The American Civil War was enormously destructive. In four years, it killed more than three-quarters of a million soldiers and wounded hundreds of thousands more. The economic cost was also huge. The war destroyed a third of the South’s livestock and halved the value of all its real property. Wherever one looked there were wagons, bridges, railroads and track, ships, factories, shops, warehouses, towns, and cities in ruins.1
Why did it occur?
It is often said that the North went to war solely to save the Union and not to abolish slavery. And at one level that is quite true. The war’s immediate trigger was secession and the secessionists’ attack on Fort Sumter. Only the defense of the republic and its physical integrity could rally the North as a whole to the war effort in 1861.
But it is just as true that a war to save the Union was necessary in 1861 only because a political party that denounced slavery and menaced its future in the Union had won the support of a clear majority of northern voters in 1860. If secession had caused the war, therefore, it was the sharpening conflict over slavery that had caused secession.
No one made that point more succinctly than did Abraham Lincoln in his second inaugural address in March 1865. Four years ago, he reminded his listeners, “one-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it.” The ownership of “these slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest,” and “all knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war.” The aim of the slave owners and their allies, stated and restated over decades, was “to strengthen, perpetuate, and extend” the system of bound labor. The aim of the young Republican Party and its supporters was “to restrict the territorial enlargement” of that system, something that both slavery’s opponents and supporters believed would also eventually kill it within the southern states.2
When Lincoln won election to the presidency, slave owners began to pull the United States apart in order to create for themselves a new confederacy in which slavery would be more secure. Loud voices then demanded, in the name of peace and Union, that the Republicans repudiate their antislavery program. The Republican leadership and rank and file refused to comply. Although determined to preserve the Union, they were not willing to do so at any cost. They intended instead (as Lincoln had said a few years earlier and would say again) to save the Union in a way that would leave it “forever worthy of the saving.”3
Great revolutions rarely happen according to someone’s preconceived plan. They commonly occur through the escalation of an initially more limited conflict—when a relatively modest program of reform runs into obstacles too great to overcome without raising the level as well as the stakes of the struggle. In France at the end of the eighteenth century, for example, calls for some changes in policies and practices turned into a republican revolution when the king and aristocracy fought those more modest reforms. In North America a few years earlier, for another example, attempts to modify the way that the British empire treated its colonies confronted imperial authorities unwilling to grant such concessions voluntarily—and too powerful militarily to be forced quickly or easily into capitulating. As a result, petitions for imperial reform gave way to an armed struggle, one that eventually aimed to break the grip of the empire entirely and found a republic without monarchs or aristocrats.
The second American revolution followed a similar trajectory. In the spring of 1861, Abraham Lincoln went to war not to transform southern society but to compel the departed slave states to return to the Union. And he attempted to achieve that goal with only limited, tightly focused military measures while pledging not to interfere with slavery in the seceding states.
But that conservative war policy proved insufficient to the task. What the former slave Frederick Douglass called “the inexorable logic of events” demonstrated the need to revise that policy fundamentally. By the end of 1862, Lincoln had come to accept that logic. The Union now gave up trying to wage war without angering its enemies; it began instead to target those enemies and strip them of the slave labor that helped make them so formidable. By 1863, the tumult of war and the Union’s increasingly revolutionary war policy were enabling black people to escape from their masters’ control by the tens of thousands. By 1865, half a million had managed to do so. Even many who remained formally enslaved behind Confederate lines until the war’s end had begun to resist (and sometimes openly defy) the commands of owners, supervisors, and foremen.
Most white northerners probably embraced wartime emancipation only because it undermined a foe that had sought to destroy their precious Union. But many others came to see immediate emancipation as an end worthy in its own right. Slaves, free blacks, and abolitionists naturally considered the war necessary and worthy precisely in order to destroy a centuries-old system of bondage that had devoured the lives of many generations of black people. The war was a noble one, in Frederick Douglass’s words, for destroying “the gigantic system of American slavery, which had defied the march of time, resisted all the appeals and arguments of the abolitionists, and the humane testimonies of good men of every generation.”4 Had Union armies not begun to dismantle it, Douglass believed, “in all the probabilities of the case, that system of barbarism would have continued its horrors far beyond the limits of the nineteenth century.”5 A Georgian known as Uncle Stephen made much the same point, if in simpler terms. Encountering Stephen on the way to Savannah, William Tecumseh Sherman asked him what he thought about the war. “Well, Sir,” Stephen said, “what I think about it, is this—it’s mighty distressin’ this war, but it ’pears to me like the right thing couldn’t be done without it.”6
Over the course of the war, numerous white northerners who had never been abolitionists came to embrace emancipation not only for its practical utility but also as a political and moral necessity. In their ranks stood some War Democrats, including Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, and a great many Republicans. Lincoln articulated their opinion when he suggested in his second inaugural address that the war was God’s way of punishing the country as a whole for so long indulging in the sin of slavery. If heaven wills, he said, that the fighting and destruction should “continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword,” then one could only bow the head and agree with the psalmist that “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”7
This growing and deepening moral revulsion against slavery invigorated the Republican effort to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, abolishing slavery throughout the United States. That effort succeeded in December 1865. That sentiment also strengthened the fight against racial discrimination. During the war and in the next few years, Republicans struggled against some of the laws that imposed second-class status on free black residents of northern states. In 1862, Congress repealed an act passed forty years earlier that forbade black people from carrying the mail. In 1864, Iowa repealed existing laws excluding free blacks from entering that state. Illinois and Ohio repealed kindred laws in 1865. San Francisco, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and New York all desegregated their streetcar systems during the war; Philadelphia did so in 1867. Chicago desegregated its public schools in 1865, as did the state of Rhode Island. Connecticut mandated equal educational rights in 1868. Boston had done that back in 1855; in 1865, the state of Massachusetts outlawed discrimination in a wide range of public accommodations.8
Even as the war hammered at the South’s central institution, it weakened the social cohesion of the region’s dominant race. “History will record,” predicted the Mississippi planter and congressman Henry C. Chambers in late 1864, that the Confederacy’s white population “rose as one man in defence of their rights, and … endured till God crowned their efforts with success.”9 But what history actually records is more complicated than that.
The bonds that held together the white South’s diverse elements had proved serviceable enough for most purposes during the preceding decades of peace. By seeking to break up the Union and then engaging in a war against that Union, however, Confederate leaders subjected those bonds to unprecedented stresses and strains.
In some cases, those bonds snapped early. But until the last year of the war or so, Davis, Lee, and their cohorts retained the support of most slaveless white Confederates. Shoring up that support were widespread devotion to slavery as an institution; an even more widespread and deeply ingrained dedication to white supremacy; religious doctrines and clerical exhortations; local, regional, and family ties; outrage at the wounds inflicted by enemy armies; codes of personal pride and honor; and hopes for eventual victory.
But it is also true that as the war lengthened and became bloodier and more destructive, growing numbers of “common whites” found themselves asked—or forced—to sacrifice more and more of their already-limited means and to risk their lives and those of their loved ones. As the demands and dangers increased, some began to ask themselves just how much the survival of slavery and a separate southern republic was worth. Laws that seemed to favor the wealthy, loading a disproportionate share of the war’s burdens on non-masters’ shoulders, stoked resentment toward “a rich man’s war” being waged principally by poorer men and sustained by the privation of their families.
Further inflaming that resentment were masters who repeatedly placed the preservation of their personal property above the needs of a war effort that their own class had organized, led, and made necessary. Even before the fighting began, as a Texan noted in early 1865, there had been a considerable “disposition on the part of the non-slaveholder, to feel a prejudice against the slaveholder.” But “since this war commenced, this prejudice has increased.” Disloyal elements had “labored to produce the impression among the poor that this is the slaveholders’ war,” and they had done that “with too much success.”10
As such disaffection deepened and spread, armed bands of deserters and draft resisters formed in the hill country and elsewhere. Three hundred thousand white men from southern states donned Union uniforms during the war; one in three came from states that adhered to the Confederacy. Less dramatically but just as significantly, a mounting and increasingly desperate popular clamor for peace arose after 1863—a clamor increasingly for peace at almost any price. Battlefield victories by southern armies could quiet that clamor for a time, as could recurring certainties that the North was about to abandon the fight. But disaffection and demoralization reappeared with a vengeance with each new setback and as each bubble of false hope burst.
Confederate civilian and military leaders tried to assuage discontent by relieving some of the burdens on the poorest whites and by reducing or rescinding some of the elite’s most objectionable privileges. They could, in theory, have done considerably more. For one thing, they might have offered early in the war to enlist and manumit military-age male slaves. Doing so could have reduced the North’s manpower advantage while also reducing the demands upon the Confederate white population. It would also have demonstrated to slaveless whites that members of the southern elite were prepared to make sacrifices for the war’s sake that were commensurate with their wealth.
But the Richmond regime steadfastly refused to do that. It refused, first, because the great majority of masters would have no part of such a policy. On the contrary, many of them—including some of the most politically prominent and visible—became ever more reluctant even to lend or rent their slaves temporarily to the army as laborers, let alone give them up entirely and see them freed and armed. Richmond also rejected this option for fear of offending the racial sensitivities of its non-slaveholding majority. Most Confederate soldiers, trained to prize their elevation above blacks, indignantly rejected the idea of serving beside them as equals until the conflict’s eleventh hour. Thus did the ideology of white supremacy, which had always provided crucial support for slavery, inhibit the slaveholders’ government from doing what it needed to do in order to survive.
A war launched to preserve slavery succeeded instead in abolishing that institution more rapidly and more radically than would have occurred otherwise. No one was more aware of those consequences than the planter families, whose vaunted world of privilege and power had come crashing down around them. “The props that held society up are broken,” fretted writer Eliza Frances Andrews, the daughter of one of Georgia’s major planters.11 “Our world has gone to destruction,” Mary Chesnut grieved.12 Those who were “once rich, hospitable, powerful,” wailed a Mississippi banker and planter, “are now poor, and like ‘Samson of old’ shorn of their pride and strength.”13 Tomorrow appeared to augur only worse. It seemed to Katherine Edmondston that the “future stands before us dark, forbidding, & stern,” full of “all the bitterness of death without the lively hope of Resurrection.”14
In later years, ex-masters, anxious to deny that the white South had gone to war for the sake of slavery, commonly claimed to have favored emancipation before the war and to have happily embraced it when it came. Robert E. Lee—whose army had made a point of hunting down black people in southern Pennsylvania in 1863 and sending them into slavery back in Virginia—professed after the war to have “always been in favor of emancipation of the negroes” and claimed that now he “rejoiced that slavery is abolished.” The same was true, he added, of “the best men of the South” generally. They “have long desired to do away with the institution and were quite willing to see it abolished.”15
The truth was very different. “This overthrow of the labor system of a whole country,” Confederate War Bureau chief R.G.H. Kean declared at the time, was “the greatest social crime ever committed on the earth.”16 Gertrude Clanton Thomas complained bitterly that now everything “is entirely reversed.”17 In her memoirs, Varina Davis angrily denounced Lincoln’s presumption, by “a single dash of the pen,” to “annihilate four hundred billions of our property, to disrupt the whole social structure of the South, and to pour over the country a flood of evils many times greater than the loss of property.”18 When Katherine Stone published her wartime diary decades later, she claimed never to have regretted slavery’s end. But when the Confederacy fell, she recoiled in horror at the prospect of “submission to the Union (how we hate the word!), confiscation, and Negro equality.… Truly,” Stone exclaimed, “our punishment is greater than we can bear.”19 It was certainly more than the ruined Virginia planter Edmund Ruffin could bear. Contemplating a world with “slaves … all lost,” the “government overthrown, & the whole property of myself and my family … swept away,” Ruffin shot himself on June 18, 1865, joining in death the society that in life he had loved above all things.20
