Tag Archives: Civil War Reconstruction

Pious Cause Mythology

(November 28, 2017) Given that “Lost Cause Mythology” has mutated into a phrase synonymous with racism, a contra-term is required for the false belief that nineteenth century Republicans advocated for Southern blacks purely on the merits of racial justice. One choice might be “Pious Cause Mythology.”

One “Pious Cause Mythologist” suggests, for example, that the claim of a “white Northern Retreat from Reconstruction” is a dubious “trope.” Since he is among those who will most readily label others as “Lost Cause” proponents and portray them as racists, perhaps he will consider evidence from a Reconstruction-era black leader that validates the very “trope” he doubts.

Specifically, in September 1874 Mississippi carpetbag Governor Adelbert Ames asked President Ulysses Grant to send federal troops to protect black voters in the November election. Grant declined and Mississippi Republicans lost decisively at the polls. Ames ever afterward blamed the defeat on Grant’s failure to send protecting federal troops.

Only after about four decades was the reason for Grant’s inaction made public when one of the Mississippi Republican congressmen who survived the election debacle explained what happened. Specifically, a former mulatto Congressman named John Lynch revealed that Grant had told him in November 1874 that Mississippi was politically sacrificed to Ohio.

Specifically, Ohio Republicans worried that they could lose their autumn elections if Grant intervened in Mississippi. Like many Americans, Ohioans were appalled when Grant’s federal troops forcibly installed a Republican regime in Louisiana that included one of his own brothers-in-law after the 1872 elections. The Ohioans urged that he keep federal troops out of Mississippi, and the President complied. Significantly, there is good reason to believe that the Ohio worries were justified because the state’s legislature adopted a resolution condemning Grant for interfering a second time in Louisiana after December 1874.

In short, a contemporary black leader disclosed that Grant confessed to him that the President “Retreated from Reconstruction” in Mississippi for purely political reasons that favored Northern Republicans over Southern (mostly black) Republicans. Thus, in order to reconcile history to their agenda some “Pious Cause Mythologists” might feel compelled to try to discredit Lynch’s statement, but . . . could that be racist?


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Southern Reconstruction Book Now Published

(June 10, 2017) My new book on Southern Reconstruction is now available at bookstores across the country. You may click here, or at the cover image below, to buy it online. If you would like a signed copy please email me and I will send you instructions.

Provided below is a speech I made about the book.

Historians reinterpreted Civil War Reconstruction over the past fifty years. Shortly before the Centennial it was commonly believed that the chief aim of the Republican-dominated Congress was to ensure lasting party control over the federal government by creating a reliable voting bloc in the South for which improved racial status among blacks was a coupled, but secondary, objective. By the Sesquicentennial, however, it had become the accepted view that Republicans were primarily motivated by an enlightened drive for racial equality untainted by anything more than negligible self-interest. Consequently the presently dominant race-centric focus on Reconstruction minimizes political and economic factors that affected all Southerners regardless of race.[1]

Contrary to popular belief, for example, Southern poverty has been a longer-lasting Civil War legacy than has Jim Crow or segregation. Prior to the war the South had a bimodal wealth distribution with concentrations at the poles. The classic planters with fifty or more slaves had prosperous estates but they represented less than 1% of Southern families. Partly because 1860 slave property values represented 48% of Southern wealth, seven of the ten states with the highest per capita wealth soon joined the Confederacy.[2]

Since nearly 70% of Confederate families did not own slaves, however, the regional per capita income was only slightly ahead of the north central states and well behind the average northeastern state. A century later eight of the bottom ten states in per capita income were former members of the Confederacy. The depth of post Civil War Southern poverty and its duration were far greater, longer, and more multiracial than is commonly supposed. It took eighty-five years for the South’s per capita income to regain the below average percentile ranking it held in 1860.[3]

