In Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War Nicholas Lemann makes a good case that the Civil War didn’t end when Lee surrendered to Grant in April 1865 at Appomattox or any of the other dates usually cited by historians but instead, at the end of Reconstruction in 1877 when federal troops were ordered to stop protecting Black freedmen in the South from intimidation and attacks by white terrorists.
If you thought that the 620,000 plus men who died in the war gave their lives not only to save the Union but to end slavery and make Black people equal citizens, then this is a depressing read.
Defeated but Unrepentant
After they were defeated on the battlefield, old Confederates grudgingly accepted the end of their dream of an independent slave republic and even the end of slavery, at least in name. But they remained unrepentant about their cause and ready to fight to protect white supremacy.
White southern leaders were more determined to annul the results of the war than Northerners were to preserve those results. And to the everlasting shame of the United States, the ex-Confederates’ dogged determination paid off. During Reconstruction former Confederate across the South leaders succeeded in denying Black Southerners their new rights as citizens through violence and fraud, well whitewashed as self-defense and anti-corruption for a Northern audience.
Ultimately, caught up in the overheated economy of the Gilded Age, Northerners lost interest in efforts to support civil rights for Black Southerners, shrugging off what amounted to violent insurrection and leaving freed people to the tender mercies of their former masters.
Starting a few years after Appomattox, the Democratic Party and its secret militia wing — not only the KKK but also groups that attacked Black people to discourage them from participating in politics including the White League, the White Line, the Knights of the White Camelia and the Regulators — managed to nullify the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.
As terrorists challenged the authority of biracial governments of Southern states set up during Reconstruction and including Black officeholders, the federal government offered an inconsistent response. Sometimes, the president sent federal troops to put down terrorists, as Grant did with the KKK in South Carolina. But many other times, the White House declined requests by fellow Republicans serving as Reconstruction governors to help state authorities reestablish order in counties where white terrorists had ousted the duly elected biracial government or interfered with elections.
Northerners Give Up on Black Freedom
Ulysses S. Grant was president throughout most of the period covered by the book, and his performance comes off as mixed at best. Lemann documents several instances where Grant delayed responding to requests for federal troops or simply refused to send troops at all.
Tragically, one of these was the Colfax massacre in Grant Parish, Louisiana, a county named by local pro-Reconstruction activists for the president himself. There, on Easter Sunday in April 1873, local Black Republicans attempting to enforce the results of a recent election were besieged in the courthouse by a white mob. After the Blacks surrendered, more than 70 of their number plus nearby Black residents were slaughtered in cold blood by white militia allied with the Democratic Party.
Lemann does show how Grant was pressured to stop sending troops to the South as Northerners grew tired of intervening against their fellow whites on behalf of Black freedmen. For example, after troops broke up an illegal session of the Louisiana state legislature and General Philip Sheridan proposed declaring Southern terrorists to be “banditti,” which would justify rounding them up as criminals, Northern leaders, even those on the left, grew hostile to military interventions in Southern states. As Lemann explains,
People who thought of themselves as the ‘better element’ in the North — voices of light and learning, people who had been abolitionist before the war, had loyally supported the Union cause throughout it, and until now had favored the use of federal power in the former Confederacy to ensure its proper recovery — were moved to abandon Reconstruction completely.
The New York Times, and The Nation published horrified editorials. The legislatures of Pennsylvania and Ohio passed resolutions of disapproval. Charles Francis Adams, son and grandson of presidents and Lincoln’s ambassador to London who helped keep the British out of the Civil War, convened a protest meeting at Boston’s Faneuil Hall. It was only prevented from passing a resolution calling for the complete removal of federal troops from the South by the intervention of old abolitionist Wendell Phillips.
If Grant decided to send troops he would have to buck much of the Republican establishment.
Grant in a Difficult Position
Grant recognized that southern terrorism threatened to undo Grant’s own victory in the Civil War. But he also had to play politics in 1870s America where even fellow Republicans knew that white voters were tired of Reconstruction.
For example, two months after Grant refused to send troops to restore order at the request of Mississippi’s carpetbagger governor Adelbart Ames, Grant explained that he regretted his decision. Prior to the 1875 election, Ohio Republicans had asked Grant to not send troops to Mississippi. They claimed that Ohio voters were tired of Reconstruction and that Republicans would lose the governor’s race if Grant intervened in Mississippi.
“I should not have yielded,” Grant said. “I believed at the time I was making a grave mistake. But as presented, it was duty on one side and party obligation on the other. Between the two I hesitated, but finally yielded to what I believed was my party obligation.”
Grant was aware of the implications of failing to uphold federal authority in Mississippi.:
It requires no prophet to foresee that the national government will soon be at a great disadvantage and that the results of the war of the rebellion will have been in a large manner lost…What you have just passed through in the state of Mississippi is only the beginning of what is sure to follow.
As it turned out, Grant’s prediction was correct. Terrorists had been so successful at disenfranchising Black Mississippians by using sporadic violence and intimidation that appeared to Northerners to be uncoordinated and local so as to avoid attracting the full wrath of the federal government that the “Mississippi Plan” spread to other Southern states as a way for ex-Confederates to regain control.
As a result, by 1877, so-called Redeemers had reconquered the South, in effect reversing the results of the war and instituting a reign of racial terror and oppression that would not be successfully challenged until the middle of the following century when the civil rights movement appeared in the 1950s.
This is a story too important to remain in the shadows and Lemann’s book does an excellent job of telling it.