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Homegrown Terror

Redemptions: The Last Battle of the Civil War

By Nicholas Lemann

(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 257 pp., $24)

Colfax, Louisiana was scarcely a town in 1873. It was more a collection of buildings on a plantation owned by William Calhoun. As much as any site in the former Confederate South, however, Colfax came to embody the complex political dynamics of Reconstruction, and the troubling relation of terror and democracy in the history of the United States.

Lying in the heart of the state's lush Red River Valley, Colfax was the newly designated seat of the newly created Grant Parish, carved out by Louisiana's Republican government in 1868 to weaken the Democrats' hold in the countryside and fittingly named to honor the party's sitting president and vice president, Ulysses S. Grant and Schuyler Colfax. One of Calhoun's stables served as the local courthouse, and the expectation was that, with a small black majority, the Republicans could control the parish government and send the party's representatives to the state legislature.

Unfortunately, the only thing predictable about politics in Reconstruction Louisiana was its unpredictability. In 1872, U.S. troops were needed to fend off a Democratic coup d'etat in New Orleans and keep the governorship and the statehouse in Republican hands; several months later, up in Grant Parish, Republican officeholders (mostly black, and led by William Ward, a tough Union Army veteran and state militia officer) were holed up behind hastily built barricades at the courthouse in Colfax with about four or five hundred of their black constituents. Rival white Democratic claimants, reinforced by gun-toting vigilantes from neighboring parishes, had put them to siege, and on Easter Sunday, April 13, they delivered the ultimatum. Two hours later the battle was over. The courthouse was in flames, and by the time state and federal officials arrived on the scene the next day, more than one hundred African Americans were dead, forty of whom had surrendered and, in a nearby cotton field that night, were executed by the whites.

The Colfax massacre was perhaps the bloodiest episode in the very bloody course of Reconstruction, and its telling serves as the prologue to Nicholas Lemann's arresting new book. Redemption is the story of the violent overthrow of Reconstruction in Louisiana and Mississippi in the mid-1870s. Although the story is well known to historians of the period—and not very much new is uncovered here—it is less familiar to the general public and is usually appended to larger treatments of the Reconstruction era. In Lemann's hands, the episode stands chillingly on its own, as an account of the possibilities that the Civil War and Reconstruction heralded, and of the failure of our democratic institutions to advance, or even to defend, those possibilities.

In this sense, "redemption" is a decidedly ironic term here, and a play on words. It was the term used by white Southerners, particularly white supremacists, to commemorate the destruction of what they regarded as the vile imposition of "Negro" and "carpetbag" rule in the post-Civil War South. Those who led the assault and then grabbed the reins of power were celebrated (and celebrated themselves) as the "redeemers." Lemann's sympathies are wholly different. But by embracing the white supremacist nomenclature (as other historians have also done), he makes the paradoxes and the contradictions—and the horrors—all the more vivid.

What the white supremacists scorned was the most breathtaking democratic revolution in the nineteenth-century world. In the cauldron of the Civil War, the largest and most powerful slave regime in the Americas was defeated militarily, and slavery was abolished without direct compensation to slave-owners. This alone distinguished the American experience from every other servile society of the time, save for Haiti. Then, responding to the wartime service of black soldiers, the demands of radicals of both races, and the political needs of the Republican Party, the federal government extended civil and political rights to former slaves on the same basis as those rights were enjoyed by whites, and set the stage for the reorganization of politics and government in the former Confederacy.

This revolution is known as Radical Reconstruction. The Republican Party, for the first time, moved into the Southern states. African Americans registered to vote in overwhelming numbers and, through the vehicles of Union Leagues, churches, and Republican Party clubs, mobilized new political communities. State constitutions, which created new civil and political societies and new public sectors, were written and ratified. And elections were held with a dramatically expanded electorate, resulting in Republican governments at the state and local levels. Most of the officeholders were white men who had been on the political margins before the Civil War; but in the Deep South states of South Carolina, Mississippi, and Louisiana and in the plantation districts stretching from Virginia to Texas, African Americans--many of whom had just been freed from slavery--came to serve as state representatives and senators, and as magistrates, county commissioners, surveyors, treasurers, and occasionally sheriffs.

Before long, the Republican regimes were rebuilding the economic infrastructures of the South, establishing systems of public education open to blacks and whites (separately, for the most part), setting up new social services, reforming the tax structure (sometimes with a view to making land available to former slaves), and, when possible, attacking various forms of racial discrimination. Equally consequential, in the counties and the parishes, the regimes constructed judicial systems in which blacks could bring suits, testify in courts, and serve on juries, and thus in which black laborers could resist the exploitative practices of their employers through legal means. Never in the history of the United States, and rarely in the history of any other nation, were the balances of power shifted so markedly away from the propertied elite and toward the working class.