The war had destroyed two-thirds of Southern railroads and two-thirds of the region’s livestock was gone. Steamboats had nearly disappeared from the rivers. Excluding the total loss in the value of slaves resulting from emancipation, assessed property values in 1870 were less than half of those of 1860, while property taxes were four times higher. Approximately 300,000 white Southern males in the prime of adulthood died during the war and perhaps another 200,000 were incapacitated, representing about 18% of the region’s approximate 2.7 million white males of all ages in 1860 and about 36% of those over age nineteen.[4]

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Honored Carpetbagger

(April 28, 2017) After the Civil War some Republican Yankees moved South to exploit the political and economic opportunities provided by Washington-mandated enfranchisement of Republican-loyal black voters and congress’s simultaneous disfranchisement of many anti-Republican former Confederates. Southerners derisively labeled the newcomers as Carpetbaggers because they typically arrived with all of their belongings stuffed in cheap carpetbag luggage. One example was Illinois-born Henry Warmoth who became Louisiana’s first Carpetbag governor in 1868. During his four-year term he accumulated a $500,000 fortune on an $8,000 annual salary and admitted, “Corruption is the fashion and I do not pretend to be honest, but only as honest as anybody in politics.”

Nonetheless, most modern historians erroneously dismiss “Carpetbagger” as a pejorative term created by Southerners to project a false tyrannical narrative of Reconstruction. Contemporary Southerners, they suggest, were too blinded by hatred of Yankees to admit that even the most honest and industrious among the imported Yankees accomplished any good. In truth, despite resentments toward exploitive Carpetbaggers, many Southerners not only acknowledged the contributions of Northern immigrants but even appreciated and sometimes honored them.

One example is John Wilder who had been one of the most effective enemies of the Confederate armies in the Western Theater. When the war started the 31-year-old Wilder was operating his own foundry in Indiana but promptly left to join the Union Army. Early in 1863 he commanded an infantry brigade in Major General William Rosecrans’s Army of the Cumberland. A few months later he gained permission to convert his brigade into mounted infantry. Additionally, he armed it with repeating rifles before any other brigade on either side. After his repeater-armed unit met Confederates at the battle of Hoover’s Gap in June 1863, the overwhelming superiority of its rifles became obvious. The brigade inflicted 200 casualties at a cost of only 50 of its own. Three months later at the battle of Chickamauga, no brigade on either side had more firepower—or used it more effectively—than Wilder’s.

Cranberry Furnace: Johnson City, Tennessee

After the war, Wilder foresaw opportunities in Tennessee and moved to Chattanooga. He organized a coal mining and pig iron production company, built a machine shop downtown and was elected mayor in 1871. Twenty years later the owner of the Chattanooga Times (and future owner of The New York Times), Adolph Ochs, would write of Wilder, “He is a…never flinching friend of Chattanooga … He cannot be forgotten… but by the ungrateful.”

Wilder’s first wife died in 1892. Twelve years later when he was 74 he married his 26-year-old nurse, Dora Lee. Her father was a Confederate soldier. John paid for Dora’s education at the College of Medicine in Knoxville. She became the first woman to pass Tennessee’s medical exam.

To conclude:

By 1885 Wilder owned mines on either side of the Tennessee-North Carolina state line. He built the luxury Cloudland Hotel atop 6,300-foot Roan Mountain. A line marking the state boundary was drawn down the middle of the dining room, serving alcoholic beverages on one side only. The hotel eventually failed, but is remembered today with a marker on the Appalachian Trail.

John T. Wilder died at age 87 in 1917. The chaplain general of the Confederate Veterans presided at the funeral, eulogizing, “The World is poorer since General Wilder died … as soldier and citizen he was in the front rank of all good works. He was devoted to the welfare of Chattanooga … This was his town, this was his country and his people.”*

* Philip Leigh New York Times Disunion Blog “Colonel Wilder’s Lightning Brigade” (December 25, 2012)

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The Big New Orleans Lynching

(January 26, 2017) As explained in my last post, during his YouTube lectures Dr. Eric Foner erroneously identified the 1891 mob execution of “nineteen”—it was actually eleven—Italian immigrants in New Orleans as America’s biggest lynching. When lynching is defined as vigilante justice against anyone who has not been convicted of a crime, the biggest such episode happened in Los Angeles in 1871 when a crowd murdered eighteen Chinese immigrants. Nonetheless, the shameful New Orleans event warrants comment.

