergent interpretations of what it means.

But what if the original premise is wrong? What if, during the secession winter of 1860–61, everybody was right about what the Republicans intended to do about slavery? What if the Republicans came into the war ready and willing to destroy slavery? What does that do for a narrative of emancipation?

For one thing, it flies in the face of the prevailing neo-revisionism in contemporary Civil War scholarship. The old revisionist interpretation, which reached its zenith of influence in the 1930s and 1940s, came in many varieties. But it always rested on an essentially negative proposition: whatever else the war was about, it was not about slavery. This viewpoint required one set of claims about the South, and another about the North.


Revisionists claimed that slavery was already dying in the South, that it was unprofitable, that it wasn’t important to Southern economy and society, that it had reached the natural limits of its expansion, and that Southern leaders were more concerned about defending state rights than protecting slavery. Most contemporary historians, though not all of them, now reject these old revisionist claims. Slavery was thriving and the Southern states seceded to protect it.

But revisionists also claimed that the North did not go to war over slavery. If there were “interests” involved, they were the interests of Northern capitalists against Southern agrarians. The Civil War was an accident brought on by bungling politicians. The abolitionists were a tiny, beleaguered minority; most Northerners shared the general conviction of black racial inferiority. 
The South had slavery, the argument went, but the North was racist too. This argument, in turn, was really just a revival of the antebellum Democratic Party’s relentless efforts to shift the terms of debate from slavery to race.

Today, this revisionist interpretation of the North is alive and well. Indeed, it is pervasive among historians. We are repeatedly told that the North did not go to war over slavery. The Civil War is once again denounced as morally unjustified on the grounds that the North was not motivated by any substantial antislavery convictions. Emancipation itself is described as an accidental byproduct of a war the North fought for no purpose beyond the restoration of the Union. A recent study of the secession crisis states that during the war, slavery was abolished “inadvertently.”

Contemporary scholarship is saturated by this neo-revisionist premise. Like the antebellum Democrats and the Civil War revisionists, neo-revisionists have insistently shifted the terms of the debate from slavery to race. Virtually any Republican in 1860 would have recognized this argument as Democratic Party propaganda.

If I sound skeptical, that’s because I am. On the basis of my research, I can no longer accept the thesis that the Union did not begin emancipating slaves until 
January 1, 1863.

It was never my intention to overturn the conventional narrative. I began by accepting the standard assumption that that the first Confiscation Act achieved nothing. But I still wanted to know what Republicans thought they were doing when they passed the law. Why did the Act turn out to be so toothless? Why did it fail to free any slaves? Secondary accounts usually pass over this question; they couldn’t provide me with the answers I needed: who wrote the law, where did it come from, how did people talk about it?

To my astonishment, I discovered that Section Four of the Act, the clause specifically authorizing the forfeiture of slaves, was written by Senator Lyman Trumbull, chair of the Judiciary Committee, as an emancipation clause. Indeed, it was understood by everyone in Congress to be an emancipation clause. Trumbull’s proposal was denounced by Democrats and border-state congressmen as an emancipation clause, defended almost unanimously by congressional Republicans as an emancipation clause. These men thought they were writing an emancipation bill. That’s what they said at the time.

A full-scale congressional debate erupted in July of 1861, focusing on the legitimacy of the emancipation that Republicans were undertaking. When I read those debates I wondered where the arguments for emancipation had come from.

I went back to the secession debates. And sure enough, everything critics had accused the Republicans of planning to do was exactly what Republicans themselves were saying they were going to do.

The great mistake that historians have made, I realized, was a misreading of the constitutional premises of the Republican antislavery agenda. I doubt anything Lincoln said is more commonly repeated by historians than the promise he made in his inaugural address not to interfere with slavery in the states where it already existed. That little quotation is all the proof historians seem to require to demonstrate that when the war began, neither Lincoln nor the Republicans had any idea of emancipating slaves.

In fact, nearly every abolitionist (and just about every historian I can think of) would agree with Lincoln: the Founders had made a series of compromises resulting in a Constitution that did not allow the federal government to abolish slavery in any state where it existed.

William Lloyd Garrison wrote that consensus into the founding document of the American Anti-Slavery Society, the 1833 Declaration of Sentiments, which flatly declared that the power to abolish slavery rested exclusively with the states. Theodore Dwight Weld said the same thing. So did Joshua Giddings, Salmon Chase, and Charles Sumner. The federal government had no power to interfere with slavery in the states where it already existed.