Had the former Confederates accepted the new rules of the political game, something amounting to a genuine democracy, involving both races, might have taken root in the South. But instead they regarded the civil enfranchisement and the political empowerment of African Americans as the grossest of illegitimacies and the direst of threats, and they mobilized militarily in opposition. Initially through vigilante bands such as the Ku Klux Klan, and eventually through paramilitary organizations closely tied to the Democratic Party, they sought to destroy blacks' capacity to engage in politics. They broke up Union Leagues, harassed black voters, assassinated black leaders, and, when Republicans won local elections, tried to prevent them from taking office or to drive them out once they began to serve. This was what the white supremacists were up to in Colfax in 1873, and this was how they decided to put an end to Republican rule more generally in Louisiana and Mississippi in what Lemann calls "the last battle of the Civil War."

There were many actors in the great and tragic drama of redemption, black as well as white. Lemann chooses to develop his narrative around one of them. He is Adelbert Ames, the Reconstruction governor of Mississippi who had to face down the paramilitary challenge. Ames had nothing to do with Colfax, though he would be deeply engaged with similar situations in Mississippi, in Vicksburg, Yazoo City, and Clinton. And he seemed to have been about as well equipped to do so as anyone who could have been in his place.

Ames was born in 1835 and raised in Maine. Although his father was a sea captain, he secured an appointment to West Point, where, ironically, Robert E. Lee was then superintendent. Graduating in 1861, Ames was immediately placed in command of Union troops, and over the course of the war he saw action at Bull Run, Antietam, Gettysburg, Chancellorsville, Fredericksburg, Petersburg, and Fort Fisher. By war's end he had attained the rank of brigadier general, won the Medal of Honor, and caught the notice of General Grant. Before long, Grant appointed him both commander of the Fourth Military District (created by the Reconstruction Acts of 1867) and provisional governor of Mississippi, which Ames parlayed into his election to the U.S. Senate in 1870.

Ames wasted little time finding his way into Washington's inner circle, and, in a scenario worthy of a Gore Vidal novel, he met and married Blanche Butler, the daughter of the Massachusetts congressman and former Union Army general Benjamin F. Butler. It was a very rapid ascent, and Ames seemed to relish his position and his status. But his senatorial tenure was at risk. He had not really established a political base in Mississippi--he did not even have a residence there--and he would have to depend on the state legislature for re-election. (This was the practice before the Constitution was amended to establish direct election of senators in 1913.) So Ames determined, much to his wife's chagrin, to return to Mississippi and run for governor. In the fall of 1873, several months after the Colfax massacre, he won the election owing to a massive turnout of black voters.

Ames was neither a visionary nor a radical. He shared many of the racial prejudices of white Americans, and in the early days of Reconstruction he did not even support black suffrage. But, as Lemann recounts, Ames was an idealist of sorts, and he seemed to grow into his role as a Mississippi Republican in close association with African Americans. He had seen the violence inflicted upon the newly freed slaves by Southern whites intent on enforcing their submission, and he imagined a new future for what had been a slave society. As Ames took office, Lemann writes, he "laid out for the people of Mississippi … a dream of a government that would create a public education system good enough to defeat the illiteracy that pervaded the state; that would operate on a sound financial basis; that would find a way to turn the former slaves from peasants into landowning farmers." It was a personal metamorphosis--with many parallels among young Northerners of the era--that only participation in revolutionary warfare could facilitate.

But in history timing can be everything, and Ames could hardly have chosen a worse time to assume the governorship of Mississippi. A financial panic in 1873 set the American economy on a downward course to depression, taking out whatever wind was left in the sails of Reconstruction idealism in the North.Paramilitary groups were mobilizing for battle in several states, including Mississippi, where they were known as the "White Line" movement. And President Grant was increasingly reluctant to send federal troops to defend Republican officeholders in the South, having been re-elected on a platform proclaiming "Let Us Have Peace."

Ames had hardly settled into office before he faced a crisis of democratic rule in Vicksburg, where black majorities had enabled Republicans to win election to both the municipal and county offices. White Liners created havoc in the city that summer, hoping to keep blacks away from the polls during the August city election, and then set their sights on the county officers, chief among them the black sheriff and Union Army veteran Peter Crosby. Crosby was forced to resign his office and was briefly imprisoned by Democratic paramilitaries. Ames had a difficult time convincing Grant to send military aid.

