Washington Post: Reconstruction Op-Ed

Two historians recently wrote an Op-Ed at the Washington Post recommending that the federal government fund a Reconstruction Memorial in Beaufort, South Carolina.  Every reason cited involved the black experience. There was no mention of non-blacks except to remark that “20th century…white supremacists dismissed Reconstruction as a mistake.”  Regrettably the remark seems to falsely imply that anyone identifying non-racial faults with Reconstruction is a white supremacist. In truth, however, the consequences of Reconstruction were far more multiracial and lasted much longer than the currently popular race-centric narrative suggests.

1938 Black Sharecroppers

1938 Black Sharecroppers

The elephant in the room is Southern poverty. A century after the end of the Civil War eight of the ten states with the lowest per capita income were former Confederate states. President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1938 report on Southern economic conditions disclosed that whites comprised half of the region’s sharecroppers and two-thirds of its almost equally destitute tenant farmers. Roosevelt’s report stated univocally that white sharecroppers were “living under economic conditions almost identical to those of Negro sharecroppers.”

Sharecropper incomes ranged from $38 to $87 annually in 1938 thereby equating to $0.10 to $0.25 per day. By comparison during the depression that followed the 1873 Financial Panic sixty-five years earlier, the Ohio Department of Labor Statistics estimated the poverty line at one dollar a day.

1938 White Sharecroppers

1938 White Sharecroppers

Shortly after the Great Depression of the 1930s began, General Motors CEO Alfred P. Sloan—honored presently by the MIT Sloan School of Management—voluntarily cut his annual salary from $500,000 to $340,000. His $160,000 cut was more than all the income taxes paid by Mississippi’s two million residents that year. Widespread Southern poverty also led to lower life expectancies. Sixty-five years after the end of the war, for example, South Carolina was in 1930 the only state with as much as half of its population under the age of twenty.

The Post editorialists ignore the national agendas that contributed toward protracted Southern poverty. Examples include high protective tariffs that averaged 45% for fifty years after the war, generous Union Veterans pensions that did not even stop growing until 1921 and approximated 40% of the federal budget in 1893, discriminatory railroad freight rates, discriminatory banking regulations, absentee ownership of Southern resources, lax monopoly regulation, and the requirement (after termination of the Freedmen’s Bureau in 1870) that the nearly indigent Southern states alone bear the financial burden to educate the children of former slaves even though emancipation was a national policy.

Another common flaw of modern Reconstruction historians is their failure to adequately examine how developments in one part of the country affected other parts. The Post Op-Ed makes no mention of such intersectional factors. There is instead a tendency to portray the “white supremacist” South as an evil twin to the rest of the country and largely responsible for today’s lingering racial problems. At the least, however, a valid picture of Reconstruction requires knowledge of how the Gilded Age in the North impacted the South. The experience of Amos Akerman is an example.

Five years after Akerman served as a Confederate quartermaster during the Civil War, President Ulysses Grant appointed him attorney general. He was the most vigorous of Grant’s five attorneys general in pursuit of Southern racial justice. After only a year in office, however, Grant abruptly asked him to resign after Akerman had taken actions contrary to the interests of the Union Pacific Railroad and railroad moguls Collis Huntington and Jay Gould. Akerman’s replacement would later resign amid bribery accusations.

In short, the interpretations of many modern Reconstruction historians focus too much on racial injustices and not enough on the political and economic factors affecting all races of Southerners. At best, such historians are substituting one mythology for another. Their narratives are driven by the zeitgeist of our era and ignore the wisdom expressed by Carlos Eire who was a child refugee from Castro’s Cuba and won the National Book Award for his memoir of his escape and re-settlement in America: “Show me history untouched by memories and you show me lies. Show me lies not based on memories and you show me the worst lies of all.”

Phil Leigh October Speaking Engagements

Date: October 20, 2016

Host: Baton Rouge Civil War Roundtable
Time: 6:30 PM
Topic: Trading With the Enemy
Place: Drusilla Seafood Restaurant
Suite D
4482 Drusilla Lane
Baton Rouge, Louisiana 70809
Phone: 225-923-0896

My Civil War Books:

The Confederacy at Flood Tide
Lee’s Lost Dispatch and Other Civil War Controversies
Trading With the Enemy
Co. Aytch: Illustrated and Annotated

Union Leagues

The Union League is one of the most cryptic of Civil War and Reconstruction era topics even though it was a wellspring of tyranny. Together with the Loyal League identical twin, Southern chapters prompted the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) to evolve from an obscure social club into a violent anti-Republican, and therefore anti-black, vigilante group.

The first Union Leagues lodges were formed in the North to support Republicans after Democratic gains in the 1862 wartime elections. According to historian Christopher Phillips the Leagues “demanded undiluted loyalty to the wartime polices of Abraham Lincoln.” They believed there was no such thing as a loyal opposition. Voters either supported Lincoln, or they were traitors. “Western Loyal Leaguers fought dissent with more than words. In central Illinois, one woman claimed that Republicans ‘were forming Vigilance committees to…[identify] every man and woman…not loyal to Lincoln.’” Even non-voters were not exempt from violence. In 1863 Leaguers tarred and feathered seven Ohio women, including one who was a widow of a recently deceased Union soldier.

At the end of the war, League chapters opened in the South to serve as rallying points for whites that had opposed the Confederacy. After Southern blacks were permitted to vote for state constitutional conventions by the dubious authority of the 1867 Reconstruction Acts, most Southern whites dropped out as blacks flooded into the Leagues. The remaining whites became Scalawags and were soon joined by Northern Carpetbaggers.