Which raises the obvious question: how did the abolitionists expect to get slavery abolished? A small group of nonpolitical abolitionists argued for moral suasion. An even smaller faction of antislavery radicals argued that the Constitution was an antislavery document. But most abolitionists believed, on the one hand, that the Constitution did not allow the federal government to abolish slavery in the states, but that on the other hand, political action was necessary for slavery to be abolished. Given the Constitution’s restrictions, what did opponents of slavery think could be done?

Coming out of the 1860 election, Republicans declared that there were two possible policies. The first was to make freedom national and restrict slavery to the states where it already existed. Republican policymakers would seal off the South: they would no longer enforce the Fugitive Slave Clause; slavery would be suppressed on the high seas; it would be abolished in Washington DC, banned from all the Western territories, and no new slave states would be admitted to the Union. A “cordon of freedom” would surround the slave states. Then Republicans would offer a series of incentives to the border states where slavery was weakest: compensation, subsidies for voluntary emigration of freed slaves, a gradual timetable for complete abolition.

Slavery was intrinsically weak, Republicans said. By denationalizing it, they could put it on a course of ultimate extinction. Surrounded on all sides, deprived of life-giving federal support, the slave states would one by one abolish slavery on their own, beginning with the border states. Each new defection would further diminish the strength of the remaining slave states, further accelerating the process of abolition. Yet because the decision to abolish slavery remained with the states, Republican policies would not violate the constitutional ban on direct federal interference in slavery.

The South would simply have to accept this. And if it couldn’t tolerate such a federal policy, it could leave the Union. But once it seceded, all bets would be off — it would lose the Constitutional protections that it had previously enjoyed. The Republicans would then implement the second policy: direct military emancipation, immediate and uncompensated.

Republicans said this openly during the secession crisis. And that’s what they were saying in Congress as they debated the Confiscation Act. It’s time to start rethinking our fundamental assumptions about the causes as well as the trajectory of the Civil War. And we can start by taking the perceptions of its contemporaries a great deal more seriously.

James Oakes teaches American History at the CUNY Graduate Center. His latest book is The Scorpion’s Sting: Antislavery and the Coming of the Civil War.

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Confederates in the Jungle

disunion45The Fourth of July celebration has all the hallmarks of a scene from “Gone with the Wind,” or a county fair in the most unreconstructed corners of Mississippi or Alabama. The men, dressed in Confederate gray shell jackets, yellow-trimmed frock coats, kepis and plumed black slouch hats, cross the dance floor to select their partners, elegant young women in colorful hoop-skirted ball gowns. Arm in arm, they step to the rhythms of ancient dances, as the fiddle and banjo strike up the old-time strains of “Dixie’s Land,” “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” “The Virginia Reel” and “Cumberland Gap.”

Meanwhile, families gather around banquet tables loaded down with dishes that are the products of centuries-old Southern family recipes. Along the sidelines, vendors hawk rebel battle flags, Confederate campaign caps, and T-shirts, mugs and bumper stickers emblazoned with slogans like “Hell no, we won’t forget!”

Nearby stands a small stucco-walled chapel. An old cemetery, shaded by Alabama pines and bougainvillea, contains over 500 graves with stones bearing such venerable Southern names as MacKnight, Miller and Baird, Steagall, Oliver, and Norris, Owens, Carlton and Cobb.

The setting is, in fact, in the South – very far south, in Brazil.

The Festa Confederada is held as often as four times a year in Campo, an area carved out of the sugar cane fields outside Americana, a modern city of some 200,000 residents in the state of São Paulo. All the participants are “Confederados” – fifth-generation descendants of Southerners who immigrated here in the days following the Civil War. The entire scene – the dress, the music, food, even the conversation – is a carefully rendered homage to those disaffected rebels who elected to leave their conquered nation and make a new home in a foreign land.

By 1866, the future for countless Southerners appeared bleak. Not only had their bid for nationhood been destroyed; in many instances, so had their homes, their communities and their livelihood. The prospect of living under the harsh fist of the conquering North was more than many were willing to bear. As one Confederado descendant wrote, “Helpless under military occupation and burdened by the psychology of defeat, a sense of guilt, and the economic devastation wrought by the war, many felt they had no choice but to leave.”

There were other reasons. For some, the prospect of laboring alongside former slaves was unacceptable. And then there were those adventurers who hoped to find gold or silver in what was being widely touted as a tropical paradise. Whatever their impetus, for tens of thousands of Southerners, the promise of a new beginning in a new land was irresistible, and Latin America beckoned.

The Southerners’ knowledge of agriculture made them an attractive asset, and a number of countries, including Mexico, Honduras and Venezuela, competed to colonize the disaffected Americans. The most favorable offer, however, came from Brazil’s Emperor Dom Pedro II. Desperate to expand the cultivation of cotton in his country, he put together a proposal offering an impressive list of amenities, including the building of a new road and rail infrastructure for conveying crops to market. Brazil had been a strong ally to the Confederacy throughout the war, harboring and supplying rebel ships. And although Brazil had closed its ports to the African slave trade in 1850, it would not abolish slavery for another 38 years. Of all the Latin American nations, Brazil was the one with which the Southerners felt the strongest bond.

Joseph Whitaker and Isabel Norris, two early Confederate migrants to Brazil.

Joseph Whitaker and Isabel Norris, two early Confederate migrants to Brazil.Credit Whitaker Family Archive

In contrast to the often tired crops of the American South, Brazilian cotton was of a high quality, and could be harvested twice a year. Sugar cane, corn, rice, tobacco, bananas and manioc flourished as well, and Southern farmers, as well as doctors, teachers, dentists, merchants, artisans and machinists, envisioned a glowing future. Brazil would become the New South! The all-too-real obstacles – a foreign culture with a difficult language, strong native competition, an often hostile environment, a racially mixed society, a restrictive national religion, homesickness and the loneliness of distance and isolation – factored little in their plans.

There are no accurate records documenting the exact number of émigrés; some historians have placed the figure at around 40,000, from across the former Confederacy, and even loyal border states. It was high enough, however, to necessitate the formation of colonization societies, with agents whose main functions were to gather information on living conditions and financial prospects, and to ensure a smooth transition.

For most, the first destination was Brazil’s capital, Rio de Janeiro. The vessels in which they sailed ranged from small packets to large ships, and while some completed the 5,600-mile voyage in an uneventful month, for others the voyage was arduous, and sometimes fatal. The Neptune sank in a storm off the coast of Cuba, taking with it all but 17 passengers. And an outbreak of smallpox on the Margaret claimed the lives of nearly everyone aboard.

When the Southerners disembarked, they were greeted by brass bands, parades and flowery speeches. One former Confederate general recalled, “Balls and parties and serenades were our nightly accompaniment and whether in town or in the country it was one grand unvarying scene of life, love and seductive friendship.” The emperor greeted many of the new arrivals personally, as the bands played “Dixie.” As he had promised, the new arrivals were given free temporary living quarters in a Rio hotel, and the food and accommodations far exceeded their expectations.

Conditions would never be this elegant again. Dom Pedro’s grand promises of governmental support for the farmers went generally unfulfilled, through no fault of his own. Coincidentally, the year the Civil War ended brought the outbreak of the War of the Triple Alliance, in which Brazil played a major part. The booming economy of the previous decades collapsed, plunging the country into an economic depression. By the time the first Southerners arrived, the emperor was confronting enormous internal issues, and struggling with poor health. The colonists were left to make their own way.

While most members of the Southern professional class settled in the larger cities, such as Rio and São Paulo, the rest chose to literally plant their roots farther down the coast or in the vast, dense interior. Their scattered colonies dotted a 250-square-mile stretch along the country’s east coast, and great distances often separated them. Many of the chosen locations were inhospitable and ill-suited for growing crops. Without the promised road and rail system, crops that did thrive often grew too far from the market. Farms failed, community leaders died and colonies fell apart under power struggles and losing battles with illness and the elements. The few planters who bought slaves and sought to replicate the old antebellum plantation system found only failure.

Some disillusioned colonists returned home; others migrated to the most successful settlement — the Norris Colony, established in 1865 by Col. William Norris. The former Alabama senator had chosen the site carefully, and it soon became the most populous and productive American colony in Brazil, eventually containing some 100 families. And when the railroad finally did come through, the settlers built the beginnings of the nearby market town that survives today as Americana.

