REDEMPTION: THE LAST BATTLE, NICOLAS LEMANN, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, New York, 2006
The Reconstruction period after the defeat of the South in the American Civil is a much disputed and misunderstood period, and in earlier times dominated by historians sympathetic to the Southern cause. Moreover, many books on the subject tend to center either on the question of the federal government’s ‘benign neglect’ and eventual abandonment of the freed slaves or on the freed slaves (and their white allies, the carpetbaggers and scalawags) incapacity to govern in place of the traditional planter oligarchy of a defeated Southern nation. Mr. Lemann’s book, although correctly paying attention to those issues, takes another tact and addresses the less well-known military actions by defeated white Southerners as a key to the failure of Reconstruction. Although this book will not replace Eric Foner’s now classic Reconstruction:1863-77 as the definitive text on the period it should have a prominent place in the academic controversy over the failures of the Reconstruction period.
If, as I believe, the American Civil War of 1861-65 was a second American Revolution consolidating the gains of the first bourgeois revolution by taking the slavery question and the question of a unitary continent-wide national government off the agenda then the Reconstruction period takes on more than a tragic or ill-advised attempt to reorder the nature of government in the South. Thus, the role of the Klu Klux Klan, White Camelia and other white militia organizations in destroying the basis for universal suffrage and economic equality by military force can be defined as a political counterrevolution, and a successful one. It is the gruesome and deadly story of this fight that plays a central role in Mr. Lemann’s narrative, particularly in the key states of Mississippi and Louisiana.
Without denying the importance of the serious mistakes and ultimate capitulation of the Federal government on the question of black emancipation, without denying the important failure of the Radical Republicans to fight for their program for the South and without denying that the condition of servitude had rendered many blacks not immediately capacity of forming and running local democratic governments one comes away from a reading of this book with the conclusion that the black liberation struggle, and not for the first time, was militarily defeated in this country. What portion this military defeat of the black liberation struggle by white reactionaries played in the overall defeat of Reconstruction the reader can decide. But it played a part. Read on.