Having founded the Confederacy boasting of its inherent superiority and invincibility, some now blamed their ruin on the personal failings of one or another individual or group. The Confederate Congress in 1865 accused the soldiers who had left their posts in great numbers.21 Jefferson Davis faulted “the persistent interference of some of the State Authorities, Legislative, Executive, and Judicial, hindering the action of the Government, obstructing the execution of its laws, denouncing its necessary policy, impairing its hold upon the confidence of the people, and dealing with it rather as if it were the public enemy.”22 Catherine Edmondston indicted the whole political leadership—“our own Congress, our public men, our own President & his imbecile Cabinet. They it is who have beaten us.”23 Yes, agreed Robert Barnwell Rhett, Sr., “the Government of the Confederacy, destroyed the Confederacy.”24 Sallie Putnam laid responsibility at the feet of fair-weather friends who turned on the South in its hour of need—on “a certain class of malcontents, who, when the light of prosperity shone on our arms, were first to hail the Confederacy, but who … possessed not moral courage enough to sustain them under the dark clouds and beating winds of adversity.”25
Masters who had rallied to the Confederacy in 1860–61 against their better tactical judgment now berated those they blamed for pulling them into the maelstrom. “Secession seems not to have produced the results predicted by its sanguine friends,” North Carolina senator William A. Graham noted in sarcastic understatement. “There was to be no war, no taxes worth prattling about, but an increase of happiness, boundless prosperity, and entire freedom from all Yankee annoyance.” And just “where are we after a 4 years struggle?… On the brink of ruin.”26 Henry L. Flash, the editor of Georgia’s leading newspaper, ruefully recalled “the amount of nonsense that passed for great truths” at the war’s inception, including assurances that “the Yankees wouldn’t fight,” that cotton was king, and that a slaveholders’ government could depend on “the faithfulness of the slaves.”27 The consistent unionist, Natchez planter, and merchant William J. Britton went further a few years later. “I often feel,” he said, “that I would like to see some of the political mad caps who have destroyed our once prosperous & happy people Swing at the end of hemp—and I do not think my tears wd flow if our great man Davis was among the number.”28
But that was a minority view. However they evaluated individual leaders, most southerners mourned the Confederacy’s death, sympathized with their former president, and reserved their hottest outrage for the North, the Republican Party, and treacherous freedpeople.
A little vignette that played out in Georgia in May 1865 captured those sentiments. After taking Jefferson Davis into custody, Union troops bearing him northward passed through the city of Augusta. The planters Gertrude and Jefferson Thomas happened to be there at the time. Jefferson sadly doffed his hat in salute when their captured leader’s carriage went by. As her husband paid that tribute, Gertrude spied “a crowd of Negroes … running and rushing … and coming from every direction, all to see the procession.” If only, she wished, “a volley of musketry” could be “sent among the Negroes who were holding such a jubilee.”29
The same sentiments led to Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Soon after Lee’s surrender, the Union president addressed a crowd at the White House on the subject of the postwar South. In his remarks, he for the first time voiced publicly a wish previously expressed only in private—that black soldiers and educated black men might be permitted to vote.30 Lincoln had no intention of imposing this wish; he presented it merely as a suggestion. But that was enough for one Confederate sympathizer standing in the crowd that day. “That means nigger citizenship,” spat the Maryland actor John Wilkes Booth. “That is the last speech he will ever make.”31 Three days later, on April 14, 1865, Booth shot the president of the United States as he sat in a theater watching a play. “Sic semper tyrannis,” the assassin shouted as he made his escape—“Thus ever to tyrants,” the official motto of the state of Virginia. The same night Lewis Powell, a coconspirator, attacked and severely wounded Secretary of State William H. Seward. Seward survived, but Lincoln died the next morning.
