The Failure of Reconstruction

Some have adopted extreme views of Reconstruction, even during Reconstruction itself, which have painted it as a vengeful punishment which the North inflicted on the South following the Civil War or, on the other hand, as a noble, even if perhaps misguided and obviously failed, attempt to reform the South along more egalitarian or even industrial lines. Others have conceded that Reconstruction is not accurately described by either of these extremes but was the best that could be done given the circumstances the nation found itself in. On the contrary, however, Reconstruction, when viewed in its totality, instead seems to be, like much else that results from the unique politics of the United States, a sort of compromise situation which satisfied almost nobody and disappointed nearly everybody. As a result, the legacy of Reconstruction is, like Reconstruction itself, a haphazard mix of positive and negative.

Although Southerners tended to view Reconstruction as an exercise in revenge on the part of the North, the reality is that there were very few punishments put on even the highest levels of Confederate leadership. For instance, although some Confederate leaders, such as Jefferson Davis, were jailed for a short period, none of the highest ranking or most important Confederate leaders nor average soldiers of the Confederate military were tried, convicted, or punished for treason, although there were voices in the North that wanted them to be. The worst punishment against those who had supported and worked within the Confederacy was to be barred from voting, but even this punishment was removed after only a few years.

Similarly, although many Northerners and some Southerners, especially the carpetbaggers who moved from the North and the scalawags, viewed Reconstruction as an attempt to reform the South along industrial and egalitarian lines, and although some historians have also painted Reconstruction this way, this is hardly an accurate portrayal of the full width and depth of Reconstruction. Rather than any attempt to fundamentally alter the Southern way of life, the larger part of Reconstruction was an attempt to reattach the South to the Union in as expeditious as a manner as possible. Particularly under President Johnson, this often meant conceding to Southern demands even against the interests of the greatest defenders of the Union, members of the Republican Party, and the newly freed blacks of the South.

Because of the haphazard nature of Reconstruction, in which concessions rather than the real interests of either side generally predominated and in which the interests of the weaker and less respected members of society, especially blacks, were often forgotten and rolled over, the legacy of Reconstruction is in large part one of division and necessary reform deferred. While the Union had the ability to integrate freed slaves and other blacks more fully into American society, giving them a place in the political, economic, and social fabric of the country, prejudices and personal political concerns prevented this from happening. Similarly, the Union could have sent a much stronger message to Southerners through adequately punishing former Confederate leadership and those who violated the civil rights of blacks following the war. Had the government done this and enforced the law properly, the entire era of Jim Crow laws, lynching, and segregation could have been prevented, as could many of the socio-economic ramifications of this era that continue to this day in the United States.

The Reconstruction failed to meet the needs of the nation at one of its most important junctures. In short, like much in American politics, the Reconstruction was largely a series of concessions and attempts at middle ground that in trying to please everyone satisfied no one. Had a stronger leader taken charge after the death of Abraham Lincoln and carried out a process of Reconstruction that met the needs of the United States at that time, many more years of hardship and conflict in the United States could have been prevented.

The Civil War’s "Turning Point"

Many historians designate the Battle of Gettysburg as the great “turning point” in the Civil War. Although the Battle of Gettysburg was a very important point in the American Civil War, I think that if we are to pinpoint a “turning point” in the conflict, that “turning point” occurred seven months before Gettysburg with the Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln. It was the issuing of that declaration that was the real defining moment in the war and the real point at which Union victory was guaranteed. A war about ideas must be won in the realm of ideas before it can be won on the battlefield, and the Emancipation Proclamation was the Union victory in the war of ideas.

Probably the most important accomplishment of the Emancipation Proclamation is that it clarified the Union’s reasons for and ultimate goals in the war. While previous to the Emancipation Proclamation it may have seemed that the Union would be willing to receive the Confederate states back into the Union as slave states, the Emancipation Proclamation made clear that this was not going to happen. A line was drawn in the sand and there was no turning back. This clarification of ideas cannot but have clarified the war effort as well.

Second only to this accomplishment of the Emancipation Proclamation is the accomplishment it had in exciting blacks in both the North and South for the Union cause. Finally, Union victory was identified with black freedom and the movement to arm blacks for the Union military was finally taken up. Frederick Douglass expresses this excitement at the identification of the Union cause with black hopes: “I urge you to fly to arms, and smite with death the power that would bury the government and your liberty in the same hopeless grave. … The day dawns, the morning star is bright upon the horizon! The iron gate of our prison stands half open. One gallant rush from the North will fling it side open, while four millions of our brothers and sisters shall march out into liberty.”1 

It is also worth mentioning that erudite historian Eric Foner begins his history of the Reconstruction with the Emancipation Proclamation.2 This is indicative of the nature of the Emancipation Proclamation as the Civil War’s turning point. The war of ideas was won, and the war of arms was won as a result, the work of Reconstruction now beginning.