Even here, though, life could be brutal. The former rebel Col. Anthony T. Oliver had immigrated among the first settlers, along with his wife, Beatrice, and two teenage daughters. Within the first year, Beatrice died of tuberculosis, followed shortly by both daughters. When locals denied his wife burial in the Catholic graveyard, Oliver donated a section of his land – dubbed “Campo” – for a Protestant cemetery exclusively for the Confederados. Soon, the colonists built a small chapel nearby, which became the center of worship and connection for the transplanted Americans.

Hard though the life could be, many who chose their locations well and put in the work succeeded. Through the use of what the native Brazilians perceived as advanced cultivation methods and tools, the colonists’ crops flourished. In addition to raising native produce, they introduced such homegrown crops as watermelon and pecans. So popular was the “Georgia Rattlesnake” watermelon that by the late 19th century, Confederados were shipping 100 carloads daily from Americana to various parts of Brazil. Within a short time, the displaced rebels established a reputation as hard workers and as diligent and independent citizens.

Fort Sumter

They did, however, go to great lengths to maintain their own identity. Although subsequent generations intermarried with the Brazilians, they never lost sight of their history and traditions. This was not always viewed in a positive light. Wrote one former Georgia planter in 1867, “The Anglo-Saxons are completely ignorant of amalgamation of thoughts and religion. Naturally egotistical, they do not admit superiors, nor do they accept customs which are in disagreement with their preformed ideas. They think it is their right to be boss. In my opinion … the Anglo-Saxon and his descendants are birds of prey, and woe to those who get in their way.”

One clear indicator of the fierceness with which the rebel settlers maintained their identity is in their speech. Despite five generations of assimilation, the English language has survived, perfect and intact, among a number of the bilingual Confederados. Amazingly, although most have not visited the United States, their speech clearly reflects that of the American South. When Jimmy Carter, then the governor of Georgia, visited Campo in 1972, he was stunned: “The most remarkable thing was, when they spoke they sounded just like people in South Georgia.”

The Confederados represent a human treasure trove for modern-day linguists. Throughout the past century and a half, scholars have puzzled over what the Southerners of the Civil War era actually sounded like. The Brazilian descendants’ English, in the words of one latter-day rebel, has been “preserved in aspic”; in its purist form, it stands virtually frozen in time, reflecting the pronunciations and speech patterns of their forebears, dating from the third quarter of the 19th century.

Similar settlements in Mexico and other Latin American countries faltered; Brazil was the only place where the Confederate émigrés managed to carve a life and an extended community from the jungle, and to found a thriving dynasty. Today, the living descendants of Brazil’s original rebels are scattered throughout the country, and they enjoy the richness of a dual culture. They see themselves as Brazilians, but also as distinctly American – the last rebels of the Civil War. Says one historian, “They are proud to have Brazil as their mother country, and the United States as their grandmother country.” As one descendant, who learned English before he learned Portuguese, put it, “Actually, we’re the most Southern and the only truly unreconstructed Confederates that there are on Earth. We left right after the war, and we never pledged allegiance to the damn Yankee flag.”


Ron Soodalter

Ron Soodalter is the author of “Hanging Captain Gordon: The Life and Trial of an American Slave Trader” and a co-author of “The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today.” He is a frequent contributor to America’s Civil War magazine, and has written several features for Civil War Times and Military History.

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Spectators and re-enactors gathered at Appomattox Court House to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Robert E. Lee’s surrender. CreditTravis Dove for The New York Times

ON April 9, 1865 — Palm Sunday — Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Gen. Robert E. Lee negotiated their famous “Gentlemen’s Agreement” of surrender. In the ensuing celebration, a relieved Grant told his men, “The war is over.”

But Grant soon discovered he was wrong. Not only did fighting continue in pockets for weeks, but in other ways the United States extended the war for more than five years after Appomattox. Using its war powers to create freedom and civil rights in the South, the federal government fought against a white Southern insurgency that relied on murder and intimidation to undo the gains of the war.

And yet the “Appomattox myth” persisted, and continues today. By severing the war’s conflict from the Reconstruction that followed, it drains meaning from the Civil War and turns it into a family feud, a fight that ended with regional reconciliation. It also fosters a national amnesia about what wars are and how they end, a lacuna that has undermined American postwar efforts ever since.

Appomattox, like the Civil War more broadly, retains its hold on the American imagination. More than 330,000 people visited the site in 2013. In Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” as in many other popular portrayals, the meeting between Lee and Grant suggests that, in the words of one United States general at the surrender, “We are all Americans.”

