The Last Battle of the Civil War
By Nicholas Lemann
Farrar Straus Giroux. 257 pp. $24
The principal meaning of "redemption," as defined by Webster, is "deliverance from the bondage of sin: spiritual salvation," and that is indeed the more or less universally accepted definition, one that includes "expiation of guilt or wrong." In the American South during Reconstruction, though, for many whites it took on an entirely opposite meaning, as defined by Nicholas Lemann: "a divine sanction for the retaking of the authority the whites had lost in the Civil War, and a heavenly quality to the reestablishment of white supremacy" in which whites would have full, uncontested power over all aspects of the lives of blacks. The South, in this view, was "redeemed" from the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution by "political violence" and "defiance of the national government."
Those amendments, passed in the aftermath of the Civil War, supposedly "guaranteed the former slaves civil and voting rights," but whites -- most, if not all -- in the Deep South "had in mind instead a social compact under which Negroes would not formally be slaves anymore, but under which they would be unable to vote, hold office, or have legal rights -- in which they would be completely powerless, subject to the will of whites without any protection or recourse, even when that will was expressed in individual violence and sexual violation."
That is exactly what came to pass, as after the 1870s the South entered a period of three-quarters of a century in which the rights of blacks were systematically denied and violated, by private action and official policy. Between 1875 (the year in which the worst of the offenses described by Lemann took place) and 1954 (when the Supreme Court repudiated school segregation), most blacks in the South were kept in conditions only marginally different from those of slavery.
Until fairly recently, some American historians, and many Americans generally, have taken an astonishingly benign view of this period, ignoring or winking at the Jim Crow laws that "replaced the . . . informal and violent nullification of Negro rights with a formal, highly detailed legal system . . . mandating separate education, employment, and public accommodations for the two races." Throughout this period white Americans -- not just in the South, but everywhere -- were taught, and believed, that Reconstruction had been "a horrible failure," a "destructive force in American life," the end of which "had been a relief, which blessedly closed a chapter in American history and made a great new national life possible." This conviction enabled white Americans to persuade themselves that the end of Reconstruction had closed the final chapter of the Civil War on a note of reconciliation and expiation, making the nation whole again.
In order to believe that, white Americans had to close their minds to how Reconstruction ended, in many months of almost unbelievable violence against blacks, primarily in Mississippi but eventually elsewhere in the South. Reconstruction was never widely popular in the victorious states of the Union -- many Northerners emphatically rejected any suggestion that the Civil War had been fought to extirpate slavery -- and the Radical Republicans who sponsored it enjoyed only limited support, but for about a decade after the war's end many Americans believed that the white South should be held accountable for secession and slavery and that the freed slaves' rights should be protected. Gradually, though, the public lost interest, and the "Northern intellectuals, academics, clergymen, journalists, and public-spirited patricians" who had supported abolition turned their minds, and energies, elsewhere.
At the same time the white South's resistance to blacks and "carpetbaggers" intensified and, most significantly, acquired organization and leadership. In 1874 "the White League became a substantial statewide operation" in Louisiana, its aim being "to use extralegal violence to remove the Republican Party from power, and then to disenfranchise black people"; one historian called it "the military arm of the Democratic Party." Soon thereafter equivalent organizations began to emerge in Mississippi, the most prominent of which were known as "White Liners . . . at the very least a tightly controlled statewide organization." Many members of these groups, as in the White League, were Confederate veterans who refused to acknowledge the outcome of the Civil War and were ready -- no, eager -- to use violence to reverse it.
At the center of the maelstrom in Mississippi was the Republican governor, Adelbert Ames, of whom a contemporary said, "There was no more gallant and efficient officer in the armies of the Union." An ally of Ulysses S. Grant, he steadily rose in the postwar years and, as he rose, came to increasingly strong views on the question of blacks, growing "passionate about bringing rights and education to the Negroes." He was "fully in tune with the Radical ascendancy of his party in Washington" and thus was viewed by Mississippi whites with undisguised hatred. Though anti-Reconstruction historians have portrayed him as weak and ineffective, Lemann sees him as acutely aware of what was happening around him but helpless to do anything about it, hamstrung as he was by Grant's failure to act decisively against white violence and by his own inability to organize an armed force to counteract the White Line vigilantes.
Whites existed in a strange condition of immense power and irrational fear. Here Lemann describes the situation in Vicksburg, which in all important considerations mirrored that throughout Mississippi:
"The whites of Warren County now held the almost impregnable high ground in Vicksburg, and they were literally, as they had been psychologically since the war ended, surrounded by Negroes whom they assumed to have nearly infinite numbers, horrifying intentions, and terrible powers -- though, oddly, at the same time, they were also viewed as incapable of exercising free will, and therefore helpless to resist the malign influence of men like Adelbert Ames. . . . As one white memoirist put it, 'The dread of Negro insurrection, which has at one time or another darkened every hearthstone in the South, took possession of the people, and they saw visions of slaughter, rape, arson, and robbery.' "
Their response took the form of unspeakable brutality toward blacks. Men, women and children were slaughtered indiscriminately, often after being tortured. People were hacked to pieces. Bodies were left to rot on the ground. At a Republican barbecue near the town of Clinton, the carnage was so great that word was sent directly to Grant in the White House. He vacillated. "It was a crucial moment in which the whole fate of Reconstruction, and Negro citizenship, hung in the balance," Lemann writes. "Time was short, and the level of civil disorder was as high as it had ever been in American history." Grant did nothing and deferred to the attorney general of the United States, Edwards Pierrepont, "who was unkindly disposed toward Reconstruction" and who left matters in Ames's hands with no troops to back him up.
As a result, when Mississippi went to the polls in the fall, blacks were denied the vote and the Republicans were swept away. The state was governed by a Democratic Party "by now quite obviously equipped with both a conventional political organization and a terrorist one." Soon the Democrats took control of the entire South, institutionalized Jim Crow and reduced the region's blacks to chattel. What Lemann calls the last battle of the Civil War was won by the unregenerate white South, and not until the 1960s -- nearly a century later -- did its grip begin to weaken.
Lemann -- a native Southerner, author of several highly regarded books and dean of the Columbia School of Journalism -- has told this sad, heartbreaking story with passion and authority. He does not tar all whites with the brush of racism and violence, and he does not excuse Reconstruction its excesses and mistakes. His book is an important contribution to the rewriting of Southern history that began half a century ago with C. Vann Woodward's The Strange Career of Jim Crow , and it may well have comparable influence on our understanding of one of the most shameful periods in our past. ·
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.