The Freedmen's Bureau and Reconstruction: Reconsiderations

By Paul A. Cimbala; Randall M. Miller | Go to book overview

afterword

James McPherson

THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR abounds in ironies. A nation born of secession fought a war against secession four score and seven years later to preserve the entity created by the first secession from dismemberment by the second. The commander in chief of the victorious army had no military training and once joked that his only military experience had consisted of "charges upon the wild onions" and "a good many bloody struggles with the mosquitoes" as a militia captain in the Black Hawk War.1 His rival commander in chief was a West Point graduate and a combat veteran, who had been a superb secretary of war. Yet most historians agree that Abraham Lincoln proved to be a better strategist and military leader than Jefferson Davis. Both sides in the war initially tried to keep the issue of slavery in the background, yet defense of that institution was the mainspring of secession and its abolition one of the most important results of the war. If the conflict had ended in the summer of 1862, which appeared imminent after a remarkable string of Union victories in the winter and spring of that year, plantation slavery and the social structure of the Old South would have survived the war. But the advent of Robert E. Lee as the Confederacy's premier military commander reversed the initial momentum of northern success, prolonged the war for three years, and ensured that Union victory would destroy slavery, the Old South, and almost everything for which Lee had fought.

The reputation of the Freedmen's Bureau, created during the final months of the war to help harvest one of the fruits of victory, emancipation, offers another example of irony. Welcomed as a muchneeded ally by the freedpeople, the Bureau reaped abuse and ridicule from southern whites, especially former slaveholders. They denounced it as a "vicious institution," "a curse," a "ridiculous folly."

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