In very brief, while Gettysburg was an important battle in the Civil War, the real turning point in the conflict came with the Union’s ideological victory in the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation seven months before the Battle of Gettysburg. It was this turning point that was the real moment of victory for the Union in the Civil War. Gettysburg was perhaps part of the playing out of this victory on the battlefield, but was not itself the moment of victory.

1 David J. Eicher, The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002), 437.
2 Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), 1.

Review: Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877

Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877
Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877 by Eric Foner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have to admit that I had very little interest in Reconstruction before reading this book. I completely expected not to enjoy reading this and thought that it would feel more like a chore than anything resembling the joys of reading and learning. On the contrary, however, Foner’s account is an extremely lucid, approachable, informative, and interesting history of what has turned out to be a fascinating period in the history of the United States. Particularly interesting to me was “watching” the shaping of elements that still define much of modern America, such as the black church, and/or that would lead to important events later on, such as the disenfranchisement of black voters and the onset of segregation, events which would culminate in and lead to the fight for civil rights just a little less than a hundred years later. Foner, as I learned in his book, was certainly right in labeling Reconstruction as “America’s unfinished revolution,” as it is a struggle for the United States to simultaneously overcome and come to terms with its past that continues even today, 150 years later. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in discovering the roots of the United States as it is today. I promise that you will not be disappointed.

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Slavery caused the Civil War

Though there were other, largely secondary, factors involved, the central cause of the Civil War was undoubtedly the “peculiar institution” of slavery. The issue of slavery had been a divisive factor from a very early point in American history. It was so much so that the Founding Fathers intentionally chose to put off decisively handling the issue for a subsequent generation, in spite of their insistence in the Declaration of Independence and throughout their principles that “all men are created equal.”1 In their unwillingness to resolve the issue of slavery once and for all, the founders of the United States created the situation which led to the Civil War. Slavery was identified as the central dividing issue in the Civil War by the leadership of the Confederate States of America in their justifications for secession, by others members of the Confederacy in their thoughts on the war, and by the Union leadership in their statements on the Civil War and its causes.

Confederate leadership early on stated that slavery was the central issue over which they were seceding from the Union. They saw Northern industrialists, abolitionists, and politicians as encroaching on their “peculiar institution” and saw secession as the only way to save it. Alexander Hamilton Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy, could not have made this point any clearer than when he said, “our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea [from abolition]; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man, that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.”2 

While their leadership recognized and clearly stated, even boasted, over their reasons for secession, the soldiers who fought under them also recognized slavery as the primary reason for their fight. While their leadership proudly proclaimed the inferiority of blacks and sought openly to keep them in subjugation, the average Southern soldier did not own any slaves and some questioned whether the reasons for the war were really worth the cost or were even ethical reasons. According to historian David J. Eicher, “a small but growing number of Confederate soldiers began to question the ruining of their society over slavery.”3 To this effect, he cites the words of one soldier, Colonel William H.A. Speer, wondering whether “there is some national sin hanging over [the Confederacy]” and stating his belief that if Southern slave owners were to agree to emancipate their slaves within 30 years the war would end almost immediately.3

Union leaders, on the other hand, early identified their primary aim in the war as “a struggle to preserve the Union.”5 However, as time went on, Union leadership very quickly realized that the only way to preserve the Union was to agree with the Confederate leadership that the war was primarily about slavery and to adopt the opposite position, seeking to “reconstruct the Union into the nation it should have been without slavery.”6 To this end, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, making it clear that the Union side was willing to match the Confederacy in its own goals.

Though there are other factors that must be taken into consideration when considering the causes of the Civil War, slavery was without a doubt the primary issue and the one around which the others revolve and from which they largely emerged. The Founding Fathers had deferred in their duties and created the situation that led almost inevitably to the Civil War. As is made clear from the stated reasons for secession on the part of Confederate leadership, the statements of soldiers who fought on the side of the Confederacy during the war, and the statements, however hesitant, of the Union leadership, the Civil War was fought over slavery.

1 Declaration of Indepence, National Archives, accessed 14 November 2012,
2 Alexander Hamilton Stephens, in David J. Eicher, The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002), 49.
3 Ibid., 626-7.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid., 364-5.
6 Ibid.