Prominent figures in the Confederate pantheon publicly deplored the murder. Some called it morally repulsive. Most feared that such a crime at such a time could only further inflame northern passions against them. No one, Sallie Putnam assured readers of her 1867 memoir, expressed pleasure at Lincoln’s death. “In the wonderful charity which buries all quarrels in the grave,” she wrote, “Mr. Lincoln, dead, was no longer regarded in the character of an enemy; for with the generosity native to Southern character, all resentment was hidden in his tomb in Springfield. We were satisfied to let the ‘dead Past bury its dead.’ ”32
Her words must have surprised many readers in the South, who rejoiced at the death of the man they most identified with the revolutionary destruction of their world. If few had dared to show their satisfaction openly, quite a few did so in private conversations and personal papers. “We hear that Lincoln is dead,” Katherine Stone told her diary. She certainly hoped it was true. “All honor to J. Wilkes Booth,” the Union president’s “brave destroyer.” Learning later that Lincoln’s assassin had himself been slain, Stone shed a tear for “poor Booth,” sure that “many a true heart at the South weeps for his death.”33 “Lincoln the oppressor is dead!” Catherine Edmondston exulted; she regretted only that in deciding to kill him Booth had “delay[ed] it for so long.”34 Edmund Ruffin considered public repudiations of Booth “shameful” and was “sorry” to learn that William H. Seward was recovering from his wounds.35 To Colonel Louis A. Bringier, scion of a wealthy Louisiana planter family, the news of Lincoln’s murder was “cheering,” and he named his newborn son after the president’s killer.36
“Let us leave our land and emigrate to any desert spot of the earth,” Louisianan Sarah Morgan wrote in her diary in April 1865, “rather than return to the Union, even as it Was” before war and emancipation.37 Some ten thousand irreconcilables did leave the United States.38 John C. Breckinridge fled to Cuba.39 So did Robert Toombs, who was “much pleased” by what he found on the island. “It is very fertile and boundless in wealth” and blessed “with slave labour.” But Toombs worried that England and the United States would soon force the issue of emancipation there, too, and when that happened, he believed, Cuba would be “doomed.”40 According to a northern reporter visiting Cuba, masters in that country believed their bondspeople were “well acquainted with the essential facts in our own great conflict, and the whole slave community is said to be fermenting with ideas engendered by American emancipation.”41
Thousands of other last-ditch Confederates made their way to Brazil, whose monarch had maintained a stance of formal neutrality during the American Civil War, but one strongly tinged with southern sympathies.42 Slavery still lived on in Brazil, too, but high slave prices there prevented most of the expatriates from resuming careers as masters.43
The largest contingent of Confederate “wild geese” headed for Mexico. Ex-Commodore Matthew Fontaine Maury paved their way by getting himself appointed as Emperor Maximilian’s commissioner for colonization in the summer of 1865.44 Trans-Mississippi commander E. Kirby Smith had begun planning his own departure months earlier, and on May 2, anticipating the Confederacy’s collapse, he notified Maximilian that he would seek asylum in Mexico. Facing unemployment and perhaps worse at home, the general suggested that “the services of our troops would be of inestimable value” to the deeply unpopular French-imposed emperor.45
When Kirby Smith finally fled southward across the Rio Grande, he did so in the company of some three hundred of his former soldiers plus a gaggle of other ex-generals, ex-colonels, and ex-governors.46 In their Mexican exile, most ex-Confederates turned to agriculture, often on land that their patron, Maximilian, took from local peasants expressly for that purpose. Even so, however, life in Mexico proved harder than anticipated. Rebuilding a plantation system there would require not only land but also a workforce.47But Mexico had outlawed slavery in the 1830s, and Maximilian had not restored it. Confederate exiles who brought slaves with them therefore found themselves without a government prepared to enforce servitude. “All our negroes decided to leave us upon our arrival here,” complained former general Thomas C. Hindman, and there seemed no way to stop them.48 Matthew Fontaine Maury dreamed of instituting some form of forced-labor system in Mexico.49 But in 1867, insurgent forces led by Benito Juárez, an admirer of Lincoln, put an end to all such fantasies by defeating, capturing, and executing Louis-Napoléon’s puppet emperor.