It was a bad omen. The next year, 1875, would see a statewide campaign for control of the legislature, with the fate of Reconstruction--not to mention the senatorial ambitions of Adelbert Ames--in the balance. Emboldened by their success in Vicksburg, by the hesitation of Grant, and by the national elections of 1874, which put Democrats in charge of the House of Representatives for the first time since the Civil War, White Liners looked to complete their work "at all hazards." They put violence, intimidation, and assassinations to concerted use in counties thought to be safely Republican, in some cases driving out duly elected Republicans (as they had done with Peter Crosby) or Republican candidates who stood for election. At the town of Clinton, just outside Jackson, the state capital, they provoked a riot at a large Republican meeting that left as many as fifty African Americans dead.

With the Grant administration turning a deaf ear to Ames's panicked requests for troops, he began to mobilize the state militia (called the "black militia," since few whites would serve) and to seek a deal with the Democrats to avoid further bloodshed. The ensuing "peace conference" took place in mid-October and seemed to result in an agreement: Ames would effectively disband the black militia, and the Democrats would permit blacks to vote in the election contest.Election Day passed relatively quietly, though not without incident in places where an organized Republican constituency could still be found.

But the critical deeds had already been done. "By the eve of the election," Lemann observes, "Mississippi felt to the Republicans awfully like a state that was being taken over by a relentless conquering army." Many black voters stayed home out of fear for their lives, and the Democrats claimed victory--a victory, a federal grand jury would later conclude, built on "fraud, intimidation, and violence … without a parallel in the annals of history."

When the state legislature that Ames hoped would eventually send him back to the Senate convened in early 1876, the new Democratic majority chose a rather different course. It moved to impeach him from the governorship. And despite the efforts of his influential father-in-law to build support on his behalf, Ames had grown weary of the fight. In March, he arranged to resign his office in return for the legislature dropping the impeachment charges. Soon he was headed north, where he lived out most of his very long life.

The White Line paramilitary campaign of 1875 not only toppled Ames and the Republican government in Mississippi. It also served as a blueprint for similar campaigns in South Carolina and Louisiana the next year, completing the "redemption" process. But Lemann wants us to see redemption as more than the end of Reconstruction; he wants us to see it as "the last battle of the Civil War," a battle that the South finally won. This is Lemann's overarching theme, and in many respects it is welcome. For too long historians have celebrated the apparently amicable end to the Civil War, as Grant offered generous terms and Lee surrendered his troops, discouraging their resort to ongoing guerrilla warfare. The violence that quickly erupted in the South, much of it directed against newly freed African Americans, is either ignored or cast as part of a separate story, the story of "Reconstruction," from which the terms of the surrender seem distinct.

But such distinctions and periodizations can be misleading. The Civil War and Reconstruction very much overlapped, as the federal government had to confront the questions of redefining and rebuilding the Confederate South from the moment that Union troops first set foot on Confederate-claimed soil--all the more so since slaves acted upon their own understandings of the war and fled to Union lines as soon as they could. Grant's generous surrender terms, furthermore, allowed Confederate soldiers to return home with their weaponry, and President Andrew Johnson restored to most of them their property (except, of course, their slaves) and political rights.

Grant and Johnson may have imagined that such magnanimity would convince the Confederates to accept the outcome of the war, the authority of the federal government, and the freedom of the slaves. But rather than encouraging acceptance, federal magnanimity provoked defiance. The Confederates pardoned by Johnson acknowledged the war's result only grudgingly and incompletely; they elected many of their wartime leaders to state legislatures and congressional seats; and their new state governments moved quickly to hedge the freedom of African Americans through the passage of infamous "black codes."

Most troublingly, the Confederates responded to the federal government's magnanimity by mobilizing paramilitary groups to disarm and to discipline the freed-people, and eventually to demolish their political power. And these groups were constructed directly out of Confederate army units. In effect, many Confederate soldiers and their officers went home, re-organized their companies, and redeployed in what can only be regarded as a guerrilla offensive. Here they had more success, defeating Reconstruction's radical initiatives, destabilizing the democratically elected Republican governments, terrorizing the freed-people and their white allies, and ultimately regaining "home rule."

It was an impressive, if disheartening, turnaround. But did it really mean that, in the end, the South won the Civil War? I think not. Although the redeemers reveled in their "triumph" over the hated "Black" Republicans, their victory was, in truth, a hollow one, permitted by the Republican Party itself, which had won the big battle whose goals were clear--the unconditional defeat of the Confederate rebellion--and conceded the one over which the Republicans had failed to reach agreement and then lost interest in: the terms of the peace. After all, by 1877 they had forced the surrender of the Confederate armies, abolished slavery, driven the South from national power, advanced their vision of political economy, and learned that they could rule the nation without the electoral support of the Southern states. The last federal troops in the South were withdrawn, and the last Reconstruction governments were allowed to fall not by a Confederate sympathizer or a Democrat, but by the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes.

