Update: After you finish reading this post check out Brooks Simpson’s thoughtful response to Gordon-Reed’s essay.
One of the most common tropes embraced in reference to the post- Civil War period is the idea of a ‘white Northern retreat from Reconstruction.’ For many, the shift occurred during the mid to late 1870s for a number of reasons, including the threat of labor strikes, the fulfillment of Manifest Destiny or the realization that the South’s racial problems could only be solved locally. Reconstruction’s abandonment followed significant gains on the civil rights front from the passage of three constitutional amendments to military intervention that led to black political action. The white North’s abandonment of Reconstruction points inextricably to missed opportunities and our own inability to deal honestly with deep racial problems.
In her recent essay at the Atlantic, historian Annette Gordon-Reed, pushes this narrative to the extreme:
It was tragic that by the 1870s, white northerners, tired of dealing with the South’s racial problems and ready to move on, effectively abandoned Southern blacks to the mercies of people who had not long before thought of and treated them as chattel. Blacks’ status as outside of—or somehow “alien” to—the American republic continued, and continues today. That blacks have had to “fight” for the rights of citizenship, after the Fourteenth Amendment purportedly made them citizens, reveals the disconnect.
In the end, the opportunities for blacks, the South, and the country as a whole that were lost because of the resistance to and abandonment of Reconstruction stand as one of the great tragedies of American history.
The tragedy of white Northern abandonment points, in her mind, to a number of counterfactuals about the potential impact of sustained policies around land reform and voting rights on the lives of blacks and whites throughout the region.
What if plans for land reform had been effectuated during that time? Doing so would have helped the freedmen to become landowners, a status recognized since the country’s origins as a foundation for personal independence. But black independence was exactly what white southerners didn’t want. They preferred to bring things back as close to slavery as possible, ensnaring former enslaved people and their progeny in a system of share cropping and debt peonage that stymied the growth of black economic wealth for generations.
What if blacks’ voting rights had not been cut off through official shenanigans and outright violence? What different political course might the South have taken? Support for public education and public works would likely have been much stronger if blacks had been active in the electorate. This, in turn, might have brought more sustained economic development, infrastructural improvements, and a higher standard of living to all in the region.
It’s a heavy burden to place on the white North and it certainly drives home the tragic quality of the end of Reconstruction, but is it true? Did the white Northerners abandon the South during Reconstruction?
I ask having recently discussed Jannette T. Greenwood’s wonderful study of Worcester, Massachusetts during the Civil War and postwar period with my undergraduate seminar. Worcester is an interesting case study because the community was sympathetic to the anti-slavery call before the war and the many of the men who went off to war – especially those serving in the 25th Massachusetts Vol. Infantry at New Bern, North Carolina – proved pivotal in bringing newly freed slaves back to their home town. Missionaries from the Worcester area traveled to New Bern to educate and arrange for the transfer of people to Worcester.
According to Greenwood those former slaves who moved to Worcester during the war benefited from strong personal ties with whites and, as a result, tended to do well. This, however, stands in contrast with those former slaves who moved to the area immediately following the war as a result of the work of the Freedmen’s Bureau and those who followed later. Most of these people moved without any personal connections to white Worcesterites. This group was less likely to move beyond the margins of society and was more likely to experience discrimination and violence. Southern blacks who moved to Worcester after the war enjoyed some economic opportunity and created strong communal bonds in an area that largely tolerated their presence.
The point here is that I struggle with whether Worcester can rightfully be claimed to have abandoned Reconstruction because I wonder whether they were ever invested in it. I suspect that for many white Worcesterites the goal of the war had been attained. The Union was saved and slavery abolished, but you don’t get the sense from Greenwood’s study that the white population paid much attention to Reconstruction or the plight of former slaves. If anything, postwar Worcester offers an interesting case study of just how far Northern whites would be pushed to live in a society that embraced equal opportunity for both races.
We have plenty of studies of Northern communities during the war to gauge how ordinary people experienced the war. Perhaps we need more in this regard to get a clearer sense of how they experienced Reconstruction as well.
Finally, there is something else that I find curious about Gordon-Reed’s essay and the way she connects this supposed white abandonment with her choice of counterfactuals. It presupposes some notion of a nationwide push to attain not just a political or economic end, but a moral end and it does so at racism’s expense.
This past week I Skyped with a high school class in Milwaukee that was assigned the first chapter of my Crater book. One of the students asked me if I believed the war would have ended sooner if blacks had been recruited into the army sooner. Rather than respond to that question I chose to emphasize why the decision had not been made sooner, which involved having to impress upon the class the extent that racism influenced how white Northerners viewed blacks in uniform and armed. I did my best to show that black recruitment and even slavery’s end occurred not as some divine plan or that it was inevitable at all. In fact, as we all know, the war could have ended with slavery intact and without black soldiers. It ended in fits and starts with few people being able to anticipate what would come next.
Gordon-Reed closes with the following:
There is little reason to doubt that if the United States had started the process of rewriting the script on race relations during the late 19th century, instead of delaying it to the 1950s and 1960s, many problems that have their origins in the country’s troubled racial history might be closer to resolution.
Perhaps, but this presupposes that the vast majority of white Northerners didn’t already believe that the script had been completed.