(January 29, 2021) Last June Washington and Lee Journalism Professor Toni Locy wrote a polemic for The Nation urging that General Lee’s name be dropped from her university notwithstanding that Lee had been President of the institution from 1865 to 1870. Locy reserved special criticism of “Lee’s boys” for their dislike of the Freedmen’s Bureau, which she falsely implies was chiefly due to white opposition to black education. In truth the Bureau was as much a stalking horse for enabling Radical Republicans to create Party-loyal puppet regimes in the former Confederate states as it was an instrument for genuine black education. Its schools only served ten percent of the South’s ex-slave school children. Moreover, they provided two forms of education. One was Republican Party propaganda designed to transform the ex-slaves into a reliable GOP voting bloc. The other encompassed the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. Many Southern whites objected to the former but not the latter.
According to black historian W. E. B. Du Bois the Bureau disbursed $20 million over its nine-year life of which only 30% was for education. In another program that yielded $1,600 per beneficiary where even Du Bois concedes “fraud was frequent,” the Bureau awarded five thousand former black soldiers $8 million for enlistment bounties they allegedly had not previously received. By comparison Lee’s annual salary as W&L’s President in Lexington, Virginia was only $1,500.
A week after the Republican Congress refused to seat any Southern Congressmen elected under President Andrew Johnson’s Reconstruction plan on December 4, 1865, the Bureau sent an agent to Lexington to open a school and displace civil authority with Freedmen’s Bureau rule. Within eight months thereafter even Du Bois admits that the Bureau had become a near dictatorial power throughout the South regardless of the rulings of local courts or the laws of local authorities:
The government of the unreconstructed South was thus put very largely in the hands of the Freedmen’s Bureau, especially as in many cases the departmental military commander was now made also assistant [Bureau] commissioner. It was thus that the Freedmen’s Bureau became a full-fledged government of men. It made laws, executed them and interpreted them; it laid and collected taxes, defined and punished crime, maintained and used military force, and dictated such measures as it thought necessary and proper for the accomplishment of its varied ends.
Moreover, Freedmen’s Bureau justice was not colorblind. It has its own military court system which replaced all civil courts. Thus, private citizens were tried under military justice; guilty until proven innocent, no writ of Habeas Corpus, no jury, no records of proceedings. Simultaneously, Bureau men had done all in their power to alienate Southern blacks from Southern whites. They organized them into local chapters of the Union League for the purpose of herding them into the Republican Party.
When the Civil War ended, the Party was barely ten years old. It might be strangled in its cradle if the re-admittance of Southern states into the Union failed to be managed in a way to prevent Southerners from allying with Northern Democrats to regain control of the federal government.
Thus, the infant GOP’s solution required that most re-admitted Southern senators and congressmen be Republicans. That meant vassal governments needed to be established in the region. Since the Constitution required that states elect their own representatives, however, Republicans needed a way to limit the number of Southern Democrat voters while simultaneously increasing the number of Republicans. Since there were few white Republicans in the region the Party needed to create a new constituency.
Consequently, they settled on two objectives. First was mandatory black suffrage in all former Confederate states, except Tennessee which already had a Republican government. They expected that such a mostly illiterate and inexperienced electorate could be manipulated to consistently support Republican interests and to hate their former masters. Second was to disfranchise the Southern white classes most likely to oppose Republican policies.
When the Bureau representative that Professor Locy cites showed up in Lexington, the adjoining state of Maryland had already taken the vote away from former Confederates. Furthermore, a number of leading Washington Republicans were trying to get Congress to confiscate the lands of white ex-Confederates and distribute them to blacks and Republicans through the Freedmen’s Bureau. Among such men were the two most prominent Party leaders, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner and Pennsylvania Representative Thaddeus Stevens, the two men most responsible for Carpetbag misrule in the postbellum South.
Given that most Lexington-area residents were white farmers, they genuinely feared that the Bureau was intent upon seizing their family farms. The worry was especially acute for Washington College students, many of whom were former Confederate soldiers
The two goals were accomplished by the 1867 Reconstruction Acts. Passed over President Johnson’s vetoes they paved the way for the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868. The Acts required that all former Confederate states write new constitutions guaranteeing black suffrage even if they denied voting rights to former Confederates. Blacks were also freely allowed to vote for delegates to the state conventions organized to write the constitutions. Each government formed by such constitutions was also required to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment.
Blacks thus became the majority of voters in Louisiana, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina. Arkansas and Tennessee were kept in the Republican column by denying the vote to ex-Confederates. Texas, Virginia and Mississippi were not permitted to vote in the 1868 presidential election.
In 1869 Virginia Republicans attempted to follow GOP strategies in Tennessee and Arkansas when they submitted their so-called Underwood Constitution for a Virginia statewide referendum. Although it required black suffrage it also disfranchised former Confederates. Robert E. Lee and others asked that the newly elected President Ulysses Grant allow the state’s voters to vote separately on the Underwood Constitution and the disfranchisement provision. Grant agreed and Virginia voters adopted the black-suffrage constitution but stripped out the Confederate disfranchisement provision. Thus, white Virginians voluntarily gave blacks the right to vote in exchange for the right to also let former Confederates vote.
In sum, Professor Locy’s citation of John McClure Freedmen’s Bureau and “General Lee’s Boys” essay is more seriously flawed than even McClure’s essay. First, and foremost, she implies that Southern whites objected to the Bureau because they hated blacks. In reality, their chief complaint was that the Bureau often promoted a political agenda to penalize former Confederate soldiers of every rank by taking away their right to vote, hold office or even hold title to their small farms while simultaneously confiscating the farms to redistribute among blacks and politically-connected Carpetbaggers. Second, the Locy-McClure allegations of sexual abuse of blacks by white men fails to consider that the Bureau itself may have had doubts about the claims. The Bureau, after all, had the authority to overrule the findings of any local court and could initiate military tribunals on their own authority, which they often did across the South. Third, Locy fails to mention that white conflicts with the Bureau in Lexington became minimal once the 1869 constitution that gave voting rights alike to blacks and former Confederates was passed, which Lee had urged.
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