Although those words were allegedly spoken by Ely Parker, a Tonawanda Seneca Indian, and although hundreds of thousands of African-Americans fought for the nation, the “we” in the Appomattox myth all too often is limited to white Americans. In fanciful stories of Grant’s returning a ceremonial sword to Lee, or of the United States Army’s saluting its defeated foes at the laying-down-of-arms ceremony, white Americans fashioned a story of prodigal sons returning for a happy family portrait.

civil-war-sumter75-popupGrant himself recognized that he had celebrated the war’s end far too soon. Even as he met Lee, Grant rejected the rebel general’s plea for “peace” and insisted that only politicians, not officers, could end the war. Then Grant skipped the fabled laying-down-of-arms ceremony to plan the Army’s occupation of the South.

To enforce its might over a largely rural population, the Army marched across the South after Appomattox, occupying more than 750 towns and proclaiming emancipation by military order. This little-known occupation by tens of thousands of federal troops remade the South in ways that Washington proclamations alone could not.

And yet as late as 1869, President Grant’s attorney general argued that some rebel states remained in the “grasp of war.” When white Georgia politicians expelled every black member of the State Legislature and began a murderous campaign of intimidation, Congress and Grant extended military rule there until 1871.

Meanwhile, Southern soldiers continued to fight as insurgents, terrorizing blacks across the region. One congressman estimated that 50,000 African-Americans were murdered by white Southerners in the first quarter-century after emancipation. “It is a fatal mistake, nay a wicked misery to talk of peace or the institutions of peace,” a federal attorney wrote almost two years after Appomattox. “We are in the very vortex of war.”

Against this insurgency, even President Andrew Johnson, an opponent of Reconstruction, continued the state of war for a year after Appomattox. When Johnson tried to end the war in the summer of 1866, Congress seized control of his war powers; from 1867 to 1870, generals in the South regulated state officials and oversaw voter registration, ensuring that freedmen could claim the franchise they had lobbied for. With the guidance of military overseers, new biracial governments transformed the Constitution itself, passing the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments.

The military occupation created pockets of stability and moments of order. Excluded from politics before the war, black men won more than 1,500 offices during Reconstruction. By 1880, 20 percent of black families owned farms.

But the occupation that helped support these gains could not be sustained. Anxious politicians reduced the Army’s size even as they assigned it more tasks. After Grant used the military to put down the Ku Klux Klan in the Carolinas in 1871, Congress and the public lost the will to pay the human and financial costs of Reconstruction.

Once white Southern Democrats overthrew Reconstruction between the 1870s and 1890s, they utilized the Appomattox myth to erase the connection between the popular, neatly concluded Civil War and the continuing battles of Reconstruction. By the 20th century, history textbooks and popular films like “The Birth of a Nation” made the Civil War an honorable conflict among white Americans, and Reconstruction a corrupt racial tyranny of black over white (a judgment since overturned by historians like W. E. B. DuBois and Eric Foner).

Beyond the problem of historical accuracy, separating the war and the military from Reconstruction contributes to an enduring American amnesia about the Army’s role in remaking postwar societies. Many of the nation’s wars have followed the trajectory established at Appomattox: Cheers at the end of fighting are replaced by bafflement at the enduring conflict as the military struggles to fill the defeated government’s role, even as the American public moves on. After defeating Spain in the Spanish-American War, the Army undertook bloody campaigns to suppress rebellions and exert control over the Philippines, Cuba and Puerto Rico. After World War II, a state of war endured into the 1950s in the occupation of Japan and Germany. And in the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States military’s work had barely begun when the fighting stopped — and the work continues, in the hands of American-backed locals, today.

While it is tempting to blame the George W. Bush administration for these recent wars without end, the problem lies deep within Americans’ understanding of what wars are. We wish that wars, like sports, had carefully organized rules that would steer them to a satisfying end. But wars are often political efforts to remake international or domestic orders. They create problems of governance that battles alone cannot resolve.

Years after the 1865 surrender, the novelist and veteran Albion Tourgée said that the South “surrendered at Appomattox, and the North has been surrendering ever since.” In so many wars since, the United States won the battlefield fighting but lost ground afterward.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can learn, as Grant did, the dangers of celebrating too soon. Although a nation has a right to decide what conflicts are worth fighting, it does not have the right to forget its history, and in the process to repeat it.

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