Aside from the obvious settling of a question of what the United States meant to a country torn apart by competing sectionalism, the war and its aftermath brought us a sense of unification but also brought us many more questions left unanswered.
Chief of these has been the questions of race. The south, by force of arms, was subjugated and in many ways the fruits of what many lived through in the civil rights years of the 1960s was the unfettered zeal of Abolitionist forces in the north and in congress who enforced egalitarianism upon its own citizenry. The southern populace found itself leveled and at times even lorded over by those whom they had themselves subjugated for generations before.
Reconstruction in the south to the form of political and societal revenge, a natural feeling felt by many northerners who rightly blamed the south for the years of bloodletting. Instead of gradual emancipation or gradual and controlled integration of thousands of hitherto uneducated freed slaves into the body politic, the freedmen were franchised immediately into state and local politics, not to mention federal. To punish the south, blacks were not only given the vote and an equal voice but also found themselves in charge, elected by the body of freedmen over their former masters while their former masters found themselves bereft of wealth and unable to work their own land or able to afford to hire anyone.
As one former slave put it, “the bottom rail on top now.” This is an apt description for how we should understand reconstruction from both the freedmen’s point of view and those of the former confederacy. Enfranchised with the point of the bayonet, it was not a real freedom for the freedmen. While it helped to bring some sense of justice to northerners to see the haughty brought low, it built a sense of latent rage and militant extremism that found expression in the formation of the KKK, a secret society of former confederates who sought to drive the northern influences out and re-right the balance of their destroyed society. Using intimidation, the white southerners fought back.
This is not to condone the extra-legal actions of the minority but to grasp the real problem with reconstruction as a whole. It was not organic and as long as federal soldiers were around to enforce the gradual re-admittance of each southern state back into the union, the system as conceived from Andrew Johnson’s administration worked. It worked until the federal constabulary was pulled out as each state was admitted back. This is the real tragedy of the war and its aftermath. That real freedom was not condoned by the citizenry on their newly freed slaves but one of force. When force was removed, all that had been changed was reversed by an equally vengeful south.
The south should have freed its slaves before the war ended, allowing for an organic emancipation if they chose to fight. This is not as odd as it sounds even given the counter intuitive nature of serving ones oppressors for the chance at freedom. In the early days of the war, an all black regiment was raised in New Orleans and was formed for the express purpose of fighting for rights that were promised to them locally. These were formed under the confederate banner. Its members were all free blacks and volunteered in order to gain more influence in local politics be able to participate on par with free whites. This unit, though never firing a shot at any federal was eventually disbanded, but its core found its way into the federal army and did participate in battles for the union. This is but one case of what would seem to be an aberration. Why would any black willingly serve for the confederacy? Why indeed.
We have to understand that neither the north nor the south fought to end slavery or to retain it as a war goal. That this was to become an overt goal after the Emancipation Proclamation is now history. That both sides fought for reunification or for a separate country lends some credence to wrapping our heads around why any black would serve the confederacy. If the promise of freedom was offered, the slave had strong incentive to act. A cabal of confederate officers petitioned Jefferson Davis for offering emancipation and land to any slave who volunteered to serve the confederacy of their own free will. Thousands of slaves were laboring on entrenchments for the south already, pressed into service by the army and whose owners were compensated for their labor, but it was not willing labor.
Had slaves been allowed to serve for their freedom it is a tantalizing question to ponder how different the south would have looked even as the union forces the surrender of the southern armies and the south endures a subjugation. Would the now former soldiers, blacks and whites, had a different view of each other as well as their conquerors. For the blacks, freedom and equality of life was paramount, regardless of who gave it to them. That the union forces came to represent that freedom sometimes was a bitter pill as reluctant federal commanders often turned the runaways back or grudgingly allowed the vast caravans to follow them for protection. Many northern commanders were of similar opinion as their southern counterparts, that blacks were inferior in intellect and society. Until it became common practice to view slaves and freedmen as tools to be deprived of, the army had little use for the contrabands that streamed into their camps.
It is improbable that southerners would have seen their former slaves as anything approaching equality, a problem for those who sought to rehabilitate the south. The rush to extend freedoms to those who had never had it before and the expectation that they participate in the electorate who had never been allowed to be socialized into the american fabric of republican government, the vote became both a weapon and a danger to those who now could wield it. Much of our current understanding of race relations and the problems of southern acceptance of the now freedmen has much bearing on how these freedmen were enfranchised. It is also improbable that a more gradual process would have been allowed to take place, for the conquerors needed to show something for the blood and treasure expended in reuniting the union. A slow process would not have played out politically as it would have given too much back to the former rebels and delayed too long the freedoms paid for. Yet, this is exactly what needed to happen where southerners needed to extend freedom of their own accord and not by the bayonet. Had thousands of blacks actually fought and sacrificed for southern freedom, a freedom they would have been promised in payment for that service, we might not have the history that we have today when it comes to race.
But, this is only a thought.
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