My AP classes are now focusing on the entrance of the United States onto the world stage at the turn of the twentieth century. At the same time we are talking about the emergence of Jim Crow legislation and the rise of lynchings throughout the South. It’s interesting how our tendency to carve up the past into neat little chapters often obscures the extent to which earlier events continue to inform or shape later events. I had one of those moments last week as I was preparing a presentation on the rise of Jim Crow. It hit me that in an important way we were still talking about the Civil War. I began the class by asking: “Who won the American Civil War?” Of course the students looked at me with an odd grin, but I decided to go with it and let the silence take hold in hopes of making for an uncomfortable moment. I eventually followed up by asking my students to think about the war and Reconstruction as beginning in 1861 and ending around 1900. A few of the students understood exactly what I was asking and we ended up having a very interesting discussion.
My goal with the question was to have my students think seriously about the way in which the Civil War challenged basic assumptions about citizenship and race in the United States. As a military order the Emancipation Proclamation raised questions that few people were prepared to debate seriously just a few years earlier. By the end of the war a significant number of black Americans had fought and sacrificed in the Union armies and the institution of slavery was dead. Emancipation alone, however, did not necessarily imply a certain set of positive civil rights such as the suffrage or equal protection under the law. Whenever I teach Reconstruction I have my class think about the term from different perspectives. There were a number of ideas about Reconstruction depending on whether you were a newly freed slave, a Republican in Congress or a white Southerner. Different ideas of Reconstruction competed with one another during the thirty years following the war and they all hinge on the radical changes that the Civil War wrought. Military defeat may have ended the war and slavery, but the form in which freedom would take for 4 million newly freed slaves had not been decided.
From this perspective it can be argued – as does Brooks Simpson – that the Civil War did not really end in 1865. The issues of race and emancipation continued to be fought over within a political context and often through extra-legal means such as the Klan and other terrorist groups. The Radical Republicans sought to protect the civil rights of black Southerners while many white Southerners hoped to regain control of their state governments and reconstruct them along lines that followed the racial hierarchy of the antebellum period. This can be seen in the institution of black codes shortly after the war as a means to limit their political and social mobility. By the mid-1870’s it became increasingly clear that northern Republicans were losing interest in military Reconstruction as western expansion and the challenges of increased industrial development took hold. In addition, members of the old-guard such as Thadeus Stevens and Charles Sumner were gone while younger Republicans entered Congress never having experienced the political turmoil of the 1850’s. Even Horace Greely had lost patience with Reconstruction as well as other Liberal Republicans. While 1877 did not signal the end of black political participation in the South it can be seen as the beginning of a gradual loss of civil rights for black Americans that culminated in the 1896 case of Plessy v. Furgeson and the rise of the Jim Crow South.
This broader perspective makes it possible for teachers to ask questions that challenge our standard outline. If we acknowledge that the Confederate government was fighting to preserve not just slavery, but a society based on a strictly defined racial hierarchy than we can make sense of the process by which black Southerners gradually lost the basic civil rights that they had worked so hard for during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Reconstruction is one of my favorite time periods to teach since it forces students to deal with the fact that the future of the country was not predetermined. The subsequent racial story could have gone any number of ways. The presidential election of 1876 did not close the door on black political action in the South. The reconstruction vision of black Americans continued to compete with the reconstruction vision of the white South, and while their outlooks were largely mutually exclusive individuals like William Mahone and Ben Tillman continued to offer alternatives that involved bi-racial cooperation. The rise of Lynchings along with the emergence of Redeemer governments connect directly to the way in the which both the Civil War and Reconstruction evolved. The war over whether the United States was going to define citizenship along the color line continued as the nation pushed into the twentieth century. Of course we could argue, as one of my students did, that the issues of race and emancipation continued well into the twentieth century. This student suggested that we are still fighting the Civil War. In a sense we are, but it seems to me that we can use the Spanish-American War and the move on the part of the southern states to rewrite their state constitutions in a way that disfranchised the largest number of southern blacks as an end point. [By 1940 only 3% of southern blacks were registered to vote.] Consider the above tableau that depicts national reconciliation just as the country geared up for war with Spain. Perhaps the strong feelings of nationalism and the sweet taste of victory against a nation that posed not threat to this country can be interpreted as the end of the Civil War.