The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America's Most Progressive Era
Douglas R. Egerton
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By 1870, just five years after Confederate surrender and thirteen years after the Dred Scott decision ruled blacks ineligible for citizenship, Congressional action had ended slavery and given the vote to black men. That same year, Hiram Revels and Joseph Hayne Rainey became the first African-American U.S. senator and congressman respectively. In South Carolina, only twenty years after the death of arch-secessionist John C. Calhoun, a black man, Jasper J. Wright, took a seat on the state’s Supreme Court. Not even the most optimistic abolitionists had thought such milestones would occur in their lifetimes. The brief years of Reconstruction marked the United States’ most progressive moment prior to the civil rights movement.
Previous histories of Reconstruction have focused on Washington politics. But in this sweeping, prodigiously researched narrative, Douglas Egerton brings a much bigger, even more dramatic story into view, exploring state and local politics and tracing the struggles of some fifteen hundred African-American officeholders, in both the North and South, who fought entrenched white resistance. Tragically, their movement was met by ruthless violence--not just riotous mobs, but also targeted assassination. With stark evidence, Egerton shows that Reconstruction, often cast as a "failure" or a doomed experiment, was rolled back by murderous force. The Wars of Reconstruction is a major and provocative contribution to American history.
“Grant is as good a nigger radical now as anybody.” In Texas, with Sheridan gone, violence spiked, and Texas Republicans pointed to at least sixty-two murders in December 1867 and January 1868 as evidence of a “perceptible increase” in political assassinations.29 Recent votes in Congress indicated that even moderate Republicans no longer supported the president, but their belated awareness that dropping Vice President Hannibal Hamlin from the ticket in 1864 had resulted in catastrophe did not
“only in the cities and villages, [and] along the main thoroughfares.” Yet when protected, the League saw new chapters emerge in virtually every county, particularly since those “counselors” were also the same activists who had been organizing in the South since the first troops landed in New Orleans and in the Carolina low country. The “freedmen have been organized in loyal Union Leagues,” one journalist reported, “through the influence of the preachers in their churches, the Northern teachers
activists turned back to their few reliable partners in Washington. With Grant on the eve of retirement, that meant the president’s personal foe, Charles Sumner. Secure in his safe Senate seat and facing increasingly poor health, Sumner was prepared for one final assault on southern folkways. Furious that growing numbers of black children attended inferior, segregated schools, despite the fact that a number of state constitutions and Congressional stipulations supposedly guaranteed equal access
This fusion of spiritual fervor, educational advancement, and political ambition attracted the ire of former Confederates. If white southerners were grudgingly willing to accept independent black congregations, that acceptance diminished as ministers and congregants turned their churches into schools and joined the battle over land and voting rights. Whites torched a black Methodist church in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, one member insisted, “for no other cause only for the teaching of a Sunday
Atlanta’s Storrs School even taught to atone for perceived past sins. Although as a woman she was unable to vote, she felt “ever guilty” for previously having endorsed the Democrats, and she daily “ask[ed] God [to] forgive [her] for ever having sympathy, in the least, with them who would keep these people in slavery.”31 The teachers required every ounce of devotion they could muster. Black parents toiled long hours in raising funds for school and constructing rudimentary buildings, but Bureau