Author Interview--John Patrick Daly (The War after the War) Part 1

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we feature John Patrick Daly to talk about his new book, The War after the War: A New History of Reconstruction, published by the University of Georgia Press in June 2022.

John Patrick Daly is associate professor of history at SUNY Brockport. He also published When Slavery Was Called Freedom: Evangelicalism, Proslavery, and the Causes of the Civil War.

To start, John, how did you come to write a book about Reconstruction as a southern civil war? 

JPD: In the 1990s, I was teaching a course on southern history over two semesters as a traditional Old South/New South split.  As often happens, the course was split right at Reconstruction and so I taught Reconstruction in each semester.  I used John Boles’ outstanding The South Through Time as a text and it had a line that said in some parts of the South during Reconstruction a virtual civil war broke out with the rise of the KKK. I also used Ken Burn’s Civil War documentary in class and it had the line about Reconstruction that said “the white South won that war of attrition” but then nothing else about Reconstruction. Students asked me what these statements about a war meant and what the war looked like as these were provocative and exciting declarations.  I did not have a great answer.  So I started reading up on the violence in the era and I had several graduate students do theses on the violence during Reconstruction in various states. The evidence my students and I found was quite compelling, so I started teaching Reconstruction as a civil war first before it became a book project.  In the American survey course and especially in my Civil War and Reconstruction course I sought a brief book that would encapsulate the violence of the period.   After 2000 many more books came out describing the war of Reconstruction but at the state level or centered on one massacre.  I loved these books and used several of them in class but I wanted a regional overview rather than a book about a state or incident, so I decided to write such a book.  After 2005, I also started teaching Modern Ireland. The Irish Civil War and the Troubles had fascinating parallels to Reconstruction. The Irish examples also opened my eyes to how complicated and little discussed the concept of civil war was.  What gets called a civil war and what does not?  And why?  The brief Irish Civil War definitely had the status of a war but the Troubles often did not. If Reconstruction and the Troubles were not civil wars, then what were they?  So I began to read theories of civil war and international examples of modern civil war to frame Reconstruction violence and became convinced that the whole era made more sense and was more teachable as a war.   

What do you argue in The War after the War?

JPD: I argue that Reconstruction is best understood as a civil war inside the South, between southerners, for control of state governments and ultimately the region.  This was a war distinct from the United States Civil War.  The combatants, goals, and warfare were different, as was the outcome.  The fighting in Reconstruction was more sporadic, intimate, and prolonged.  In short, the civil war at the heart of Reconstruction looked more like the messy civil wars of the twentieth century than the massive, conventional and regionally organized US Civil War that resembled a war between two nations. The Civil War during Reconstruction may not be so obvious a war as the US Civil War but it had a very clear military evolution.  That is a key sub-thesis of the book.  The twelve-year conflict in the South from 1865-1877 had a definite military pattern as there were three phases to the war that built off of each other.  I label these linked phases: the Terror Phase, the Guerilla Phase and the Paramilitary Phase.  The war became more clearly a war and more conventional a war as it evolved and former Confederate white supremacists became more bold and open in their violence and organization.

I have to say, when I read your book, I was reminded of a small local roundtable Mark Smith at Fort Valley State University and I did in Macon years ago and Mark made the point: When did the Civil War end? I admit I had not considered anything but 1865 at that point but his claim to push this back to 1877 was convincing. Now, you are making a slightly different suggestion in that this is a totally new conflict that needs a new language--why do we need to change our language about Reconstruction and what terms do you see as the most important/useful to add to our Reconstruction dictionary? 

JPD: I would not say it was totally new conflict but just that separating the era into two distinct wars is a clearer approach.  I could envision a history that had 1865-1877 being a second phase of the US Civil War.  Many civil wars have these starts and stops and reversals. David Armitage in his seminal work Civil Wars: A History in Ideas suggests that civil wars often really do not end.  Reconstruction, the Civil Right Era and the current breakdown of the nation are a good example of how hard it is to say when a civil conflict truly ends.  Terms and definitions then are key.  The key term I would suggest is “the Southern Civil War” or probably as one reader of my book pointed out the “the US Southern Civil War.”  Recasting Reconstruction as a distinct war makes the era much more teachable and coherent.  It also, frankly, destroys the racist and Lost Cause ideology that casts the era as one of corruption and misrule that repressed the white South.  The staying power of this myth is remarkable, and I think the term Reconstruction and the focus on complex political and legal issues centered around Washington feeds into this misperception and takes the focus off the central fact of the era: white supremacist violence and triumph inside the South.  War is much easier to remember for students and the public: “oh yeah that was the war that white supremacists brutally won.”  Also, it has the virtue of being more accurate.  Reconstruction was not an era of federal political problems.  White supremacist southern violence undermined national policy. So, putting federal policy and politics first distorts the era.  Both stories can be told together and understanding why white supremacists won the US Southern Civil War leads to an examination of federal policy, but the historiography and textbooks have been overloaded with political histories of Reconstruction. Focusing on the era as a war is a good corrective to that trend.  Historians are already doing this, and my terms and book are really a synthesis of this trend.  Doug Egerton’s excellent The Wars of Reconstruction probably does the best job of combining policy and violence on the ground in the South.   

Once terms that call Reconstruction a war are in place, the most key terms are for the phases of the war which really separate the Southern Civil War from the US Civil War.  These I call the terror, guerilla and paramilitary phases:  all forms of war that were not central to the US Civil War.   Lastly, terms for the combatants are key.  I identify the unionists/Republicans as the “Biracial Coalition” and the white supremacists as “ex-Confederate Extremists.”  Again, these terms move away from politics and policy and toward groups engaged in an armed conflict.  These terms though are suggestions (I think every history book should just be a suggestion in an ongoing cordial discussion) and I just hope they spark discussion and improved terms for the era.  New terms are a way to ask: how does Reconstruction look if we frame it this way?  Is that useful?

When I think of early Reconstruction violence, the Memphis Massacre comes to mind--how does this event and others illustrate the first stage that you call the Terror Phase? Also how much is it connected to the war years? 

JPD: Great questions.  A great deal of recent scholarship has shown how the South was descending into civil chaos in the final months of the war and how bitterness with defeat and the brutality of the war years had made the South violent and on edge.  Caroline Janney’s wonderful new book The Ends of War: The Unfinished Fight of Lee's Army after Appomattox is an eye-opening addition to this historiography. She shows that the myth of Confederate acceptance of the end of the war and willingness to start anew is just that: a myth.  The former Confederates did not go home peaceably and then had to rise up against federal impositions.  They were bitter, violent and looking for enemies to vent their frustrations against. Racial terror and a race war and even racial massacres were underway in the last years of the US Civil War and white supremacist southerners never put away these weapons in 1865 and they initiated a wave of terror in the region.  They targeted Blacks most often but also northerners in the region and white southern unionists.  Terror can be a form of warfare even though it is often a very one-sided form of violence as the victims have little chance to fight back. Massacres, as in Memphis and New Orleans, were just large urban versions of killings happening repeatedly in more isolated and rural locales across the South.  It is important to remember that this was also state terror as the former Confederates completely controlled the region and blacks did not have the vote.  The police were often initiating the violence as was the case in Memphis and New Orleans. The terror also had a definitive political purpose beyond being a product of the wartime frustrations and violence it grew out of.  The terror undermined northern authority in the region (including military authority) and indeed the verdict of the US Civil War. The terror also emboldened white supremacist southerners to escalate their armed resistance as no one was brought to justice for the dozens of unionists killed in both Memphis and New Orleans; a pattern repeated for the hundreds killed across the region in 1865-66.