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Wall Street Journal / News - Politics

Reconstruction Ended in 1877, but It Isn’t Finished

It took almost a century to end segregation, and Charlottesville showed the divisions that remain.


Allen Guelzo

First there was the Civil War, which ended in 1865, and then there was the postwar era of Reconstruction, which is generally said to have ended in 1877. The war concluded with the surrender of the Confederate armies, but there’s a real sense in which Reconstruction is still a work in progress. And if the Charlottesville confrontation is any measure, Reconstruction won’t be over soon.

Civil War historians enjoyed four tremendous years between 2011 and 2015, when almost every day was the occasion for some Civil War sesquicentennial event. But so far no similar celebrations have followed to mark the sesquicentennials of Reconstruction.

One reason for this is that Reconstruction simply doesn’t have the cinematic fizz of Pickett’s Charge or Appomattox. But far worse is the sense that the Reconstruction years were somehow one long, uninterrupted botch. White Southerners denounced Reconstruction as the imposition of corrupt Northern rule by bayonet. White Northerners grew tired of paying the costs and wanted an exit strategy. Southern blacks, newly freed from slavery, stood for a brief moment in the sunshine of freedom, casting their first votes and owning their own property, until they were dragged into the new bondage of segregation.

A better question to ask is whether Reconstruction could have turned out differently. There is a deep temptation to blame the entire mess on white racism and wonder why Americans in the 1860s couldn’t have shown the same gumption in tackling race issues that Lyndon B. Johnson and Robert F. Kennedy did a century later. But race was only one of several obstacles in Reconstruction’s path, and the others were enough to make even the flintiest pessimist weep.

The first obstacle to a different Reconstruction was economic. The Civil War clobbered the Southern economy, costing the South $13.6 billion (U.S. national debt at the end of the war was $2.7 billion). Abolishing slavery alone wiped out between $1.6 billion and $2.7 billion in capital investment. But the South still produced the finest species of the world’s most marketable commodity, cotton, and cotton swiftly returned to its old prewar profitability. So did the prewar owners of the land on which it grew.

In an area known as the “black belt” in western Alabama, 236 landowners possessed at least $10,000 in real estate in 1860; by 1870, 101 of those same landowners still owned that land. This was about the same rate of persistence that had prevailed before the war.

Radical Republicans hoped the war would allow them to end not only slavery but the entire plantation system, and replace it with New England-style capitalism, characterized by manufacturing, finance and small-scale commercial farming. They understood that confiscating and subdividing the plantations of Confederate leaders as traitors was the only way to break the stranglehold of the South’s feudal elite. But the Constitution prohibits permanent property confiscation—“bills of attainder”—even in cases of treason. The war ended, the old masters came back, and the master class spent freely in organizing restless whites to suppress black votes. The labor system changed—but only from slavery to serfdom.

Reconstruction’s second obstacle was political. It is tempting to think of the North as a single political mind during the Civil War, united behind Lincoln and his Republican Party. But Lincoln won the election of 1860 because the Democratic opposition split into Northern and Southern factions. Democrats still managed to win more than 300,000 more popular votes than Lincoln in 1860, and then 45% of the presidential vote (held only in Union states) in 1864.

Once the war was over, Northern and Southern Democrats had no hesitation in repairing old divisions and presenting a rejuvenated front against Republican Reconstruction. Racism helped cement that reunion, but the groundwork for it stretched back through the war years to the presidency of Andrew Jackson.

When the Panic of 1873 propelled the country into a national recession, voters sent a Democratic majority to the House for the first time in over a decade. No more federal backing for Reconstruction was forthcoming, and within three years the last Reconstruction state government in the South was overthrown.

The last obstacle for Reconstruction, oddly, was the military. In the face of economic and political hostility, only the strong hand of the federal military could have dispossessed the thousand-bale planters and intervened to protect black voters from white intimidation. But a military force of that scope required commitments that no one in the U.S. wanted to embrace.

Between 1865 and 1871, the combined strength of the U.S. Army fell from over a million men to 30,000, most posted on the Western frontier. Even that minuscule deployment did nothing to quell paranoia about “military rule,” and in 1878 House Democrats would ban the use of “any part of the Army of the United States, as a posse comitatus” to enforce federal laws. Nothing less than transitional military dictatorships in the old Confederacy would have been sufficient to unseat the cotton lords or beat down their white supremacist militias. But military occupations, as the Iraq War demonstrated, strain both the patience of taxpayers and the ingrained suspicion of military rule in American minds. The 1878 restriction is still on the books.

Maybe, in the end, we have no right to expect that civil wars can yield successful reconstructions, especially since there’s no agreement on what a successful reconstruction is. Civil wars are among the most lethal and intractable of human conflicts, and they have the most long-term and irreversible effects. T.S. Eliot, writing about the English civil wars of the 17th century, wondered “whether any serious civil war ever does end.”

Measured against its obstacles, our own Reconstruction might have been more successful than we assume. It avoided the outbreak of a fresh civil war and it reintegrated the rebel states into the Union, however haphazardly. But that may not be enough for celebration, and certainly not in Charlottesville.

Mr. Guelzo is director of the Civil War Era Studies Program at Gettysburg College and a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute.