Tag Archives: Ulysses Grant

Iuka: A Shadow of Truth

(April 9, 2018) While Lee was invading Maryland and Bragg was “liberating” Kentucky, the latter asked the Confederate commanders in north Mississippi to distract Union General Ulysses Grant in west Tennessee so that he would not join Union General Don Carlos Buell in the defense of Kentucky. The first Mississippi Rebel leader to act was General Sterling Price when his 15,000 soldiers captured a Union depot in northeast Mississippi at Iuka on September 15, 1862.  Two days later Ulysses Grant approved a plan suggested by subordinate General William Rosecrans to eliminate Price’s army by converging on it with two separate 8,000-man units from the North and South simultaneously. Grant would be in overall command while Rosecrans would lead one column and General Edward Ord the other.

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The standard battle narrative reflects selective use of Grant-favorable versions of his multiple—sometimes contrary—post battle reports and remarks in his Memoirs twenty-three years later when he wrote that under his plan Price’s “annihilation was inevitable.” Rosecrans and Ord had 17,000 men between them. Ord would descend on Iuka from the north, while Rosecrans came up from the south. Once Price had his attention thoroughly fixed on Ord, Rosecrans would fall on his rear so that the Rebels would have to choose between death and capitulation.

Accordingly, on 17 September Ord moved twelve miles down the Memphis & Charleston Railroad to Burnsville, where Grant established headquarters, having instructed Rosecrans to concentrate at Jacinto, eight miles south. From these two points, the two columns were to push to within striking distance of Iuka the following day in order to deliver their attacks soon after dawn of the 19th. But Rosecrans reported that one of his units had been so badly delayed that he could not be in position before midafternoon of the appointed day. As pictured in the map above, Rosecrans was to arrange his attack so as to block Price’s two escape paths: One to the southeast and the other to the southwest.

Grant told Ord to go ahead with the opening phase on 19 September. But he also told him to await the sounds of Rosecrans’s attack in order to be sure that Price’s escape hatches were closed. Ord’s forward movement captured Price’s attention, but the Federal column north of town did nothing more for the entire day suffering casualties of only one man wounded. When Ord received a four o’clock message from the front at six o’clock—inexplicably two hours later—telling him of “dense smoke arising from the direction of Iuka” he merely assumed Price was evacuating.

The smoke had been beyond, not in the town, and it came from Price’s guns, not his stores. When the Confederates learned of Ord’s approach from the south about two o’clock they opened the battle in that sector.  Grant and Ord failed to hear the cannon fire because a strong wind  out of the northwest created an acoustic shadow. In fact, Grant did not even suspect that Rosecrans was in position until the morning of 20 September when he received a note the latter had written the night before. It urged Grant to push into the Rebels from the north. Ord finally made his attack at about nine o’clock in the morning on 20 September while Rosecrans assaulted from the south. But the two columns were converging on an empty town because Price had escaped on the road that led to the southeast. Rosecrans had lost 790 men and Price 535.

Grant’s initial battle reports praised Rosecrans. It was, after all, the latter’s men who did all of the fighting. But Grant’s later reports criticized Rosecrans for failing to block both of Price’s escape roads and also for failing to aggressively pursue Price after he had evacuated Iuka.

Grant criticisms are unfair.

First, Rosecrans was fighting a battle outnumbered two-to-one, while Ord and Grant were nearby doing nothing. Second, he could not block both of Price’s escape routes unless he could get closer to the south end of town where the two roads converged. If he tried to cover both roads at the latitude of his battle line his smaller force  would have to be split in two and separated by a distance that was too far for the segments to support one another. Third, he could not overpower the enemy and get close enough to Iuka to block both roads unless Ord drew off some of the enemy’s strength by attacking from the north. But that never happened. Fourth, Ord’s men were well-rested and should have been used for pursuit instead of the battle weary and footsore men in Rosecrans’s column. Fifth, while Grant criticized Rosecrans’s alleged un-energetic pursuit, the commanding general set a bad example by leaving the area to visit his family in west Tennessee.

According to Dr. Frank Varney, who authored General Grant and the Rewriting of History, objective historians should be asking several questions about the Battle of Iuka that they generally fail to consider. Did Grant provide effective leadership? What went wrong at his headquarters? Had Grant temporarily fallen victim to latent alcoholism? What was happening within the Federal column north of town? Varney adds that after the battle Grant submitted “a report that was quite at odds with his first messages about Iuka, and submitted it immediately after an acrimonious exchange of telegrams with Rosecrans. . . This should warn us that Grant was not above rewriting official documents in anger and . . . would revise his version of events if it suited him.” Varney also reminds readers that Grant may have been motivated to such actions because his reputation at the time of Iuka was still not secure due to his controversial performance at Shiloh less than six months earlier.



Fort Donelson: A Matter or Credit or Blame?

(April 8, 2018) Although the Union capture of Fort Donelson on February 16, 1862 is commonly credited to Brigadier General Ulysses Grant, the cause of the outcome is more a matter of a Union, or Confederate, viewpoint. Confederate leadership arguably lost the battle more than Grant won it.

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As the map below illustrates, by 14 February Grant had the Rebel fortifications completely invested on the landward (SxSW) side with the divisions of three commanders: C. F. Smith, Lew Wallace and John McClernand. Although obvious from the beginning of the siege on 13 February that the Confederates must eventually either surrender or attack, Grant’s soldiers had no defensive earthworks. After a naval bombardment failed on 14 February, Grant went to a shipboard meeting on the morning of the 15th with Admiral Andrew Foote to discuss future combined operations. Although Grant did not tell his division commanders that he would be absent that morning he left them with instructions “to do nothing to bring on an engagement until they received further orders, but to hold their positions.”

As Grant should have expected, the Confederates attacked. They chose to assault the south end of the Union line at five o’clock the very morning of the Grant-Foote meeting. Their purpose was to gain an escape route. The attack progressively forced Union General McClernand’s division toward Wallace’s division. At eight o’clock he asked Wallace for reinforcements. Given Grant’s standing orders to “do nothing” Wallace sent a message to Grant’s HQ asking for permission to help McClernand. When Wallace learned that Grant was not at the army’s HQ, he started sending reinforcements to McClernand on his own.

The combined Wallace and McClernand forces finally stopped the Rebel advance at noon. But the Confederates had already won enough ground to open escape roads to both the south and east. Unfortunately they had a diffident commander. Brigadier General John Floyd had assumed command only five days earlier and still relied upon advice from Brigadier General Gideon Pillow, the previous commander. Despite having opened the escape routes, Pillow ordered all of his soldiers back into the Rebel lines about 1:30 PM. Notwithstanding orders from Floyd to retake the field, Pillow argued for time to replenish supplies, which caused a delay that lasted the rest of the day. It was one of the biggest blunders of the war.  A lull had fallen over the battlefield for several hours after Pillow’s advance had been stopped at noon during which the Southerners could have escaped.

Grant did not arrive until one or two o’clock in the afternoon. First, he sent a message to the Admiral Foote asking that the navy make a morale-building show of force in front of the Rebel’s river-facing cannons because “a terrible conflict [had] ensued in my absence.” Next he ordered Wallace and McClernand to retire and “throw up earthworks.” But when he learned that the Confederates had uncovered escape paths Grant changed his mind and told the two to counterattack in order to close the escape hatches. Grant also told division commander Smith to attack at the north end, correctly reasoning that the Rebels weakened their lines in that sector in order to make the breakout at the south end.

After Smith penetrated the Rebel fortifications at the north end, the Confederates concluded—probably erroneously—that they would need to surrender. Metaphorically, they viewed Smith as the proverbial camel with his nose under the Confederate tent. The next morning he could fire on the flank and rear of nearly all the Rebel troops. Since it was early in the war Floyd and Pillow feared that they might be hanged for treason if captured. Floyd, for example, had been secretary of war under the president preceding Lincoln, James Buchanan. Pillow was a Major General in the “old army” and a leader in the Mexican war fifteen years earlier. Consequently the two used the only available Confederate boats to escape. Floyd took with him all four regiments from his home state of Virginia. Cavalryman Nathan Bedford Forrest led five hundred of his men on a breakout through saddle-high swamp water. The remaining 11,500 would be surrendered.

The fort’s third-in-command, Brigadier General Simon Buckner, asked Grant for capitulation terms to which the latter famously replied “nothing but unconditional and immediate surrender.” Buckner had hoped for better terms partly because he and Grant were prewar friends. In fact, he had staked the penniless Grant with enough money to get home to St. Louis when the latter arrived in New York City from California after resigning from the army in disgrace eight years earlier. Buckner’s son (Jr.) commanded the Tenth Army at the Battle of Okinawa during World War II. He declined an implied request to discipline a marine for hoisting the Confederate battle flag over the captured Japanese fortress at Shuri Castle. 

Confederate prisoners from Fort Donelson were shipped to a Chicago prisoner of war camp known as Camp Douglas where living conditions were brutal. About 4,200 of the camp’s prisoners died of disease during the war. Their bodies were eventually dumped into a mass grave at Chicago’s Oak Woods Cemetery. Local activists plan to hold a rally on April 22, 2018 to demand the removal of a statue. Instead they want to erect a statue to Ida B. Wells who was a black journalist in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries also buried in the cemetery. The commander of the Camp Douglas Sons of Confederate Veterans plans to attend “to have a civil conversation” about adding a monument for Wells but, presumably, keeping the Confederate monument in place. The Confederate plot is managed by the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elmwood, Illinois.

Grant: Not Great at Shiloh

(April 7, 2018) Today’s anniversary is a good time to correct misconceptions about Union Major General Ulysses Grant’s performance at the Battle of Shiloh.

First, contrary to his later claims, Grant was inexcusably unprepared for the Confederate attack on April 6, 1862. Hours before the first shots he wired his St. Louis commander, “I have scarcely the faintest idea of an attack (general one) being made upon us but will be prepared should such a thing take place.” Nonetheless, he never ordered his troops to prepare defensive earthworks. He spent the night before the battle in the warm bed of a plantation mansion at Savannah, Tennessee about ten miles away from his army’s encampments on the opposite side of the Tennessee River. The general did not join his troops until about nine o’clock in the morning, four hours after the initial Rebel attack.

Second, on the first day of the two-day battle he did little to direct troop movements on the battlefront after ten o’clock in the morning. Thereafter, he selected the Pittsburg (riverboat) Landing on the Tennessee River as his headquarters. Despite claims in his Memoirs twenty-three years later, Grant did not ride mounted on among the fighting men providing encouragement and directing movements during the rest of the day. He spent most of  the time vainly trying to rally thousands of panicked stragglers at the Landing or aboard a gunboat floating safely in the river. A soldier in Hurlburt’s division wrote, “I saw Grant but once and that was at ten o’clock in the morning. . . I do not say that was the only time he was along the line, though I have never seen a soldier yet who was engaged in that struggle who says he saw him twice or at two different times.”

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Third, Grant falsely blamed the capture of 2,200 Union soldiers in the Hornet’s Nest on General Prentiss, the leader of the surrendered units. He said Prentiss failed to move rearward to a new defense line when the units on his left and right did. But Grant never gave Prentiss such orders. Moreover, the units on Prentiss’s right and left were not ordered to “move backward”; they were forced into hasty retreat by attacking Confederates.

Fourth, once the battle began Grant erroneously claimed his army was outnumbered by a Rebel force of over 100,000. The Confederate army was actually smaller than his own 45,000-man command, which would be reenforced toward the end of the first day by Union General Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio.

Fifth, Grant wrongly faulted division commander Lew Wallace for Wallace’s failure to get his division—holding a valuable riverboat landing eight miles north of the rest of the army—in action hours earlier. The fault was really Grant’s because he told Wallace to take his division to the right side of the Union battle line, which Wallace assumed was at the army’s original encampment. Such a march would have isolated Wallace in enemy territory because the Federal battle line rapidly shriveled as the Rebel attacks forced it toward the Tennessee River. Consequently, Wallace was forced to backtrack once he realized that his intended destination would dangerously isolate his division.

Sixth, Grant stubbornly gave Buell’s army no credit for rescuing him. He wrongly said that he could have beaten the Rebel army on April 7th (the second day) without reinforcements. In truth, the fighting on April 6th reduced his army from 45,000 to less than 20,000 effectives as evidenced by the skulkers huddled under the bluff at Pittsburg Landing. (To them should be added deserters that left the field completely including those who drowned trying the swim across the Tennessee River.) Author Joseph Rose writes:

Buell’s army covered more of the front and performed the lion’s share of the fighting on the 7th. This distinction vanishes in Grant’s Memoirs, [where he wrote] as “victory was assured when Wallace arrived, even if there had been no other support.” Hurlburt, among numerous others, contradicted this supposition:

General William T. Sherman—another overrated Union leader during the battle—was so discouraged at the end of the first day that he admitted wanting only “to put the river between us and the enemy.”

Seventh, beyond the initial order to advance, Grant provided his troops little direction  on the second day of the battle. They won the fight without him.

Eighth, despite his false suggestions that Buell sought avenues of retreat when he first met Grant on the battlefield, it was Grant who lacked the will to pursue the defeated enemy on April 8th. The leaders of the most successful commands on April 7th, Buell and Lew Wallace, wanted to attack the retreating Rebels but Grant did not consult them and unilaterally ordered both armies to halt.

Among most modern historians the recent surge of Grant hagiographies have wrongly transformed him into “The Teflon Man,” against whom no legitimate criticisms can stick.

Down With McKinley? But What About Grant?

(April 2, 2018) The Los Angeles Times reports that less than two months ago the City Council of Arcata, California voted four-to-one to remove a statue of President William McKinley that was erected in 1906. Native American tribal activists complained that the statue is offensive because McKinley directed “the slaughter of Native peoples in the U.S. and abroad.” He also stands accused of supporting the 1898 Curtis Act, “which took away Native rights on a lot of land.” McKinley was our twenty-fourth President and held office from 1897 until he was assassinated in 1901 to be succeeded by Theodore Roosevelt.

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Ironically, the complaints against him are more applicable to his imperialistic policies after the Spanish-American War than his domestic administration. He justified occupation of the Philippines, for example, in order ”to educate, uplift, civilize and Christianize the [brown] Filipinos.” Native resistance morphed into guerrilla warfare in which hundreds of thousands of Filipinos died.

President McKinley Statue at Arcata, California

In contrast, there were no significant American Indian wars after he became President. Moreover, the Curtis Act focused entirely upon the Native American residents of the present state of Oklahoma. The Act’s purpose was to permit the region to qualify for statehood, which was granted in 1907. Although the law did remove ownership of ninety million acres held by the tribes at-large, it permitted individual tribe members and families to own land privately, by themselves. The Act originated in a bill introduced by Kansas Congressman Bill Curtis, who had Native American ancestors on his mother’s side. Curtis later became Vice President under Herbert Hoover and his bill was officially titled, “Act for the Protection of the People of Indian Territory.”

But if McKinley’s conduct justifies removing his statue, should historians not also discuss whether statues of Ulysses Grant should be removed? In 1875-76, for example, he secretly provoked a war with tribes in the Northern Great Plaines. He wanted to give white men access to dubiously valuable gold deposits in the Black Hills as a way to help America’s economy recover from the depression that followed the Panic of 1873. Although the Centennial War with the Indians is best known for the fight at “Custer’s Last Stand” the U. S. Supreme Court ruled a century later that it was illegal. It awarded over $100 million in damages to tribal descendants. Moreover, a lower court specifically cited “President Grant’s duplicity” in the matter.*

*Bryan Wildenthal, North American Sovereignty on Trial (Santa Barbara, Ca.: ABC-CLIO, 2003), 163

President Grant’s Doubtful Civil Rights Motives

(February 3, 2018) Modern historians and biographers are tripping over one another in their rush to praise President Ulysses Grant as a pioneering civil rights leader. In a recent interview Ron Chernow said, “[Grant] was the single most important president in terms of civil rights between Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon B. Johnson and that, unfortunately, is an overlooked story.” While it may be a “story,” it is not an overlooked one.  In 2012 H. W. Brands wrote, “Nearly a century would pass before the country had another president who took civil rights as seriously as Grant did.” Similarly, Princeton historian Sean Wilentz states, “The evidence clearly shows that [Grant] created the most auspicious record on racial equality and civil rights of any president from Lincoln to Lyndon B. Johnson.”

Such statements imply that Grant’s chief reason for supporting black suffrage was to promote racial equality per se. They fail to take into account that his prime motive may have been to gain the political power that a routinely obedient voting bloc could provide to Republican candidates. For example, only a minority of America’s whites voted for Grant when he was first elected President in 1868. His 300,000 popular vote majority resulted from winning about 90% of the votes of mostly illiterate ex-slaves.

More importantly, Grant limited his civil rights advocacy to blacks who composed the solitary minority group that could be politically significant. He did nothing for smaller racial minorities such as Indians, Chinese Americans and other immigrant ethnic groups.

Indians generally could not vote during Grant’s Administration. Moreover, in 1875-76 he secretly provoked a war with tribes in the Northern Great Plaines. He wanted to give white men access to dubiously valuable gold deposits in the Black Hills as a way to help America’s economy recover from the depression that followed the Panic of 1873. Although the Centennial War is best known for the fight at “Custer’s Last Stand” the U. S. Supreme Court ruled a century later that it was illegal and awarded over $100 million in damages to tribal descendants. (A lower court specifically cited “President Grant’s duplicity” in the matter.)*

Additionally, Chinese Americas generally could not vote, nor could they become naturalized citizens until 1943. Even though they never numbered more than ten percent of California’s population, they represented about two-thirds of the state’s lynch victims between 1849 and 1902. In fact, the biggest lynching in American history took place in Los Angeles during Grant’s first presidential term in 1871. The nineteen victims were Chinese Americans.**

Since the 1868 Fourteenth Amendment only granted citizenship to blacks born in America, Grant signed the 1870 Naturalization Act in order to enable blacks born elsewhere to become citizens. But the act deliberately excluded Chinese Americans and other “non-whites.” In 1875 he signed the Page Act that restricted entry into America by Chinese immigrants and other “undesirables.” The 1875 Civil Rights Act also failed to include Chinese Americans. In Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans, Jean Paelzer writes, “The Civil Rights Act and the Page Act of 1875 . . . removed the right of Chinese immigrants to ever become citizens and banned the immigration of most Chinese women.” Since only four percent of the group’s members in 1875 were women the true purpose of the Page Act was “to force thousands of men to return to China.”***

Finally, Grant used one of the Ku Klux Klan Acts to influence voting in immigrant-dominant big city precincts that were heavily Democratic. When the wife of his Attorney General George Williams accused Grant of using Secret Service funds to help Republican candidates in New York City, the President explained that the funds were used in compliance with the 1871 KKK Acts. Although Grant said the money was spent to “prevent frauds,” Democrats were suspicious that the money was simply a secret Republican slush fund used for partisan political purposes.****

*Bryan Wildenthal, North American Sovereignty on Trial (Santa Barbara, Ca.: ABC-CLIO, 2003), 163

** Erika Lee, “Review of The Chinatown War: Chinese Los Angeles and the Massacre of 1871(2012), by Scott Zesch”, Journal of American History, vol. 100, no. 1 (June 2013), 217

*** Jean Paelzer, Driven Out, 42, 52, 58, 102

****Allan Nevins, Hamilton Fish: The Inner History of the Grant Administration, Volume II  (New York: Fred Ungar Publishing, 1936), 818-19

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A Christmas Gift for 2017

(December 21, 2107) Since hardcover versions of my Southern Reconstruction book will be out of stock at Amazon and Barnes & Noble Internet stores until next month, even though a second production run has been ordered, provided below is a free copy of the first chapter titled, “Introduction.” This online version does not include the footnotes, which are available in the hardcover and e-book versions. (For a review of Southern Reconstruction by Publisher’s Weekly, click here.)


Southern Reconstruction


Partly because of a focus on racial injustices underscored by about four thousand lynches between 1882 and 1951, modern histories of Southern Reconstruction suffer two limitations. First, they tend to ignore, or minimize, how developments in one section of the country impacted those of the other. Second, they focus almost exclusively on race.

Regarding the first limitation, a valid picture of Reconstruction cannot be drawn without integrating the history of the Gilded Age in the North with that of Reconstruction in the South. The experience of Amos Akerman provides an example.

Akerman was one of Republican President Ulysses Grant’s five attorneys general. He served a little over a year, from November 1870 to December 1871. Born in New Hampshire, at age twenty-one, in 1842, he moved to Georgia, where he first worked as a tutor and later became a lawyer. Despite initially opposing secession, he remained loyal to the South and served as a Confederate quartermaster during the Civil War. He also functioned as a line officer during Union Major General William T. Sherman invasion of Georgia in 1864.