Far fewer Confederates experimented with exile than threatened to do so.50 And most of those who did go abroad eventually straggled back into the restored Union, where they joined the great mass of former slave owners determined to salvage something from the wreckage of the world they had known and that some had dreamed would last forever.51 As Katherine Stone sighed after returning from Texas to Brokenburn, “Nothing is left but to endure.”52
Enduring meant abandoning further hopes for an independent slaveholders’ republic. But what else it might mean was less clear. Perhaps, as so many late-war southern peace advocates had hoped, black labor—and black people generally—might yet be kept firmly under whites’ control. Mary Greenhow Lee, the daughter of a successful Virginia merchant, landowner, and politician, wrote in her diary in September 1865 that “political reconstruction might be unavoidable now, but social reconstruction we … might prevent.”53
In its crudest form, this goal translated into refusing even the semblance of emancipation. By the spring of 1865, about half a million bound laborers had in one way or another become free of their masters.54 But the great majority remained formally enslaved. In parts of the South least affected by the war and the immediate postwar occupation, masters kept some slaves in chains well after the Confederacy’s collapse. Some slave owners in Texas and remoter parts of Georgia informed their laborers that nothing had changed, and they continued to act on that pretense. An African Methodist Episcopal missionary in Georgia discovered four months after Appomattox that “the people do not know really that they are free, and if they do, their surroundings are such that they would fear to speak of it.”55 A Georgia girl named Charity Austen was twelve years old when the war ended. “Boss tole us Abraham Lincoln wus dead,” she recalled many years later, “and we were still slaves. Our boss man bought black cloth and made us wear it for mourning for Abraham Lincoln and tole us that there would not be freedom. We stayed there another year after freedom.” At that point “we finally found out we were free and left.”56
Eventually, as in Austen’s case, attempts to preserve slavery sub rosa failed. And the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865 brought legal freedom to Kentucky and Delaware, two loyal slave states not covered by the Emancipation Proclamation and whose legislatures had not yet enacted abolition.
But Mary Greenhow Lee’s more general hope—to avoid a radical alteration in southern society—persisted. Even if one human being could no longer legally own another, perhaps the same ends could be accomplished by other means. Maybe a less complete form of servitude could be imposed—some form that, if not as satisfactory to them as old-South slavery, would still prove more profitable for employers than would genuinely free labor. The goal, in other words, was to obtain the same kind of arrangement that masters had tried to secure during the war from Nathaniel Banks and other Union officers in occupied parts of the Confederacy. A number of proslavery peace advocates had hoped to achieve much the same thing in 1863 and afterward, as did several Confederate officials when they sought to trade slavery for black soldiers in 1864–65. Although now confronting forcible reintegration into the Union, Georgia’s James Appleton Blackshear anticipated merely replacing slavery with “a system of serfdom.”57 Contemplating the former slaves, a Louisiana planter calculated that “the best we can do is keep ’em as near a state of bondage as possible.”58 One of his colleagues, William J. Minor, looked forward to rejoining the Union with “things as they were, but perhaps under some other name” than slavery.59 As one Union official reported in September 1865, ex-masters “feel that this kind of slavery will be better than none at all.”60
In 1865 and 1866, Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, allowed newly elected local and state governments (dominated in many places by former leaders of the Confederacy) to pass laws designed to impose “this kind of slavery”—to herd black people back onto the plantations and to keep them there in a position of semi-servitude. Known as “black codes,” the laws denied many personal rights to the freedpeople, including the right to move about freely; to seek new occupations; to select, change, and bargain with employers; and even to enjoy secure custody of their own children.
Congress’s Republican majority, African Americans, and the U.S. Army blocked that attempt in a postwar era that became known as “Reconstruction.” During it, black people worked to reconstitute families and create schools and religious and secular community institutions, and they instructed and mobilized themselves politically. Congress overturned the black codes and threw out the results of the white-supremacist elections of 1865–66. It would not allow white southerners to enforce a new kind of servile status on the ex-slaves, nor would it tolerate the planters’ attempt to retake political control of the South and flex resurgent political muscle in Washington. It would not allow the revolution’s conquered enemies to nullify its achievements.
The Republican Party successfully amended the U.S. Constitution in 1868 and 1870 to grant full legal equality and full political rights (including the vote) to yesterday’s slaves. Only on that basis, the freedpeople and their allies successfully argued, could they defend their rights and interests. And only extending the vote and the right to hold office to freedpeople could give the Republican Party the kind of electorate that it needed to govern the postwar South. On this basis Republicans proceeded to create radically new kinds of state governments in the South, staffed with southern whites who had come to oppose the Confederacy during the war as well as northerners who had settled in the South in the war’s aftermath. Others among the new officeholders were black men, some of whom had been free before the war and others who became free only because of it.
Once again, the dynamic of this revolution—its “inexorable logic”—had revealed and asserted itself. As at every previous stage, accomplishing a relatively limited task demanded taking on a much bigger one. To achieve one goal, it proved necessary to aim for a higher one. Winning the war and suppressing secession required emancipating and arming the slaves. Saving the fruits of that victory had made full citizenship for the freedpeople unavoidable.
But the second American revolution had now reached its apogee. It had gone as far—had become as radical—as circumstances and the human and material resources available to it would allow. And from there it began to slip backward, as Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson knew that revolutions sometimes do.61
Forces committed to restoring white supremacy launched a ruthless, bloody campaign of terror and intimidation against freedpeople and their white allies in the South. As young southern units of the Republican Party broke under those blows and the Republicans of the North retreated and grew more conservative, Reconstruction collapsed. With it went many of the gains of the second American revolution. A resurgent southern elite once again set about imposing white supremacy and tyrannical labor discipline while stripping freedpeople of many of their civic and political rights. In the 1890s came an even more complete, even more thorough imposition of segregation and subordination—a “Jim Crow” system that would last until well past the middle of the next century. As the great historian W.E.B. Du Bois wrote, “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.”62
But while forced to retreat from its most advanced positions, the second American revolution was never completely overthrown. This was unmistakable at the national level. The southern elite, which dominated all branches of the federal government throughout most of the prewar era, was now driven into a corner politically and remained there for decades. Half a century would pass before any man born in the South would again sit in the White House or preside over the U.S. Senate. The Supreme Court remained in the hands of non-Southerners, too. Control of the federal government now rested instead in the hands of those who represented the interests of northern-based manufacturing and commerce. Among the early fruits of that profound power shift was a raft of laws designed to encourage industrial development, with protective tariffs, subsidies for railroad construction, a national currency, and national banking and land-grant college systems.
But it was in the South that the Civil War and its aftermath left its deepest enduring imprint. The destruction of slavery—the seizure without compensation of the elite’s most valuable property and the emancipation of four million human beings—remained a central, immovable fact of postwar life. On this subject W.E.B. Du Bois chose his words well. Black southerners after Reconstruction were forced to retreat back toward slavery, but never back into slavery. Millions of black Americans could no longer be bought and sold like furniture or cattle. People such as Jacob Thomas could observe with some peace of mind that “I has got thirteen great-gran’ chilluns, an’ I knows whar dey ever’one am. In slavery times dey’d have been on de block some time ago.”63
Black field laborers found themselves saddled with a labor system known as sharecropping that exploited and oppressed them and kept them mired in poverty. But that system never equaled in severity and brutality the work regime of the prewar South. The average living standards of black people rose by half during the fifteen years following the Civil War. And even in the pit of the late nineteenth century, landowners could never compel their laborers to work with the inhuman intensity that slavery had once exacted as a norm.64
Just as important, the fruits of emancipation helped advance the cause of greater liberty and equality. The greater freedom of action that slavery’s destruction brought enabled black people to forge stronger family ties and build strong organizations, and thereby organize and fight more effectively for equal rights when improved conditions later on made that possible. And for those who experienced or heard or read about what slavery’s enemies had achieved during the 1860s, the memory of the second American revolution could provide hope and inspiration in that ongoing struggle.
The war that accomplished all these things was a worthwhile, necessary, and even glorious one. “The world has not seen a nobler and grander war,” Frederick Douglass reflected at the time, than the one fought “to put an end to the hell-black cause out of which the Rebellion has risen.” Those who waged that war were “writing the statutes of eternal justice and liberty in the blood of the worst of tyrants as a warning to all aftercomers. We should rejoice that there was normal life and health enough in us to stand in our appointed place, and do this great service for mankind.”65