A Fool’s Errand by Albion Tourgée is a surprising novel about the era of post-Civil War Reconstruction.
“We tried to superimpose the civilization, the idea of the North, upon the South at a moment’s warning … It was a Fool’s Errand.”
But counter to many white Americans’ understanding of Reconstruction as a failure, the fool’s errand was not to try to establish racial equality in the South, at least according to Tourgée. Historians now agree that Reconstruction was a noble experiment full of justice and optimism. It it had been more successful, America might be a better country today. The fool’s errand was to think that the South was ready and that the North would remain committed to the long hard work of transforming a land of slavery and oppression into a land of freedom and equal opportunity.
Based on his own experience as an idealistic young man who joined thousands of Union Army veterans to move South after the war, Tourgée tells a story that runs counter to the usual narrative of Reconstruction as a time of brutal military occupation and misrule by greedy Yankee transplants (carpetbaggers) in league with uneducated and unprepared freemen and poor whites (scalawags).
Like much of the history of the Civil War and its aftermath, when it came to telling the story of Reconstruction, the victor outsourced writing the history to the vanquished.
Rather than exercising its privilege — and its responsibility — to document the war and Reconstruction as heroic fights by abolitionists and their allies to free slaves and establish racial equality, the North let the losers write the history their way. And that’s how we got the story of the Civil War as the heroic “Lost Cause” and the story of Reconstruction as a big corrupt failure.
Tourgée helps correct these myths with his tale of a wounded Union colonel from the Midwest, Comfort Servosse, who fell in love with the South during the war and returns there after the war to recover his health and help the devastated region rebuild. Starting full of goodwill for his neighbors Black and white, Servosse soon learns that most of the leading whites in the community are just unreconstructed Confederates whose charming manners hides a brutality in pursuit of returning their social order and economy as close to slavery as possible.
Once he buys a run-down plantation, fixes it up, and then subdivides part of it into small farms for freed slaves, relations with the local whites start to get ugly.
The Klan shows up and blood starts to flow, making it clear that though Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, old Confederates will fight to the death the win the peace. Servosse and his fellow Reconstructors in the state appeal to the Wise Men of the North in Congress for help, those who advocated abolition before the war. But the only answer they receive after the war is advice to stop making so much trouble and try to get along with their white southern neighbors. Once Union troops are withdrawn, and “Redeemers” take control over the state government, the last barrier is removed to the planters’ counter-revolution.
A tragic story that nonetheless conveys much of the charm of the South, A Fool’s Errand provides an inside view of what this underrated but key time in American history was really like. And it shows why America still has so much trouble, 155 years after the end of the Civil War, in making our country truly fair and free for Black citizens.
Tourgée, who was born in Ohio and moved to North Carolina after the Civil War, has come down in American history as the leading white advocate of racial equality and economic empowerment in Reconstruction. A judge and legislator under North Carolina’s multi-racial Reconstruction government, Tourgée earned a reputation as an active supporter of Black rights.
Decades later, when the Black citizens of New Orleans wanted to fight Louisiana’s law allowing segregated railcars, they called on Tourgée to help them mount a challenge in court. The case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, but unfortunately, in 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson was decided against the plaintiffs, legalizing more than a half century of “separate but equal” segregation in public facilities.