Akerman was the most vigorous of Grant’s attorneys general in prosecuting the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). In order to expedite prosecutions, he expanded the powers of the then newly created federal Justice Department. About six hundred Klan members were convicted. Although most received light sentences, sixty-five were imprisoned for up to five years at a federal penitentiary in Albany, New York.

Back Cover of Southern Reconstruction Book

Grant, however, may have revealed his secondary interest in racial justice when he abruptly asked Akerman to resign in December 1871. Partly at the prompting of Secretary of State Hamilton Fish, Grant had misgivings about Akerman’s “obsession” with the Klan. Perhaps more importantly, Akerman also frustrated important Northern capitalists. He was, for example, critical of the dubious terms under which railroads often qualified for federal subsidies. He may have suspected the long-festering Crédit Mobilier scandal that was a paragon of such corruption and would soon dominate the news. In June 1871, Akerman had denied land and bond grants to the Union Pacific Railroad, which had given Crédit Mobilier lucrative contracts to build the line when the railroad was unprofitable because of the inability of a partially completed line to generate much traffic in a sparsely populated territory. Crédit Mobilier allocated shares of stock—a genteel form of bribery—to influential politicians, including both of Grant’s vice presidents as well as a future president, James Garfield, who committed perjury when he denied it. (Grant’s second vice president, Henry Wilson, returned the stock and claimed to have endured a loss on the transaction.)

Shortly before resigning, Akerman confronted the previous attorney general, Ebenezer Hoar, when the latter was representing a railroad client’s land grant claims. Akerman told Hoar that the client had not completed work required to receive the grants. Nearly simultaneously, Interior Secretary Columbus Delano complained to Grant that Akerman had annoyed railroad moguls Collis Huntington and Jay Gould with rulings unfavorable to their interests. (After Grant left office and returned from a Worldwide tour he accepted at $25,000 cash gift from Gould.) Whether at the urging of Fish, Delano, or Hoar, Grant replaced Akerman with George Williams, who later resigned under bribery accusations, as did Delano.

Grant biographer William McFeely concluded that 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 Northerners.”

Akerman correctly reasoned that Northerners were too preoccupied with the economic progress and growing wealth of the Gilded Age to be much concerned about racial equality. Following his resignation, he wrote Georgia’s Carpetbag governor, Benjamin Conley, “Even such atrocities as Ku-Kluxery do not hold their attention . . . the Northern mind being active and full of what is called progress runs away from the past.”

Significantly, Akerman was echoing a point that was increasingly obvious to Northerners outside of Washington. Six years earlier, in 1866, the editor of the Chicago Tribune wrote US Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois:

 “You all in Washington must remember that the excitement of the great contest is dying out, and that commercial and industrial enterprises and pursuits are engaging a large share of public attention . . . people are more mindful of themselves than of any philanthropic scheme that looks to making Sambo a voter, juror and office holder.”

 The same month that Akerman resigned, the Thirty-Ninth Congress reconvened, after a ten-month recess, under a cloud of suspicion that it was controlled by the railroad industry. One newspaper correspondent famously suggested that notices be nailed to the congressional doors stating, “The business of this establishment will be done hereafter in the offices of the Pennsylvania Railroad.” In addition to being the biggest railroad, the Pennsylvania was the also country’s largest corporation.

Akerman’s story also shows how political actions targeted at the South later boomeranged to impact developments in the North. Although urged to destroy the KKK, President Grant was wary of claims that he wanted to become a dictator by using stern federal powers to supersede the legal prerogatives of the individual states. One bill under congressional consideration that might be subject to such interpretation proposed to give the president the right to use the army to enforce court decisions and suspend the writ of habeas corpus. Nonetheless, reasoning that federal interdiction in local affairs was justified when tax collections and mail transportation were endangered, Grant threw his support behind the 1871 bill, which became known as the Ku Klux Klan Act.

Twenty-three years later, Grant’s logic for using federal power to protect the mails during the KKK crisis was applied to striking laborers. During the 1894 Pullman strike, workers disrupted train movements, particularly through Chicago. In response, President Grover Cleveland authorized armed federal troops to run the mail trains. When strikers attacked one regiment, the soldiers opened fire, wounding scores of people and killing about thirty. The strike was broken. Strikers were subjected to arrest and trials without jury.

The Fourteenth Amendment is another example of legislation presumably targeted at improving the civil rights of freedmen that rebounded to obstruct consumer and progressive interests by guarding the properties of powerful capitalists. The amendment characterized ex-slaves as “persons” and deemed them to be American citizens and citizens of the state in which they resided. All states were prohibited from abridging the rights of any “person,” which leveraged the Fifth Amendment declaration that no “person” could be “deprived of . . . life, liberty, or property without due process of law.” Twenty years after adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Supreme Court ruled in two late 1880s decisions that corporations were also “persons” whose property rights were protected by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. Those two decisions sharply curtailed the powers of states to regulate railroads and other corporations.

Some of the Fourteenth Amendment’s authors evidently had such motives from the beginning. When Republican Ohio Congressman John Bingham wrote the “due process” clause, he composed it “word for word” to protect property rights as well as civil rights. Later, in 1882, when former US Republican Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York represented the Southern Pacific Railroad before the Supreme Court with objections to California taxes, he argued that as an architect of the amendment, he labored to word it in a way to protect both private property rights and black civil rights against the encroachments of state legislatures.

As noted above, the second limitation of current Reconstruction narratives is the virtually exclusive focus on race. To illustrate, the standard college text and currently most influential academic book about the era is Eric Foner’s Reconstruction, which concludes:

What remains certain is that Reconstruction failed and that for blacks its failure was a disaster. . . . If racism contributed to the demise of Reconstruction, by the same token Reconstruction’s demise . . . greatly facilitated the spread of racism. . . . An enduring consequence of Reconstruction’s failure [was that] the [politically Democratic] Solid South helped . . . weaken the prospects not simply of change in racial matters but of progressive legislation in many other realms.

 Foner fails to mention any lingering consequences affecting both Southern whites and blacks, even though whites represented 60 percent of the region’s population. Nonetheless, the harmful effects of Reconstruction were more substantial, multiracial, and protracted than commonly understood. One example is Southern poverty.

Nearly a century after the war, eight of the ten states with the lowest per capita income in 1960 were former Confederate states. Even 150 years later, in 2011, Virginia was the only Southern state to rank among the top ten in per capita adjusted gross income, whereas five of the lowest ten were other Confederate states. The classic example is Mississippi, which ranked number one in 1860 per capita wealth but was dead last at fiftieth in 2011 per capita income.

Although Southern poverty and cotton culture is commonly associated with blacks, in 1940 whites made up two-thirds of the region’s farmers who either rented their lands or were sharecroppers. According to a 1938 presidential economic report, about half of Southern white farmers were sharecroppers “living under economic conditions almost identical to those of Negro sharecroppers.” Shortly after the Great Depression began, the president of General Motors (Alfred P. Sloan) voluntarily slashed his annual salary from $500,000 to $340,000. His $160,000 cut was more than all the income taxes paid by the two million residents of Mississippi that year. Widespread Southern poverty led to lower life expectancies, principally because of poor diets and unaffordable medical care. In 1930, sixty-five years after the end of the Civil War, South Carolina was the only state with as much as half of its population under the age of twenty because its residents died earlier.

Memoirist Shirley Abbot, who grew up in Arkansas during the 1930s and ’40s, wrote of the period:

The words of President Roosevelt echoed in our heads—“one third of a nation ill-clothed, ill-fed, and ill-housed,” and we certainly knew which third he meant. We knew that we were poor, backward, behind . . .

 [As for local politicians] . . . it should be said that most of the post-Reconstruction South was run in [a] more or less . . . [despotic] fashion. In little towns like Hot Springs, the rule of law had not yet outpaced the rule of poverty or the southern code. People, black and white, were mostly poor, trying to survive in an economy that was still largely rural.

Abbott’s adulthood illustrates a persistent consequence of Southern poverty. After Arkansas taxpayers funded her public education, Abbott left to become a successful editor and writer in New York and Massachusetts, where she paid taxes to educate the children of those well-endowed states. For at least a century after the Civil War, one of the South’s greatest exports included some of its most capable people.

