The Black Lives Matter movement has recently moved many mainstream white Americans to pause and seriously reconsider the existence of systematic racism in our society. However, in light of objections made by certain individuals and groups—objections based mainly on the notion of respect for Southern heritage—I believe a more thorough understanding of a critical period of American history is needed to help facilitate aspects of this reconsideration.
Winston Churchill has been credited with coining the famous adage “history is written by the victors.” The quote asserts that the victors of a war are able to shape subsequent interpretations of the conflict’s causes and conduct, and likely force those interpretations upon the vanquished.
So how does one account for the unique legacy of the Confederate States of America, which successfully convinced generations of Americans that the “Lost Cause” was a noble venture meant to defend, not the onerous burden of slavery, but the more respectable sounding states’ rights? How did the losing side of the Civil War get away with the placement of statues honoring its defeated generals, as well as the naming of federal military bases to honor rebel military leaders who eagerly took up arms against federal troops?
Are we to believe that Churchill, the author of many a historical volume, was wrong in his understanding of history?
Not in the least. His old adage remains valid, for the former states of the Confederacy, while still reeling from defeat, did actually succeed in waging what amounts to a victorious war of terrorism against federal troops, a war that lasted from 1865 to 1876. This little known conflict, fought to blunt the effectiveness of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, served to impact the long-term plight of African Americans in the South, and has gone a long way toward warping America’s ability to understand the legitimacy of African-American grievances.
Americans have long been taught these eleven years represent failed Reconstruction era efforts to effectively reconcile and reintegrate the former Confederate states back into the Union while still guaranteeing the constitutional rights of the newly freed African Americans. Twentieth-century school textbooks insisted Reconstruction efforts failed due to such factors as the greed of Northern carpetbaggers and white Southern scalawags, incompetent African-American political office holders, and the heavy handed treatment of Southerners by congressional Radical Republicans. But what this interpretation of history failed to address was the role that violence perpetrated by white Southern militias and vigilantes played in suppressing the voting rights of the former slaves—rights guaranteed by the newly enacted 15th Amendment.
The 2006 book, Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War by Nicholas Lemann, sheds light on this overlooked low-intensity conflict, focusing on the 1873 to 1876 timeframe. Lehmann’s account details how in Mississippi and Louisiana various groups of white Southern militias and vigilantes (including the Ku Klux Klan and lesser-known groups such as the Regulators and the White Line) formed during Reconstruction to prevent African Americans from politically organizing and voting. These groups consisted of white Southerners who hated African Americans or were intent on establishing a new plantation tenant system. They feared the introduction of a political system that might result in “Negro domination.” Secession and slavery were supplanted as war aims by the new need to eliminate “black political power”—to be achieved via the tactic of terrorism.
As pointed out by Lemann, although federal troops still occupied a number of Southern states by 1873, these armed groups were able to practice violence, to include disrupting Republican political rallies, picking fights with African Americans, and generally roaming the countryside burning down houses and beating or killing innocent African-American families with the overall intent of suppressing political participation. The violence, though quite serious, was dispersed enough throughout the states that it did not lead President Grant to exercise the extremely politically sensitive deployment of federal troop reinforcements to quell any further uprisings.
As a result, thousands of African Americans were killed during this time. A report released last week by the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative, for example, concluded at least 2,000 African Americans were lynched between 1865 and 1877 as a way of terrorizing and discourage voting.
In the end, terrorism allowed these white Southerners to accomplish their war aims. During the 1876 presidential election, Republican party leaders secured a deal with Southern Democrats to support Rutherford B. Hayes in his contest against Democrat nominee Samuel Tilden. In return for Southern Democrat support, Republicans guaranteed the removal of remaining federal troops from the South. The removal of these troops meant the abandonment of these African Americans, which resulted in their disenfranchisement via the subsequent implementation of Jim Crow laws.
Upon winning this war of terrorism, former Confederates and their descendants were also able to write their own interpretation of the Reconstruction era. By exercising their influence as victors, white Southerners succeeded in pushing the Civil War “Lost Cause” agenda, allowing themselves to appear as heroes who gallantly fought the northern bullies during the war and once again during Reconstruction.
Unfortunately, this interpretation has contributed to so many Americans discounting African-American concerns regarding the historical denial of civil rights. This blind spot of American history initially led to our nation’s long-time passive acceptance of such tokens of white supremacy as Confederate general statues and the naming of certain Army bases in the South, and lately accounts for many of the objections pertaining to their removal.
Referring to these tokens as oblique reminders of who wielded political power in the South and how that power was acquired (instead of mere tokens of proud Southern heritage) makes sense only if one is familiar with the campaign of violence mentioned in Lehmann’s book. Without this critical knowledge and perspective, removing statues and renaming forts will, in many eyes, only appear to evoke a dissonant tone of disrespect and divisiveness, and thus distract from any meaningful coming to terms with how history shapes the present.
The book “Redemption“ should be required reading for all Americans. Such reading is certain to remedy a historical blind spot and add some clarity as we grapple with the complicated racial legacy that continues to haunt us today.
Steve Rodriguez is a retired Marine Corps officer and high school teacher who last taught at Olympian High School in Chula Vista.