The new goal for the Southern leagues, which was shared with the Freedmen’s Bureau, was to make sure that blacks registered to vote and voted Republican. By terms of the Fourteenth Amendment, blacks composed a majority of voters in five of the eight former Confederate states permitted to vote in the 1868 presidential election. They composed a sizeable minority in the other three.

The Union League recruited members with a cult of secrecy and exaggerated promises. Members were indoctrinated to believe that their interests were perpetually at war with Southern whites that were falsely accused of wanting to put blacks back into slavery. Ex-slaves were told their continued freedom depended upon the supremacy of the Republican Party. Accordingly, they voted Republican like “hordes of senseless cattle.” Continue reading

Figures of Merit

Figures don’t lie, but liars figure. – Anonymous

A 2010 Atlantic Magazine article criticized a Confederate Memorial Day resolution by the Texas State Senate mentioning that 98% of Texas Confederate soldiers never owned a slave. While admitting that the statement was technically accurate, the author added that it was a “deeply, deeply dishonest statistic.”

He was correct to note that the percentage of individual soldiers who owned slaves was not a valid figure of merit by which to measure slavery’s penetration in Civil War era Texas. That’s because the patriarch was the legal slaveholder in most families, and not his sons who were more numerous in the Confederate armies than were heads-of-households.

The better figure of merit is the 28% of Civil War Texas families that owned slaves.
Even though it is much larger than the 2% mentioned in the resolution, 28% is still a comparatively small percentage. If Texas families had voted on the basis of slave ownership then the secession plebiscite would have been decisively turned down, 72%-to-28%. As shall be explained, however, there may have been other motivations for secession.

While modern Civil War students correctly note that a reckoning limited only to the individual titled owners understates slavery’s diffusion in the South, they are less careful with other statistics that suggest Southerners had additional reasons to seek independence.

In the decades preceding secession, for example, the South consistently opposed protective tariffs while Northerners favored them. Consequently, such tariffs were outlawed in the Confederate constitution. The Atlantic article’s author is among those who dismiss Southern tariff complaints in a separate article. He provides the following chart to suggest that future Confederate state residents paid less than 6% of import duties on the eve of the Civil War even though they represented 29% of America’s population.

The chart is, to borrow a phrase, “deeply, deeply dishonest” because it falsely suggests that Southerners shared little of the tariff burden. It deceptively shows only where duties were collected and not where the consumers who purchased the imported items—thereby funding the tariff—were located. Continue reading

Free Sample Chapter of Illustrated and Annotated Co. Aytch

Provided below is a free copy of the Introduction for my Illustrated and Annotated version of the Sam Watkins memoir titled Co. Aytch — Phil Leigh


Perhaps Mr. Watkins did not contribute enormously to our store of information about [Civil War] military strategy and campaigns, but he certainly left a record to show what the dryly humorous foot soldier thought about it all…A better book there never was.

Margaret Mitchell, Author: Gone With the Wind

The chief aim of this version of Co Aytch—Rebel vernacular for “Company H”—is to add the context that Ms. Mitchell felt was missing. Specifically, many of the approximate 250 annotations and all of the maps and illustrations are intended to help readers visualize the events, people, and places Sam experienced in his four years as an ordinary Confederate soldier, mostly in the western theater.

In contrast there is little to be added to the humor and feeling of Sam’s writing, which at times climbs to a standard resembling Mark Twain. Partly that’s because Sam is telling a true story and genuine adventures are often more compelling than fictional ones. As someone once cleverly put it, “It’s not an adventure until something goes wrong.” If nothing else, Sam’s memoir is a thorough documentation of how routinely war planning “goes wrong.” Presumably, as his dedication indicates, Co. Aytch also reflects Sam’s determination to honor his comrades by helping posterity appreciate their sacrifices.

Mark Twain first achieved notoriety seven months after Appomattox with “The Celebrated Jumping Frog a Calaveras County.” It’s a story about a shrewd frontier gambler who tricks a California prospector. The miner owns a pet frog that has out-jumped any frog in the county. While the miner is occupied catching a new frog for the gambler to wager against his champion, the gambler feeds the prospector’s frog buckshot. When the miner returns, the speculator declares the freshly caught frog a suitable contender and places his wager. To the dismay of all—save one—the champion frog won’t budge and the cheater wins.

Sam tells of a similar, but true, incident several years earlier when his Confederate army was idled for seven weeks in Tupelo, Mississippi. To overcome boredom the soldiers wagered on most anything, including how fast lice would run off of a tin plate. One soldier was constantly winning until the others figured-out he always heated his plate before a race.

Continue reading

Secession Without Civil War

Since most modern historians agree that the South seceded to protect slavery they conclude that the Civil War was “all about” slavery. The inference, however, overlooks the possibility that the Southern states could have been allowed to depart in peace. Within the lifetimes of most readers, for example, the Soviet Union peacefully disintegrated into its constituent countries as did Czechoslovakia.

Even though it was partly motivated to defend slavery, one secession example from American history demonstrates that such action need not have led to war. Moreover, it questions the underlying assumption that the immorality of slavery alone was sufficiently repellant to Northerners that they would fight secessionists for trying to protect it.

In 1846 about one third of the District of Columbia seceded. Originally the District was a ten-mile-by-ten-mile square. About a third of the one hundred square miles were southwest of the Potomac River in what was originally—and presently—Virginia. Most of the sector’s residents wanted to secede from the District for two reasons. First, they were not treated fairly from an economic perspective. Public buildings, for example, could only be erected on the “Maryland” side of the Potomac. Second, they correctly anticipated that the District might someday outlaw slavery.


In February 1846 the Virginia legislature agreed to absorb the District’s southwest sector if Congress approved. Five months later Congress authorized that the region could be returned to Virginia if its voters agreed by a referendum. The referendum vote was affirmative and the land returned to Virginia in September 1846. Continue reading