New Orleans had long been a destination for Italian fruit shipments. Sailors who accompanied the ships reported back to Italy that the New Orleans climate was more comparable to their homeland than was that of Boston or New York. Before the Civil War several thousand Italians lived in the city and by 1890 they totaled 25,000, which approximated 10% of the city’s population. Only a small minority became involved in crime, but they were not shy about representing—and misrepresenting—themselves as Mafia in order to be feared within their enclave.

Many Italians competed for work on the city’s docks, against whites, African-Americans, and Irish. Prior to 1888 the Provenzano family held a contract to unload all the fruit but they were completely displaced that year by the Matrangas. The result was a feud between the two Italian families, each of which accused the other of being Mafia.

In May 1890 three Matrangas were wounded in an ambush and six Provenzano men were convicted for the assault. Police chief David Hennessy was suspicious of some of the Matranga testimony and also suspected that they had murdered a witness. He therefore announced a new investigation. The Matrangas countered by accusing him of being corrupted by an alliance with the Provenzano’s.

While walking home one evening in October 1890 Hennessy was murdered. Before he died he identified his assassins as Italians. Although hundreds were rounded up and jailed, a “Committee of Fifty” leading citizens hired the then-prestigious Pinkerton Detective Agency to identify the culprits. Pinkerton sent Frank Dimaio who was an agent of Italian descent from their Philadelphia office. Dimaio pretended to be one of the many suspects and was jailed with the rest.

Dimaio’s weight dropped from 185 to 140 pounds as he remained in the vile prison long enough to gain the confidence of his jail mates. One simple-minded prisoner finally revealed the details of the assassination, which Dimaio wrote down in detail on scraps of paper. As a result, nineteen men were indicted and nine were put on trial. Among them was Joseph Macheca who was one of the city’s wealthiest Italians. In addition to Macheca’s resources contributors from other cities raised a $75,000 defense fund.

Frank Diamio


Word was out that a juror could make a bundle of money by voting to acquit. Ultimately the jury acquitted six of the nine and announced it could not decide on the remaining three. The public was stunned. About six thousand gathered outside the jail the following morning and soon stormed the building. Initially police prevented them from gaining access, but a large African-American man among the mob hurled a paving block against a side door thereby splintering it open. The police released the prisoners from their individual cells and told them to hide as best they could. Some went to the women’s quarters.

Eventually eleven, including Joe Macheca, were hunted down and killed. Although Macheca was a victim of racial violence that time, he had earlier been a leading perpetrator of anti-black violence in the city. In 1868 he led a group of Italian volunteers known as the Innocenti against blacks who were dubiously trying to re-convene a state constitutional convention. In 1874 he also fought alongside the White League against black militia in the battle of Liberty Place.

Newspapers across the country praised the lynch mob. “Slayers slain” blared The Los Angeles Times. The Chicago Daily Times headlined, “Mafia Murderers Slain: Eleven Sicilian Butchers Lynched at New Orleans.” The New York Times proclaimed Hennessy’s death avenged: “Eleven of His Assassins Lynched by a Mob.”

Boston Brahmin, prominent historian, and Republican Party leader Henry Cabot Lodge responded by recommending that immigration from Europe be made more restrictive:

Whatever the proximate causes of the shocking event at New Orleans…the underlying cause…is found in the utter carelessness with which we treat immigration.

The killing of the New Orleans prisoners was due chiefly to the fact that they were supposed to be members of the Mafia, but it would be the greatest mistake to suppose that the Mafia stands alone. Societies…which regard assassination as legitimate have been the product of [European] repressive governments. They are wholly alien to the people of the United States.

