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Book Review: 'The Wars of Reconstruction' by Douglas R. Egerton

"For many Americans, Reconstruction is still remembered, if it is remembered at all, as a period of racial anarchy, political failure and the "humiliation" of the defeated South. Indeed, it is probably fair to say that Americans' impressions of the era have been shaped, if only half-consciously, by films such as "Birth of a Nation" and "Gone With the Wind"—with their caricatures of predatory Yankee carpetbaggers and venal scalawags—more than by detailed knowledge of what actually happened in the South between 1865 and 1876 and in the years that followed.

The history of that era has rarely if ever been as well told as it is in Douglas R. Egerton's forcefully argued and crisply written "The Wars of Reconstruction." Mr. Egerton presents a sometimes inspiring but more often deeply shocking story that reveals the nation at its best and worst, when newly freed slaves and idealists, both black and white, struggled heroically against pitiless white terrorism to preserve the rights that Union armies had won on the battlefield and that Republican members of Congress affirmed in the years after the war...

...Although defenders of the old South will doubtless disagree, Mr. Egerton makes a compelling case that American society as a whole would have benefited mightily had Reconstruction been permitted to fulfill its early promise. In particular, it would have saved the U.S. from the long Jim Crow agony of racial repression and the distortion of national politics by the South's determination to protect segregation at any price...

...Lincoln's assassination, a week after Appomattox, put Reconstruction in the hands of a racist, formerly slave-owning alcoholic who sabotaged efforts to extend civil rights—and physical protection—to newly freed slaves. Johnson encouraged Southern whites to reassert their power and ignored violence against freedman and white Unionists who were trying to form biracial coalitions. By executive order, he returned hundreds of thousands of acres to white planters. Republican military officers were replaced with compliant Democrats, many of whom averted their gaze when armed "white leagues" drove teachers from their schools, assassinated local black leaders, and intimidated defenseless black and white Unionist voters. Blacks who dared to defend themselves were murdered wholesale. Lawlessness, not Reconstruction, became the order of the day....

...Mr. Egerton vividly chronicles local terrorist campaigns across the South. While not usually coordinated from state to state, they followed similar patterns of ruthless vigilante warfare. Rarely did gangs of white "redeemers," as they liked to call themselves, bother to conceal their identity. In 1873, more than 100 black Republicans were massacred in Colfax, La., almost all of them unarmed, after they had surrendered to a force of white vigilantes. Similar slaughters took place across the former Confederate states; only the numbers of the dead varied. One white participant in the Colfax massacre, quoted by Nicholas Lemann in "Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War" (2006), which deals at length with this atrocity, blithely reported: 'Luke lined [five men] up and his old gun went off, and he killed all five of them with two shots. Then it was like popcorn in a skillet.'...

...The author remedies a particularly glaring deficit in our memory. He shows that black officeholders in the early Reconstruction era—demeaned by many pro-Southern historians and portrayed as lascivious buffoons by fictionalizers such as Thomas Dixon Jr., whose novels became the basis for "Birth of a Nation"—were substantial citizens well-prepared to govern. They had often risen from a middle class of ministers and businessmen that existed in antebellum America beyond the view of racist whites. By the turn of the 20th century, however, once-effective biracial coalitions across the South had been destroyed and black voters almost completely disenfranchised through physical intimidation and electoral trickery. White supremacists took control in all the former Confederate states..."

online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303433304579304661212638416
 
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