Mike ScruggsOpinion

The uncomfortable truths of reconstruction

Richmond ruins

The South was as devastated by the Un-Civil War of 1861 to 1865 as much as any nation in the annals of warfare. By the end of the war one out of every four white men had been killed or died of wounds or disease. Over 40 percent of private property including homes, businesses livestock, and crops had been destroyed. In South Carolina, where Sherman’s men had burned the capitol city of Columbia, over 50 percent of private property was destroyed. Most of this property damage was deliberately inflicted on the civilian population to deny the Confederate Army the logistical means of resistance, but also to demoralize their families and supporters at home. It was ordered in cold calculation by Northern political and military leadership, but often executed with self-righteous religious zeal or criminal abandon. At the end of the war at least 50,000 homeless and displaced refugees, mostly former slaves, died of famine and disease. Neither Christian teachings nor modern Geneva Conventions condone such total war. Reconstruction was an extension of that total war by political means.

Reconstruction was no Marshall Plan to get the South back on its feet. To quote the eminent Southern historian, Clyde Wilson, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of South Carolina, “The purpose of Reconstruction was not equality; it was plunder, plunder, plunder.” As the equally eminent Professor Emeritus of History at William and Mary, Ludwell Johnson, has emphasized, the cardinal underlying objective of Reconstruction was to maintain and enhance the political dominance of the Republican Party, particularly that faction of the Republican Party that referred to themselves as “Radical Republicans.”

To avoid a historical misunderstanding, it is necessary to point out that the Republican Party of the Civil War and Reconstruction bears little resemblance to the republicanism of Thomas Jefferson, Dwight Eisenhower, Senator Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, or Donald Trump. The backbone of the Republican Party at that time was the old Whig party of big government serving big business. Lincoln had himself been a strong Whig. They believed in high protectionist tariffs to protect domestic manufacturing and supported generous government subsidies to powerful railroads, public works, and industrial interests. They were of the Hamiltonian philosophy of highly centralized government power and a “national” banking system that was really a privately controlled means of printing money for the benefit of friendly special interests including their own,. The Constitution and especially States Rights were frequently viewed as a hindrance to national prosperity and greatness. There were, however, more moderate and conservative factions in the party. The Radical Republicans were a minority faction within the party, but had strong support in the press and were not adverse to devious and despotic methods of maintaining and exercising power.

Neither did Democrats then much resemble Democrats today. They were more agrarian, socially conservative, and strongly committed to the decentralized, limited form of government outlined in the Declaration of Independence and the U. S. Constitution, including States Rights. From the North-South political wars over tariff policies intensifying in 1824, through the Civil War and Reconstruction years, at least through the end of Grover Cleveland’s presidency in 1897, “Conservative” and “Democrat were close political synonyms.” Both parties at that time were generally conservative on social issues. Modern American liberalism, which is today most often associated with modern Democrats, ironically has its closest antecedents in the Radical Republicans, who often combined radical abolitionism with a strong belief in the efficacy of all-powerful government

For more than a generation before the War, radical abolitionists and their Republican political allies had stigmatized the South as a brutal and backward society in need of punishment, repentance, and remaking. A distorted understanding of the conditions of slavery in the South inflamed the preaching from many Northern pulpits; especially the radical abolitionist dominated Unitarian churches. Relentless Northern war propaganda magnified this twisted vision of the South into contempt and frenzied hatred for all things Southern. The Northern press seized upon every opportunity to fan the flames of sectional hatred. The devastating casualties endured by Union forces in conquering the South added a real and powerful emotional component to Northern animosity toward the South.

Nevertheless, near the end of the Civil War in his second inauguration speech, President Lincoln had presented a generous vision for bringing the South back into the Union fold. His often quoted words, “with malice toward none; with charity for all…to bind up the nation’s wounds,” were to set a new attitude and theme in the restoration of the South to the Union. Lincoln had instructed Grant in accepting Lee’s surrender at Appomattox to “let him up easy.” Union General J. L. Chamberlain ordered his battle seasoned troops at Appomattox to give a salute of honor to Confederate troops as they passed in final review at that surrender. Robert E. Lee had advised his men to go home and be good American citizens.

Following the assassination of Lincoln, however, goaded by the press and Radical Republicans in Congress, the flames of regional mistrust, hatred, and a desire for vengeance on the South returned with vehement passion. Lincoln’s Vice President, now President Andrew Johnson, a relatively conservative former Democrat Congressman from East Tennessee, had planned to follow the Lincoln plan for restoring the South to the Union. In this he would be vigorously opposed by the Radical Republicans led by Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania in the House, Charles Sumner of Massachusetts in the Senate, and Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War. Their objective was permanent Republican Party dominance of the nation. A humiliating and vengeful subjugation of Southern States was to be an important instrument of the Radical Republican plan for continued national dominance. Southern States would be remade into Republican States fashioned and tightly controlled by Radical Republicans. Although civil rights idealism played a part in Radical Republican thinking and a very great part in their talk, the main role of former slaves would be insuring Republican political dominance in the South and suppressing any rising political opposition.

The Union loyalist state governments established by President Johnson quietly concentrated on economic recovery during the latter part of 1865 and early 1866. By the end of 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment outlawing slavery had been ratified by seven Southern legislatures and became law. In July 1866, a Civil Rights Bill was passed to insure Southern blacks the full rights of citizens. Still the South was relatively quiet, but the Radical Republicans were stirring trouble both in the South and in Congress.

The Radical Republican leaders proposed a Fourteenth Amendment guaranteeing equal protection and due process under the law theoretically to all Americans, but also denying public office to former elected officials who had supported the Confederacy. It also effectively turned the Constitution upside down, giving the Federal Government sweeping powers over the States. By February 1867, the Fourteenth Amendment had been temporarily derailed by the rejection of ten Southern and three Border State legislatures.

The Radical Republicans were ready for this. They had been stoking the flames of Northern outrage against the South by reporting numerous crimes and outrages against blacks. All this contradicted the reports of General Grant. Few of these can now be substantiated. Most appear to have been either highly exaggerated or fabricated and some even incited. Many of the reports were telegraphed from Washington. In March 1867, over the veto of President Johnson, Republicans passed the first Reconstruction Act. This act revoked the legal governments of ten Southern States and placed them under martial law, administered in five military districts. This act gave the vote to adult black males and disenfranchised Confederate veterans and former elected officials—over 85 percent of eligible Southern white voters. In addition, Union soldiers stationed in the South were allowed to vote. Ratifying the Fourteenth Amendment was made a contingency for readmission to the Union.

Southerners were left without rights or recourse to protect their families and property. Meanwhile the greed, vengeance, dishonesty, and corruption of Reconstruction governments and their “carpetbagger” commercial friends further impoverished the South and stirred up racial tensions to establish Republican dominance in the South and maintain its power base in the North.

To be continued.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR   –  Mike Scruggs, Author and Columnist

a.k.a. Leonard M. Scruggs

 Mike Scruggs is the author of two books: The Un-Civil War: Shattering the Historical Myths; and Lessons from the Vietnam War: Truths the Media Never Told You, and over 600 articles on military history, national security, intelligent design, genealogical genetics, immigration, current political affairs, Islam, and the Middle East.

He holds a BS degree from the University of Georgia and an MBA from Stanford University. A former USAF intelligence officer and Air Commando, he is a decorated combat veteran of the Vietnam War, and holds the Distinguished Flying Cross, Purple Heart, and Air Medal. He is a retired First Vice President for a major national financial services firm and former Chairman of the Board of a classical Christian school.

Click the website below to order books.


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