When Italy recalled her ambassador and sent a sharply worded note to Republican Secretary of State James G. Blaine, the “man from Maine” responded that the United States “had never taken orders from a foreign government and was not gong to start now.” Nonetheless, eventually the federal government paid $25,000 to three of the families of the eleven lynched men and President Harrison expressed his regrets.

Pinkerton agent Dimaio later went on assignment to hunt down Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He was among the posse about whom Butch and Sundance asked in the 1969 movie version of their story: “who are those guys?” He followed them to South America. During the first half of the twentieth century he worked undercover as “The Raven” to become a prime authority on the American Mafia. At the time of the 1957 Apalachin conference, which was a Mafia summit mimicked in The Godfather movie, the ninety-year-old Dimaio was alert enough to provide background for newspaper reporters.

In sum, at least three points about the 1891 New Orleans lynching don’t fit the habitual Foner race narrative. First, at least one of the most instrumental members of the mob was African-American. Second, at least one of the Italian victims was a leading perpetrator of racial violence against blacks in 1868 and 1874. Third, much of the reaction to the event outside the South was hostile to the victims. While none of the points excuse the lynch party, they do suggest that racism and xenophobia were not concentrated in New Orleans or among members of any single race, geographic, or ethnic group.

Sources: Thomas Reppetto American Mafia (New York: Henry Holt & Company, 2004); Adam Serwer “These People are Among us but not of Us”, BuzzFeed (August 5, 2016)

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Distorting the 1866 New Orleans Race Riot

(January 5, 2017). In this lecture, Dr. Eric Foner’s summary of the 1866 New Orleans race riot provides a misleading narrative:

[Andrew] Johnson’s efforts to mobilize support in the North [for his Reconstruction Plan] are injured by race riots that breakout in the South in the summer of 1866 leading to scores of deaths of African-Americans…[The biggest] is the New Orleans riot.

You may remember during the Civil War [that Louisiana] had a constitutional convention [authorized by Lincoln’s 10% plan] that abolished slavery but didn’t give any rights to blacks. It did, however, authorize the president of the convention to re-convene it, if desired. [Since Lincoln’s amnesty gave most of the returning Rebels the right to vote in Louisiana] in 1866…the old [Republican-controlled] convention tries to reconvene and that leads to race riots.

Professor Foner correctly notes that the riot damaged prospects for Johnson’s Reconstruction Plan because the violence persuaded many Northern voters that it was not working. Foner also correctly implies that one aim of the new convention was to authorize black suffrage, but he fails to mention that another aim was to disfranchise ex-Confederates. Moreover, the professor does not explain why many white Louisianans interpreted the new convention as an attempted coup d’état.


First, the state constitution formed under the 1864 Lincoln plan was already ratified and the resulting state government had been operating for two years.

Second, although the original convention stipulated that its president could “re-convoke [it] for the purpose of…formation of a civil government,” a civil government had already been formed. It was, therefore, doubtful that the convention could legally be reconvened.

Third, since the convention president did not “re-convoke” it Republican leaders substituted someone else who conformed to the true agenda, which was to mandate black suffrage and remove the vote from enough ex-Confederates to assure Republican control of the state government.

Fourth, the 1864 constitution had already, and specifically, granted the legislature the power to authorize black suffrage.

Fifth, in June 1866 the “re-convoked” conventioneers disregarded a sizeable quorum shortfall and called for a new convention set in New Orleans for July 30, 1866 to write a new constitution. Defiance of the quorum shortfall removed the last vestige of legitimacy to the re-convening.

After advance warning of possible trouble by the New Orleans mayor and others, the local military commander telegraphed Secretary of War Edwin Stanton for instructions. Not only did Stanton never reply, he neglected to tell President Andrew Johnson about the emergency. As a dubiously ethical Johnson enemy, it is hard to avoid concluding that Stanton deliberately wanted to provoke racial genocide in order to discredit Presidential Reconstruction and promote Radical Reconstruction.

In the end the military failed to intervene until after almost forty blacks had been killed by whites who wanted to prevent the probably illegitimate convention from getting underway. The blacks, some of whom were armed, had been demonstrating in support of the convention.

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