The Right Way to Study Civil War Reconstruction

By focusing almost entirely upon the South, Present Civil War Reconstruction histories fail to take into account how simultaneous Northern events shaped – and sometimes dictated – Southern Reconstruction.

One example involves Amos Akerman who was one of President Grant’s five attorneys general. He served for about a year from November 1870 to December 1871. Although born in New Hampshire, at the age of twenty-one in 1842 he moved to North Carolina. By 1850 he was a Georgia lawyer. Although initially opposed to secession he remained loyal to the South and served as a Confederate officer during the Civil War.

Amos Akerman

Amos Akerman

In prosecuting the Ku Klux Klan, Akerman was the most vigorous of President Grant’s attorneys general. He expanded the powers of the then newly created Federal Justice Department to expedite prosecutions. About 600 convictions were obtained and two-thirds of the offenders went to jail.

Grant, however, evidently revealed the Republican Party’s secondary priorities on racial justice when Akerman was unexpectedly asked to resign in December 1871. In addition to opposing Southern racial violence, Akerman was critical of federal subsidies to railroads and may have suspected the long-festering Crédit Mobilier scandal that would soon explode into public awareness. In June 1871 Akerman had denied land and bond grants to the Union Pacific Railroad, which was intimately connected with Crédit Mobilier, which in turn had paid bribes to both of Grant’s vice presidents as well as future President James Garfield who committed perjury when he denied it.

Shortly before resigning Akerman told the previous attorney general who was representing a railroad’s claim for land grants that the railroad company had not completed the requirements for the grants. Nearly simultaneously Interior Secretary Columbus Delano complained to President Grant that Akerman had annoyed railroad moguls Collis Huntington and Jay Gould with rulings unfavorable to their interests. Grant replaced Akerman with George Williams who would later resign under accusations of bribery.

Grant biographer William McFeely concluded: “[After Akerman’s resignation] the finest champion of human rights in the Grant administration went home to Cartersville, Georgia where he practiced law privately for only eight more years. He had given up on his native North and on Northerners.”

Contemporary historians too often ignore, or minimize, how developments in the North impacted Southern Reconstruction. Yet a valid picture of Reconstruction cannot be appreciated without integrating the history of the Gilded Age with that of Reconstruction.

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My Civil War Books:

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

 

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