American Slavery, The Civil War And Reconstruction- A Few Notes- A Guest Commentary
February Is Black History Month
American Slavery, The Civil War And Reconstruction, Part II from Young Spartacus, March 1980.
Part Two of Two
The following article is the conclusion of a two-part series based on a transcription of an educational on American slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction given in the Detroit SYL local committee by Brian Manning. The period of the Civil War and Reconstruction is crucial to understand because it provides the backdrop for the formation of class relations, the development of the Democratic and Republican parties, the twin parties of capitalism, and the development of race relations as they exist today.
Part One covered the period from the American revolution to 1860, the beginning of the Civil War. It discussed the rise of American slavery and the conflict between northern industrial capitalism and the anachronistic mode of production of the slave plantations of the old South; the nature and scope of the slave revolts particularly in comparison to those of the Caribbean; the development of the abolitionist move¬ment; and the events which sparked the South's secession.
Part Two covers the period of the Civil War and the Reconstruction era. It discusses the role of blacks in the war, the establishment of the Reconstruction governments, the institution of the black codes and the systematic terror against black freedmen in the aftermath of the war, blacks and the early labor movement, and the reversal of the gains of Reconstruction. The transcription has been minimally edited to preserve the character of the original presentation.
Back issues of Young Spartacus No. 78 containing Part One of "Slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction" are available and may be obtained for 25 cents from: Spartacus Youth Publishing Co., Box 825, Canal Street Station, New York, N. Y. 10013
According to Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War was started as a war to save the Union. But everybody, particularly the slaves, knew that it was a war to free the slaves. There's a little story in Rehearsal for Reconstruction by Willie Lee Rose about Port Royal in the Sea Islands of North Carolina between Charleston and Savannah right off the coast. It was one of the first places liberated by the North because the South never had a navy; the slave owners just fled back to the mainland. An ex-slave 75 years later related the story of the day the Yankees came. He was tugging on his mother's skirts as the ships were coming in, and they were firing on Port Royal. He said, "Mommy, listen—there's thunder." And his mother explained crisply, "Son, dat ain't no t'under, dat Yankee come to gib you Freedom." They knew. The Union army couldn't keep the black slaves from flocking to its lines, even when it persisted in saying that it wasn't going to liberate them. Officially, slaves were still the property of the slave owners.
Blacks in Union Blue
Lincoln held off as long as he could on the slavery question. Finally, in 1862 he saw that the Union wasn't winning the war and was having more and more trouble getting an army together. The North hadn't instituted a draft and was enlisting people for just three months at a time, so that after fighting one battle the soldiers would go home and plough their fields. Lincoln needed some help. Meanwhile the blacks in the South were pretty quiescent, except when the Union army was near. The slaves were continuing to produce the goods and agricultural products needed for the Confederacy. So Lincoln drafted the Emancipation Proclamation which wasn't even a real emancipation. All it said was that all slaves in the areas not currently under the control of the Union army were hereby free. What about the slaves in the areas the Union did control? The Union army still didn't know what to do with all the refugees. It started using them as laborers. First blacks were given lower pay, and the army would only send them on picket duty in the garrisons along the southern coast where there was a lot of yellow fever. Finally they were integrated into the army in fighting regiments. By the end of the war there were 200,000 blacks under arms, approximately a fifth to a quarter of the Union army.
When they saw what the Union was doing, the Confederates figured they would try the same thing. They offered freedom after the war to anyone who enlisted in the Confederate army. They were not very successful because, as one perceptive southern gentleman put it, "Why should the slaves join us and have a chance at freedom, when all they have to do is walk across to the Union lines, and they're automatically free?"
The blacks fought well, which surprised a lot of people who still thought that they had tails. Proportionally they were in the Union army in greater numbers than were the northern whites. I'm sure that the black soldiers in the Union blue deeply threatened the slave owners. They certainly didn't like to see black soldiers marching through Charleston, the seat of the South and its biggest and most civilized city. It was a black regiment raised in Massachusetts by Garrison and Douglass which took the lead of the army, singing "John Brown's Body" as it marched through Charleston after the Confederate withdrawal.
Free At Last... But Destitute
The situation of the black freedmen after the war was really bad. Destitute
and landless, in desperate poverty, they were uneducated of course, but they were to a large extent skilled. It was the blacks who had built the South before the war. The slave owners would teach their slaves how to blacksmith or how to be mechanics rather than pay outside white labor, so there were far more skilled blacks than whites. For example, Philip Foner estimates that there were two black blacksmiths for every white one in Mississippi; and six Negro mechanics for every white one in North Carolina. But after the war there was terrible disorder and dislocation in the South. One of the things that all travelers in the immediate post-war period commented on was the masses of blacks wandering aimlessly around the roads of the South, real poor, in rags. There had been a number of attempts to give blacks land. When the slaves were freed on Port Royal, a number of blacks were able to work for wages and work their own land. Jefferson Davis' plantation near Vicksburg, Mississippi was also one of the places liberated relatively soon—by U.S. Grant, in fact. The blacks had land and worked it for a while. When Sherman marched to the sea through Georgia, he had a terrible problem with all the liberated slaves following the army eating food, so he decided to give them 40 acres for the duration.
Generally, this is not what happened after the war. Blacks were either working on the plantations in much the same conditions or they were wandering around. Lincoln never had a thoroughgoing plan for Reconstruction. All he wanted to do was to save the Union. Perhaps if he had lived longer, his mystique as the Great Emancipator would have been smashed. His basic attitude toward blacks can be illustrated by a famous quote from the Lincoln-Douglass debates: "On the question of the negro, I don't regard him as an equal, never have and never will. I don't think he can be taught," etc., etc. Even after the Emancipation Proclamation his plan was to gradually free the slaves so that by 1900, blacks would be free throughout the South. By 1900! Those who were emancipated he wanted to colonize in Africa. He didn't live to try to institute his plan.
Andrew Johnson came in as president after Lincoln's assassination with a seeming determination to bust the planter aristocracy. Johnson was a poor white from Tennessee, and he always hated the planter aristocracy. His main objection to slavery was that only a few privileged whites got to enjoy the fruits of it. He wanted to strengthen and establish the position of a white American yeomanry in the South. His plan was to let the Confederates take an amnesty oath with some exceptions, and the state governments would be restored. He said nothing about blacks, nothing about emancipation. At first, in order to vote, any person who owned $25,000 worth of property or more couldn't simply take an amnesty oath, but needed a personal pardon from the president. So of course all the planter aristocracy came up to Johnson, flocked to him, flattered him and sweet-talked him, so that eventually he became its tool.
The Black Codes and the Rise of Racist Terror
Meanwhile, the blacks in the South were kept in a subordinate position with the institution of the black codes. These codes prohibited blacks from bearing arms; blacks couldn't sell produce without evidence that it wasn't stolen; there was a poll tax placed on all blacks; any white could arrest any black upon viewing a misdemeanor by aforesaid black; the right to buy land was limited in both amount and location, i.e., the whites got all the good land and the blacks didn't get any. There were numerous vagrancy apprenticeship laws, so that a black had to make a contract with a landowner within the first ten days of January, and was bound for a year to work for him. If he didn't, then he was a vagrant and was fined, imprisoned and probably sent to work on the plantation of that very same landowner. A black had to have a pass to go anywhere, and the wage system was only nominal. White people were prevented from associating with blacks on terms of equality, but blacks could finally get legaUy married. All this was an attempt by the slavocracy to main¬tain its power while legally abolishing slavery, but still using the same system of gang labor on the plantations.
Blacks didn't take this entirely sitting down. There were "colored conventions" throughout the South to protest this treatment. In a number of cities the upper layer of blacks—the skilled workers and the professionals—would participate in these colored conventions. On the one hand the slavocracy was instituting the black codes, but on the other hand there were 200,000 blacks who had been in the army, a number of whom hadn't been demobilized. There was a desire among the freedmen to take over the land, with the tacit consent of these black troops. But that never really got off the ground. It was at this time, around the winter of 1865 to 1866, that if the Radicals had had power, the blacks might have had a chance to get the land. The Confeder¬ates had definitely been militarily defeated.
I wanted to read you a graphic passage out of DuBois' Black Reconstruction which describes a convention in New Orleans and how it was broken up by the Klansmen. It was a state convention to determine whether blacks would get the vote. A lot of blacks were in attendance:
"Most of the leaders in this movement stayed away from the opening, and in fact only a small number of members accepted the call; but Monroe, also chief of a secret society known as "The Southern Cross," armed his police and the mob, who wore white handkerchiefs on their necks.
A signal shot was fired, and the mob deployed across the head of Dryades Street, moved upon the State House, and shot down the people who were in the hall.
The Reverend Dr. Morton waving a white handkerchief, cried to the police: 'Gentlemen, I beseech you to stop firing; we are non-combatants. If you want to arrest us, make any arrest you please, we are not prepared to defend our¬selves.' Some of the police, it is claimed, replied, 'We don't want any prisoners; .'you have all got to die.' Dr. Morton was shot and fell, mortally wounded. Dr. Dostie who was an object of special animosity on account of his inflammatory addresses was a marked victim. Shot through the spine, and with a sword thrust through his stomach, he died a few days later. There were about one hundred and fifty persons in the hall, mostly Negroes. Seizing chairs, they beat back the police three times, and barred the doors. But the police returned to the attack, firing their revolvers as they came. Some of the Negroes returned the fire, but most of them leaped from the windows in wild panic. In some cases they were shot as they came down or as they scrambled over the fence at the bottom. The only member of the convention, however, that was killed was a certain John Henderson. Some say six or seven hundred shots were fired. Negroes were pursued, and in some cases were killed on the streets. One of them, two miles from the scene, was taken from his shop and wounded in his side, hip, and back. The dead and wounded were piled upon drays and carried. Some say forty-eight were killed—".
That was New Orleans in 1865, and here was another big riot up in Memphis. The black codes didn't go over too big with the northerners, either. They didn't like the idea that they had just fought a war to end slavery and break the power of the slavocracy, and yet the condition of blacks seemed almost unchanged. So for example, the Chicago Tribune, that bastion of radi¬calism during Reconstruction, warned upon the enactment of the black codes in Mississippi that the North would "convert Mississippi into a frog-pond before permitting slavery to be reestablished." That kind of militant sentiment on the part of the northerners was omnipresent. Also, they didn't like the political power that the South was going to get in Washington. If their governments were readmitted, the South would actually have more power than it had before the Civil War, when the basis of representation for blacks was three-fifths. Now that blacks were going to be citizens, every black counted as a whole person. Since blacks weren't being allowed to vote under the black codes, the planter aristocracy would have that much more political power, and the Republicans would lose in any national elections. Other issues were that the North did not want to pay the debts incurred by the southern governments during the Civil War, nor did it want to pay the Confederate pensioners. By and large, northerners did not like the fact that the Johnson governments in the South had introduced a whole system of discrimination, segregation and disenfranchisement, and they were willing to fight it.
The southern whites weren't reconciled to the status of blacks as freedmen, and they fought tooth and nail to drive them back onto the plantations and forcibly suppress them as at best second-class citizens. At this time, 1865, the Klan was formed in Tennessee. Bands of ex-Confederates roamed around at will murdering, beating and intimidating. There were also people called the "regulators," like Marlon Brando in "Missouri Breaks." He was a regulator and a pretty rotten character in the movie, but these regulators were even worse, with a real social purpose. They weren't just guns for hire. They were murderers of blacks in particular, and murderers of Republicans and Unionists. In Texas, for example, they were so bad that it led the military administrator of the state, General P. H. Sheridan, to comment that if he owned both hell and Texas, he would live in hell and rent out Texas.
The Rise and Fall of Reconstruction
Let me shift back to the North where the decisions about what was going on in the South were actually being made. That's the whole dynamic of Reconstruction. It was a revolution from above, determined by the Republicans in Washington, D.C., not by the freedmen in the South. The freedmen went along with the Republicans until it was too late.
So Washington, D.C. controlled what Reconstruction was going to look like in the end, and the Republicans controlled Washington, D.C. They had won a smashing victory in the 1864 presidential elections and still enjoyed almost total support from the northern electorate. The party itself was divided into three main camps: the conservative supporters of Johnson, the majority of the party who were moderates vacillat¬ing between support to Johnson or the Radicals, and the Radicals. The Radicals were committed to the enfranchise¬ment of blacks and believed in their equality, but while most formally recognized the primacy of the land question for black freedmen, little was done to actually redistribute the land. The Radical leaders were people like Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner and Wendell Phillips. They were all radicals from way back, and Charles Sumner was actually caned to within an inch of his life on the Senate floor by a southern senator for his political views. The Republican Party was pretty timid except for these few isolated Radicals. It was lucky that the Radicals were able to push through the Reconstruction Acts at a time when the party was divided and threatened by the slavocracy in the South.
It was the moderates who held the real balance of power in the Republican Party, and only the ability of Stevens, Sumner and Phillips to get these moderates on their side for a while enabled Reconstruction to go forward at all. The Radicals made a number of attempts to get Johnson to change, and not succeeding there, they eventually impeached him. The whole dynamic was that Congress would pass some bill enacting civil rights or the vote for blacks, and Johnson would veto it, thumbing his nose at Congress, and they would override his veto. For example, the Fourteenth Amendment, which gave blacks citizenship and implicitly the right to vote, was ratified by the Radical Unionist government in Tennessee, the first southern government to be re-admitted to the Union. The governor of Tennessee sent his message to Congress saying that it has been a great victory and the Fourteenth Amendment has been ratified, and by the way, give my regards to that dead dog in the White House. Essentially, the impeachment was a frame-up on charges of bureaucratic shuffling. But Johnson's policy toward the South was the real issue, and the impeachment failed by one vote.
In 1867, over Johnson's veto, the Reconstruction Act was passed, separating the South into five military districts, giving universal suffrage to blacks and calling for state conventions in order to write up new state constitutions. Everybody had to take an oath of allegiance, and each state convention had to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment before the state would be re-admitted to the Union. Also the Freedmen's Bureau, which had been in existence since 1865, became a real force in the South; it was a bureau for establishing schools and giving aid to refugees. On the whole, the South got off easy. What conquered nation has ever gotten off as easy as the South did after the Civil War? There were 2,000 troops in each state, and essentially all they did was guard the state house. They weren't out on the bayous and the plantations protecting blacks.
After the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, the blacks were a landless but voting mass. They had to fight even to keep the vote. They were dependent on the small Union army forces which by and large looked on benignly whenever anything happened. The Reconstruction governments them¬selves, although charged with all sorts of corruption and high taxation, were in fact governments with a large black component, which did things like establish the first school system the South had ever seen. They were small and moderately effective governments. But only the land would have given blacks the social basis for the protection of their rights. Land and arms. The Republicans weren't enthusiastic about fighting for that. Confiscation of land— private property—came too close to home for all the freeholders in the North. The Radical Republicans how¬ever did fight for land. In the forefront of this was Thaddeus Stevens, an industrialist for Pennsylvania. He introduced a bill in Congress with the intention of giving land to blacks.
Meanwhile, the planters were moving toward controlling the black vote through the actions of the Klan and other groups. It was easy for them to do this: there's a poor little sharecropper who votes Republican, and his boss says, "I'm sorry, I don't want you voting Republican, so get off my land." There were big campaigns of intimidation. For example, DuBois mentions a parish in Louisiana where in an election in the spring, something like 17,000 people voted Republican, and all throughout the spring and summer there was a campaign of intimidation, murder and terror, so that by the fall, two people voted Republican. That went on throughout the South.
The economic power of the planters provided the basis for the development of the race/color caste of blacks. With no land and no vote, it was clear that blacks weren't going to be integrated as equals into American society. The poor whites feared the blacks being raised to the level of social equals, and so they did the planters' dirty work. They were the ones in the Klan. They were the ones wno drove the blacks out of the cities, out of the skilled trades and back into the fields. At the same time a different system of labor was developed. After the slavocracy was politically defeated through Reconstruction, the plantations were broken up. Gang labor no longer existed as it had under slavery, but the new sharecropping system, a system of virtual peonage, didn't mean that the living conditions of blacks was improved significantly.
The Republicans abandoned the blacks after Reconstruction because the interests of the northern industrialists jived more with the interests of the planters than the blacks. Any union between the Republican Party and blacks could only be uneasy after the Republican Party failed to give blacks land. The continued enfranchisement of blacks was no longer a condition for the success of the Republican Party. They had consolidated power. They had accomplished the triumph of the urban North. They had gotten their protective tariffs, their national banking system and their transcontinental railway, and the party was rent with divisions. They wanted to unify the party and make profits. The Radical Republicans were isolated and the blacks, the freedmen, were left holding the bag. By 1869, land reform was essentially a dead issue and the Freedmen's Bureau was winding up. Some Reconstruction governments had been overturned as early as 1869. The power of the Radicals was broken by 1870 through retirement, electoral defeats, death, etc. A large portion of the southern landholders came to accept black suffrage and some civil and political rights. They were able to control the vote anyway. Given the removal of Federal troops in 1877, they knew that they could control the blacks entirely.
In 1877, the contested election of Rutherford Hayes led to the withdrawal of the Union troops. Hayes was a Republican. The southern Democrats said, "We won't contest it, which would mean that you might lose, if you promise to pull out all your troops." That was the Compromise of 1877, the official end of Reconstruction, but it was dead long before that.
Blacks and the Early Labor Movement
Given the fact that the Republican Party did not give blacks land, it would seem logical for blacks to turn to labor at this time to fight for their rights. But the labor movement was just getting off the ground. It was not strong, and given the anti-black prejudice in the unions, the presence of blacks was not looked on kindly. There was a labor organization called the National Labor Union (NLU), formed right after the Civil War, which did not actually have an explicitly anti-black program, but it certainly did not go out of its way to organize blacks. It had segregated union locals and a prejudice in favor of skilled tradesmen and craftsmen. Even the Marxists, the American First Internationalists—even Fredrick Sorge—-did not speak up in favor of blacks or of land for blacks at the convention of the NLU. The perspective'of the NLU was that if it didn't organize blacks, they might scab, so it would organize them when it had to. One delegate from the Bricklayers summed up their attitude welk "If we don't organize him, he will work for anyone at any price."
There were also instances of white labor driving out black labor. Philip Foner in Blacks and Organized Labor mentions the Baltimore ship caulkers (they sealed seams in wooden ships) who were driven out of the labor force. The blacks got together, bought their own shipyard, formed their own union and worked in their own shipyard in Baltimore because they had been driven out of the industry by the whites.
The Colored National Labor Union (CNLU) was formed in 1869 from a split in the NLU. One of the main reasons for the split was that the NLU said that the workers shouldn't support the Demo¬crats or the Republicans because they were both the bosses' parties. The CNLU wanted to support the Republi¬cans. While the NLU was groping toward a break with the bourgeois parties, its policies on the race question were often backward. Not only did the NLU organize segregated unions but it failed to recognize the revolutionary side of Reconstruction. The CNLU remained loyal to the Republican Party as the party of Reconstruction. The CNLU organized both blacks and whites together, addressed the land question in the South, and also admitted Chinese labor, whereas the NLU op¬posed "coolie labor" on the West Coast.
The Knights of Labor (K of L), which made real inroads into the organization of blacks and whites, didn't hit the scene until the mid-1870s after Reconstruction had been defeated.On the whole, the Civil War and Reconstruction were a triumph for capitalism. It united for the first time the northern and southern propertied classes. It broke the back of the slavocracy and the plantations and recruited the southern workers as lackeys for the southern landowners. It established an industrial reserve army, which however was not needed until the beginning of the twentieth century. This industrial reserve army of sharecroppers and marginal workers, hillbillies, was consolidated in the South. Recon¬struction paved the way for black people like Booker T. Washington and his ilk: the shut-up-and-work school, where maybe a black man could make it if he avoided politics. That's how blacks were until the 1930s, until they got out of the South. Two societies existed, separate and unequal, black and white. At the same time the basis was laid for the integration of blacks into the political economy of the United States, albeit at the bottom, as a race-color caste. It was the failure of Reconstruction that really laid the groundwork for that caste system.