Reconstructing Reconstruction: Options and Limitations to Federal Policies on Land Distribution in 1866-67

By Ransom, Roger L. | Civil War History, December 2005 | Go to article overview

Reconstructing Reconstruction: Options and Limitations to Federal Policies on Land Distribution in 1866-67


Ransom, Roger L., Civil War History


On April 11, 1865, Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses Grant and the Army of Potomac. While sporadic fighting continued for a few weeks, Lee's surrender effectively ended the Civil War. The demise of the rebellion ushered in a period of"Reconstruction" that has remained at the center of historical debates from the end of the war up to the present.

For almost a century, the interpretation favored by most historians was one of a mismanaged military occupation of the South by Northerners bent on vengeance against a "prostrate" South. State governments in the South were alleged to be rife with corruption and engaged in irresponsible spending that brought their treasuries close to bankruptcy. Only the reinstatement of "redeemer" governments, controlled by conservative white southerners in the mid-1870s, finally restored order. To underscore their dissatisfaction with what went on in the South during the decade following the war, historians adopted the loaded terminology of the times in their writings. Northerners who traveled to the South to take part in the reconstruction of the defeated states were described as "carpetbaggers"; Southern whites who cooperated with federal authorities were termed "scalawags"; and "negroes" were uniformly depicted as uneducated and unprepared for freedom. Only after the "compromise" allowing Republican president Rutherford B. Hayes to with draw federal troops from the Southern states in 1876 could the country finally take steps toward the eventual reunion of a nation torn apart by war. (1)

With the appearance of the civil rights movement in the middle of the twentieth century, this interpretation was challenged by a group of revisionist historians who portrayed the period as a time of lost opportunities. Historians such as Kenneth Stampp insisted that the Reconstruction governments represented a bold effort to create an integrated society in the wake of slavery. (2) It was the stubborn resistance of whites who refused to accept racial equality and the lack of support for freedmen's rights on the part of the federal government that undermined the efforts to "reconstruct" the South. According to the revisionists, Reconstruction offered a brief window of opportunity for Americans to effect a social revolution in the South, and the Compromise of 1876 was a tragic betrayal of nearly five million African American "freedmen" who were abandoned to the racist policies of Southern whites. As W. E. B. Du Bois, the African American historian who anticipated the revisionist interpretation by several decades, put it: "The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then went back again toward slavery." (3)

By the end of the 1970s a new consensus had emerged among historians who staked out a position between the earlier interpretations. Conceding the revolutionary nature of the Republican efforts to reconstruct the South, the neo-revisionists pointed out that these efforts were nonetheless doomed to failure. Reconstruction, as Eric Foner put it, was at best an "unfinished revolution." Yet, Foner pointed out, the effort had not been completely in vain. "The magnitude of the Redeemer counter-revolution," he argued, "underscored both the scope of the transformation Reconstruction had assayed and the consequences of its failure.... The tide of change rose and then receded, but left behind an altered landscape." (4)

Although they paint very different views of the events between 1865 and 1876, these three interpretations of Reconstruction share a common thread: they all suggest that the policies of the federal government toward the South after Appomattox were seriously flawed. The "failure" of Reconstruction was in each case due to a series of costly mistakes. The question we are addressing in these essays is: "Could it have been different?" In other words, could the United States government have done something that might have dramatically changed Reconstruction? …

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