That Republicans rather than Democrats agreed to the end of Reconstruction was small comfort to African Americans. At all events, they were left to face the wrath of the redeemers with few allies in either the South or the North, and the repressive system of "Jim Crow" quickly took shape: lynchings, segregation, disfranchisement. Still, we must remember that Jim Crow had its first days not in the post-bellum South, but in the antebellum North. Most states there denied free blacks the vote, and some in the Midwest tried to drive them out entirely. By the late nineteenth century, moreover, Jim Crow's social and cultural logic was embraced throughout the country. It was not, in short, that the South won the war, or even the peace; it was that issues of race, labor, and political power were steadily creating a community of interest and sympathy between elites in the North and the South that undermined support for Reconstruction and built support for white home rule.

By viewing redemption as a story of the Civil War, Lemann may miss an opportunity to take the full measure of his insights into the distressingly close relation of terror and politics throughout our history--not just in the midst of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Paramilitary groups such as the Ku Klux Klan were directly connected not only to Confederate army units, but also to antebellum militia companies and slave patrols, and thus to the means by which--along with elections and political patronage--slaveholders and large landholders established their dominance in the South. It was a sprawling universe of political activity in which democratic and violent methods were intimately linked and simultaneously practiced.

The linkage and the simultaneity were not confined to the South. Before the Civil War, American politics saw the expansion of democracy and the birth of mass parties to an extent unknown in the Atlantic world. But it also saw a range of explosive terror-laden encounters--wars against Indians, anti-abolitionist mobs, nativist riots, police actions against fugitive slaves. The war itself serves as a classic example of Clausewitz's notion of "politics by other means," and in the postwar era, as the industrial revolution intensified, the new bourgeoisie and its political representatives moved to curtail popular democracy and arm themselves against what they saw as a growing working-class threat.

Beginning in the 1870s and 1880s, efforts were made to reduce the number of elective offices, gerrymander election districts, toughen voter-registration requirements, and impose literacy tests--especially as working-class political movements, some associated with the Knights of Labor or the Greenback Labor Party, successfully contested for power. At the same time, armories were built, urban police forces were modernized, national guards were formed, and private armies were established. American labor history of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was probably more strike-ridden and violence-prone than anywhere else in the Western world, and soon after The Birth of a Nation (which might be regarded as the popular celebration of redemption) premiered to rave reviews, including from President Woodrow Wilson, the Ku Klux Klan was reborn. By the early 1920s, the Klan, combining intimidation and vigilantism with racism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Catholicism, had developed an immense national following, even among the powerful and the well-placed.

The twentieth-century examples of political terror can easily be multiplied. Many are well known. But the point is not to suggest that somehow terror and violence overshadow democratic means in American politics. Not at all. It is rather to insist that terror and democracy have struggled in a complex embrace throughout our history, that they cannot be readily disentangled, and that their very interdependence marks the limits and the contradictions of our political process.

Political democracy has thrived in America, and its expansion has proceeded most peacefully, when the universe of potential participants was relatively homogenous as to class, gender, ethnicity, and race, and when those who would confound this universe were excluded by a mix of law, custom, and force.When the excluded sought inclusion, they often met with stiff and obdurate resistance: think of the rejection of suffrage for blacks and women in the North in the 1840s and 1850s, or the Know-Nothing attack on immigrants' rights around the same time. It usually required a national convulsion--the Civil War, World War I, and then World War II--to open the political gates, and even then the question of genuine empowerment posed challenges that established interests usually found difficult, if not impossible, to accept.

Not surprisingly, with the exception of a "golden age" between the 1930s and the 1970s, America's working classes, composed heavily of ethnic and racial minorities, have often stood in problematic relation to civil and political society. And when they have tried to flex their political muscle, either through electoral means or at the workplace, they have frequently provoked the hard fist of authority. The African Americans who organized the Republican Party in Grant Parish, Louisiana, who elected officials who represented their views, and who then faced the murderous assault of white vigilantes in Colfax on Easter Sunday 1873 did not have to be told that American politics encompassed an explosive mix of democracy and terror. They had learned this long before, as slaves. Yet we would do well to heed the lessons of their experiences. Nicholas Lemann's book will help us to do so.