WHEN THE WAR WAS OVER: The Failure of Self-Reconstruction in the South, 1865-1867 by Dan T. Carter

WHEN THE WAR WAS OVER: The Failure of Self-Reconstruction in the South, 1865-1867

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Emory historian Carter, author of the classic Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South (1969), has painstakingly examined a subject on which there is near-unanimity--the failure of postwar Southern leadership in the brief period of mild Presidential Reconstruction (1865-67)--in order to make a slight but significant correction: the leaders were not die-hard Rebels (or plantation elite) but conservatives of varied background; a substantial number were ready to support industrial development and (""even more surprisingly"") development of efficient small-scale farming. But they were undone by ingrained Southern fear-and-dread of blacks, which manifested itself in terror of insurrection; by failure to anticipate Northern shock at the coercive Black Codes of 1865-66; and by Democrat Johnson's alienation of Republican congressional moderates in then vetoing civil rights legislation. (The outcome: Congressional or Black Reconstruction.) Carter develops this argument on several fronts. One is the nature of the leadership: Johnson's seven Southern gubernatorial appointees were neither secessionists (all had opposed secession until late 1860) nor Union loyalists (i.e., they were generally acceptable to the South); more crucially, the white Southerners elected to Congress in the fall of 1865--and denied seats--were not unreconstructed RebeLs every one (as charged by W.E.B. Du Bois and repeated by historians since) but a conservative mix (of whom ""only seven had been secessionists""). On another front, white Southern willingness ""to accept almost any form of government that would bring order to a disordered land"" was overborne by a tradition of extra-legal repression and Johnson's lack of clear, firm racial policies. Finally, economic self-reconstructionists faced many a dilemma: if, for instance, states repudiated their debts (as the federal government demanded), what would happen to private debts? if private debtors were allowed to postpone repayment (as impoverished citizens demanded), would this not delay recovery? In shading the usual grim picture, Carter confesses himself more depressed: the best that moderate, practical, conciliatory Southerners could do was not very much. As a revised interpretation, however, this has ramifications for any treatment of the Reconstruction period--even one as cut-and-dried as Burke Davis' The Long Surrender (below).

Pub Date: March 10th, 1985
Publisher: Louisiana State Univ. Press