The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America's Most Progressive Era
Douglas R. Egerton
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By 1870, just five years after Confederate surrender and thirteen years after the Dred Scott decision ruled blacks ineligible for citizenship, Congressional action had ended slavery and given the vote to black men. That same year, Hiram Revels and Joseph Hayne Rainey became the first African-American U.S. senator and congressman respectively. In South Carolina, only twenty years after the death of arch-secessionist John C. Calhoun, a black man, Jasper J. Wright, took a seat on the state’s Supreme Court. Not even the most optimistic abolitionists had thought such milestones would occur in their lifetimes. The brief years of Reconstruction marked the United States’ most progressive moment prior to the civil rights movement.
Previous histories of Reconstruction have focused on Washington politics. But in this sweeping, prodigiously researched narrative, Douglas Egerton brings a much bigger, even more dramatic story into view, exploring state and local politics and tracing the struggles of some fifteen hundred African-American officeholders, in both the North and South, who fought entrenched white resistance. Tragically, their movement was met by ruthless violence--not just riotous mobs, but also targeted assassination. With stark evidence, Egerton shows that Reconstruction, often cast as a "failure" or a doomed experiment, was rolled back by murderous force. The Wars of Reconstruction is a major and provocative contribution to American history.
African Americans to memorialize only pacifists, some noted, was an ahistorical double standard. As historian Bernard E. Powers Jr. observed, once peaceful change had been rendered impossible by the state legislature, “violent revolution [was] inevitable.” Although Vesey, who had purchased his freedom decades earlier, was no longer a slave at the time of his rebellion, in his old age he was “the voice of the voiceless,” Powers remarked. “There’s something uniquely American about that.”12 The
Ernie Pyle’s 1930s Travel Dispatches (New York, 1990), 304–6.On the state constitutional amendment, see John Cimprich, Slavery’s End in Tennessee, 1861–1865 (Tuscaloosa, 1985), 104–5, 116. 5. David Donald, Charles Sumner and the Rights of Man (New York, 1970), 207–8 and note 7; David Goldfield, America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation (New York, 2011), 418; Salmon P. Chase to Abraham Lincoln, November 25, 1863, in Lincoln Papers, LC; Abraham Lincoln to Michael Hahn, March 13, 1864,
Anti-Slavery Standard, April 14, 1866; Morning Oregonian (Portland, OR), May 4, 1866. Norris’s story was first reported on June 24, 1859, in the New-York Tribune and was published even before Lee’s role in defeating John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry made him relatively famous. 10. James Oliver to Simeon S. Jocelyn, January 14, 1863, in The Black Abolitionist Papers, Vol. V: The United States, 1859 to 1865, eds. C. Peter Ripley and Michael Hembree (Chapel Hill, 1992), 5: 173; Harriet Jacobs to
Virginians met in Alexandria for a three-day conference to endorse the Norfolk agenda and to demand that their state “be reorganized” on the basis of equal privileges and “the right of suffrage.” In the antebellum era, Alexandria had housed the Franklin and Armfield slave trading company, and one delegate marveled that freedmen were now congregating in a town where “only three years ago any man suspected of the slightest tinge of abolitionism” would have been lucky “to escape hanging in the
states who refused to guarantee “civil rights [to all] men and women, in equality with the white population.” Hinting at Midwestern unhappiness with the president and his conservative program—a bellwether loud enough to embolden any centrist politician—the Iowa legislature formally instructed its Washington delegation “to prevent the Rebel States from resuming their political relations” until they “secured civil rights alike to whites and blacks.” In the Senate, Henry Wilson rose to demand that