Did White Northerners Abandon Reconstruction?

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.

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

Purchase your copy today!

10 comments… add one
  • Rachael R. Aug 19, 2020 @ 12:29

    You mention that for many white northerners the goals of the war were to save the Union and abolish slavery, and that these were political and economic ends, not necessarily morally motivated. What were the political and economic motivations for saving the Union and ending slavery for white northerners? The moral question I keep pondering is, why were white northerners so invested in preserving the Union and abolishing slavery if they did not really care about the fate or quality of life of all the people of the Union?

  • Julian Nov 16, 2015 @ 6:27

    Another factor inhibiting the whole likelihood of an equitable solution in the 1860s/1870s is the broader context of scientific teaching, writing and theorising on race and identity at this date. Not only in the US, but in all first world countries, there was a strong belief in a hierarchy of the races and an obsession with calibrating the exact proportions of racial difference and civilisation within each group. Whilst it has been discredited in modern times, none of this supposedly scientific enquiry would have made people regard people of African origins as being capable of being equal to Caucasians in political and social public life. Personal knowledge and connections however would have been one conduit to working against the definitions and values set out in the scientific literature of the period

    • Kevin Levin Nov 16, 2015 @ 14:10

      And as you know many of the most prominent voices in this field were based in the North at some of its most prestigious universities.

  • Patrick Jennings Nov 4, 2015 @ 10:28

    I find it interesting that in both this blog, and Brooks Simpson’s well written blog no one is discussing the roll of black northerners on black southern transplants. Sadly, I can not remember the name of the woman who gave it, however, there was an excellent NPS Park Ranger talk about this at Boston African American NHP.

  • Dan Weinfeld Nov 3, 2015 @ 12:47

    This vision that a just, bi-racial post-war society was possible if only we had tried harder is messianic delusion. No one can read Greg Downs’ seminal “After Appomattox” or dip a toe into the ocean of Freedman’s Bureau papers (available free online) without concluding that the “gains” of Reconstruction – as brief as they were – depended on broad and sustained military occupation, and prolongation of war powers, in the face of determined, violent, Southern white opposition. Focusing on Northern “will” conveniently dodges the essential logistic, manpower, and economic costs of maintaining an occupation of the South by tens of thousands of federal troops for decades to ensure Reconstruction..

    • Kevin Levin Nov 4, 2015 @ 3:08

      I think you make a good point. If AGR had referred to the political will necessary to maintain military Reconstruction than I could work with her, but the idea of ‘Northern retreat’ is much too vague. Downs’s book is a must read.

  • Craig L. Nov 2, 2015 @ 12:02

    My grandfather was an evangelical minister who preached in both German and English in Wisconsin until his death in 1932. His grandfather was a German immigrant who had served and died in a Wisconsin regiment that fought at Vicksburg, occupied Arkansas for a year and a half, took part in the siege of the last forts protecting Mobile and mustered out in Brownsville, Texas, three months after the war officially ended.

    Five years after my grandfather died, his widow moved from upstate Wisconsin to Pascagoula, Mississippi, taking along with her my dad who was then ten years old, her older brother, his wife and their daughter. My grandmother managed a motor park while my dad’s uncle established a trucking business that eventually became a Mayflower franchise.

    They moved back to Wisconsin three years later, no longer dependent on the largesse of the church my grandfather had served as a minister. I can’t imagine that the opportunity they found in southern Mississippi in the middle of the Great Depression was not in some way connected to my great great grandfather’s service in the Union army.

    Reconstruction, it seems to me, consisted, to a certain extent, of ties between North and South that were established during the Civil War and persisted for generations afterward. I haven’t had any luck determining specifically what those ties were or how they functioned, but I would guess the church to which my ancestors belonged made efficient use of them. My dad’s older sisters started college at a church run school in Illinois while my dad and my grandmother were in Mississippi. Both of my dad’s sisters trained as schoolteachers and married ministers.

    My great great grandfather’s Civil War service had not been a secret to my dad’s older sisters, until then. My dad learned about his Civil War ancestor from me. I figured it out from information gleaned from the internet in the past ten years.

  • Christopher Coleman Nov 1, 2015 @ 7:36

    While there were many cultural and economic factors which contributed to the retrograde movement regarding Black rights after the war, as you point out, for many northern whites the war had never about slavery vs abolition, but preservation of the Union. But this and all the other reasons cited by the sources you mention dance around a basic reality: first and foremost, the “abandonment” of Blacks was due to the deal struck between the Republican Party leadership and Southern Democrats to resolve the dispute over the Election of 1876–what is generally called the Compromise of 1877.

    With 20 electoral votes in dispute–mainly in the South–the Dems agreed to cede the disputed votes to the Republicans in return for an end to Reconstruction, including the withdrawal of Union garrisons in the South and to turn a blind eye to the economic and political disenfranchisement of blacks in the South. It was not about being “tired.” Basically, the Republicans sold out their ideals for crass political gain and condemned the US to continue the struggle for Civil Rights for over a century more.

    It was this one event, more than any other factors, that was a watershed, not only for selling out Civil Rights, but also for the transformation of a party inspired by Socialist and other reformist ideals into a party that became the handmaid of robber-baron Capitalism.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 1, 2015 @ 8:11

      I agree that the Compromise of 1877 is important to understanding the political shift that was already underway within the Republican Party, but my problem is with framing it as a more general abandonment of the South by white Northerners. Mark Summers’s new book on Reconstruction has been very helpful in terms of understanding the importance of Union as the primary goal of the war and the benchmark to understanding the level of commitment to additional change that white Northerners were willing to tolerate or even cared about during the postwar period.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *