Hello H-CivWar Readers:
Today we continue our conversation with 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.
You are hinting at one of the most frustrating points of this racial terror, nobody ever gets held accountable. It speaks so much to modern frustrations. Let's move to the second and third phases: guerilla and paramilitary. What makes these later two stages different from the terror? I am also intrigued since there were quite a few Confederate guerillas during the war, how much did their activities influence what we see during these two stages?
JPD: Definitely. I really loved Daniel Sutherland's A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War. It demystified the Civil War and made it more brutal and futile. This is where linking the new histories of the Civil War and Reconstruction are key. I think David Goldfield's America Aflame does a great job of presenting a nastier, more purposeless Civil War and the fact that he includes Reconstruction in the story of the violence makes his points stronger. In a different way, Allen Guelzo does the same thing by presenting the stories together in his impressive Fateful Lightening. The story of the two wars of 1861-1865 and 1865-1877 need to be told together. They need to be presented as linked wars and the continuation of guerilla tactics by the KKK and other groups represents one of the best indicators of this link. The descent into chaos and neighbor-on-neighbor warfare definitely was begun between 1861 and 1865 and especially in 1864-65. Obviously Nathan Bedford Forrest is an example of this continuity but given the chaos in the region and the secretiveness and lying the KKK did, it is hard to draw strict evidentiary lines between the guerillas of the US Civil War and of the civil war during Reconstruction. But the relationship and carryover in persons fighting as Confederates and then as KKK-style guerillas is clear. New books are also showing that more Confederates heard the appeal to guerilla tactics at the close of the war in 1865 and if Lee did not want to go "bushwacking" at his age, other Confederates wanted to give it a try after the failures of conventional tactics.
One of the strengths of your book is how you connect some of the political and "military" developments. I was intrigued by how white supremacist southerners created this unstable and violent environment and then turn around and blame the victims of their atrocities. How susceptible were people to this propaganda and willing to ignore realities--or did they really think the false narratives were real?
JPD: I think the first thing that needs to be said is that the North was very susceptible to this propaganda, and it helps explain their reluctance to combat white supremacist tactics. Calling their attacks on democracy "Riots" or "The Negro problem" masked the white supremacist problem that was really destabilizing and brutalizing the region. The warfare was distant and confusing to northerners who were often racist anyway and easily blamed the unionist governments as being ineffective and supporting them as being costly and irritating. When they had to protect democracy every election season and just wanted it to be over, the white supremacist propaganda was an easy way to give up the struggle for northerners and even some southern unionists. After Reconstruction ended the white North then bought into the Myth of Reconstruction as being a mistake and a brutal occupation of the South with puppet governments. It is a tragic and by no means dead total misreading of the era. There is also an easy answer for the white supremacist South. Such southerners knew they were lying and even lied repeatedly in court to get KKK killers free. They were carrying out the violence and the fraud of blaming Republican officials and reveled in it. It gets tricky when you discuss other white southerners who very well may have believed the propaganda and even the liars and killers were so racist that they saw any Black act of independence as worthy of death, so they ultimately blamed Blacks and their white allies for "Forcing" them to massacre them. So their blaming of unionists for the violence probably had a sick element of belief even as they knew they were the ones killing and making stuff up to destabilize the Republican state leaders.
I want to pivot to another issue with this violence and that is casualties. Have you ever been to the Lynching Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama? It is a fascinating and awe-inspiring site to see the names of lynching victims, but I always felt that by not including Reconstruction it missed a big punch--reading your book, however, I am starting to wonder. Would we ever be able to even remotely assess the death toll of racial violence during Reconstruction? You have that two-page list in your book of incidents in one district but note that even there were likely far more--can we ever get to a number and properly commemorate these victims?
JPD: Bryan Stevenson is one of my heroes and I love the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery. I use pictures from the latter in almost all of my classes and public talks. As you know, the Equal Justice Initiative Report---Reconstruction in America: Racial Violence after the Civil War, 1865-1876---came out when my book was nearly finished. I did get to read the Report and add its findings into my book. The Report is a fantastic teaching tool and, as much as I would like everyone to buy my book, the Equal Justice Report on Reconstruction is perfect for the classroom. It is free on the internet and article length. The Report did count certain kinds of well-documented causalities and found over 2000 racial terror lynchings and 34 distinct massacres of African Americans. There were obviously a great deal of whites killed as well and African Americans died in other ways too, but as your question points out, the real challenge is how do we get a consensus on the actual death toll as the documentation is so poor? Historians need to be trained in data analysis and also be creative to do this. I have a few graduate students working on the death toll question and the 1870 Census has some startling trends in it, but there too history has a problem as that census is very unreliable. I think finding a number will be a major task for historians in the next generation and I think something creative could be done with estimates of region-wide deaths based off trends in the Freedmen's Bureau Reports. The death toll in the US Civil War has recently gone up more than 100,000 and historians have agreed that the new number is around 750,000. I can see hard work on Reconstruction getting us nearer a number for the death toll in the Southern Civil War in the era. I hope my book sparks more research but coming up with a solid number was beyond what I was trying to do with this book. It is, however, a very important question and I look forward to what future historians will find. I think the numbers may be depressingly high.
At the start, you mentioned your desire to make international connections and you did also with the Irish Revolution in the early 1900s. I want to see how do you feel about more contemporary comparisons as well. One topic I thought of in that regard was for example the Indian Mutiny. There were lots of worries and even outright claims about race war during that conflict and I wonder if that influenced the southern conversation about race war? At the same time, how common was/is it that you see these types of prolonged conflicts?
JPD: Contemporary warfare is a great point of comparison and a historian with the knowledge of India or China could draw connections with Indian Rebellion of 1857 (First War of Independence) and the Taiping Rebellion. I always loved what James McPherson did with the Paraguayan War of 1864-1870 in the Epilogue of Battle Cry of Freedom. My students always get excited by that international comparison in McPherson and I wanted to do something similar in my book. There are actually quite a few civil wars in the era from 1857-1877 that could be brought in for international comparison. Maybe there is an article in that! I would not be surprised if the Indian Rebellion of 1857 fed some white Americans' racist fears of rebellion by persons of color and desire for a race war in the way that the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804 fed white insurrection paranoia, racism, and violence in an earlier era. The Haitian example, like the examples of Twentieth Century and Twenty-First, as in Afghanistan and Iraq, shows that prolonged civil conflicts are maybe the most common kind of warfare. The Southern Civil War from 1865-1877 is the historical example Americans should be worried about. It represents a more common and therefore much more likely kind of civil conflict than the US Civil War.
I think we should be slowly getting to the end here, so to close, do you have a new project idea?
JPD: I am working on a new book that goes back to my roots in religious, cultural, and intellectual history called Virtue is Power: The History of an American Idea. It looks at the history of morality in America from the Puritans to the Culture Wars by tracing how morality and power were linked in key eras.