Contrary to Foner’s claim that Southerners resisted progressive movements, outside the realm of race relations, Southern Democrats championed some of the most progressive legislation of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Former Confederate Postmaster General John Reagan was an early proponent of federal railroad regulation after he became a US congressman in 1874. After Woodrow Wilson became the first president whose boyhood was in the South following the Civil War, he successfully promoted such measures as a graduated income tax, tariff rate reductions, the Federal Reserve System, the Farm Loan Act, and the Warehouse Act. Finally, the Populist movement originated in the South instead of in the Great Plains as is customarily supposed. Most Southern Populists, however, remained in the Democratic party.

In contrast, Republicans fostered some of the most regressive policies. For forty-five years, between the 1868 election of Grant as president and the inauguration of Democrat Woodrow Wilson in 1913, the Republicans held the White House over 80 percent of the time, the Senate over 90 percent of the time, and the House of Representatives almost two-thirds of the time. During that era, 90 percent of the money collected in the domestic economy was composed of excise taxes on liquor, beer, wine, and tobacco. There was no income-sensitive tax.

As for external tax revenue—customs duties—the Republicans consistently favored high protective tariffs, which were essentially a regressive sales tax on consumers. Furthermore, tariffs were the chief federal revenue source during the forty-five-year period. They were much larger than the taxes on the domestic economy that were collected by the Internal Revenue Service as opposed to the Customs Offices where the tariffs were collected. The Republican Party refused to reduce tariffs even when the Treasury reported surpluses every year from 1866 to 1893. Some surpluses were embarrassingly large, particularly toward the end of the era.

Instead of cutting taxes by lowering tariffs, Republicans spent the surplus extravagantly to win political support among favored constituencies. A prime example was the increasingly liberal Union veterans’ pensions. Most Southerners preferred lowering the tariff over spending the excess customs duties on Union veterans pensions, which grew to an astounding 40 percent of the federal budget in 1893. Before the surplus was consumed by the growing pensions, however, one sympathetic Northern senator sponsored an education-funding bill to apportion part of the surplus to the states based upon illiteracy rates. It would have particularly aided the South, where such rates were higher, income levels lower, and the school age share of population larger, but the bill never got out of the House of Representatives.

Furthermore, Northern attitudes toward racial equality were more obstructive than is usually assumed. They even provided a precedent that led to the separate-but-equal doctrine of the 1896 Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, which legitimized segregation for almost sixty years thereafter. Although the case involved a Louisiana incident, Justice Henry Brown of Michigan cited a Boston precedent upholding segregated schools. Six other justices joined him in the 7–1 decision. The lone dissenter was from Kentucky, while six of the seven justices voting with the majority were from states that were loyal to the Union during the Civil War.

Finally, Republican advocacy of African-American civil rights was diluted by a huge dose of self-interest. When the Civil War ended, the Republican Party was barely ten years old. It could be eclipsed, and possibly strangled in its cradle, if the readmittance of Southern states into the Union failed to be managed in a way that would prevent Southerners from allying with Northern Democrats to regain control of the federal government. With other things the same, the abolition of slavery would increase Southern congressional representation by fifteen members over the antebellum tally because of the obsolescence of the original constitutional provision restricting the counting of slaves to three-fifths of their number for purposes of a state’s congressional representation and electoral votes.

The historical facts reveal that Republicans were distressed about the consequences to their party if Southern states were promptly readmitted into the Union without Republican control over the method of readmission. Even before the war ended, a joint congressional resolution in December 1864 proclaimed that Arkansas and Louisiana—temporarily readmitted under a wartime Reconstruction plan by President Abraham Lincoln—were “not entitled to representation in the electoral college.” Historian Matthew Josephson concluded:

The resolution reveals how even in the winter of 1864-65 [before the war was over] the Republican Party leaders were secretly obsessed with once again becoming a minority Party. Even in the twenty-three United States, only 55% of the vote in the presidential election of 1864 had been Republican. The Democratic anti-war vote was thus a big minority. What, then, if eleven unregenerate States returned to constitutional relations with the Union? They assailed Lincoln on this ground; they would fall upon his successor, too, should his policies threaten or jeopardize the retention of power by the war party.

 If all representatives from the former Confederate states were admitted to the Thirty-Ninth Congress in December 1865, and each added member was a Democrat, the Republican majority in the Senate would have dropped from 43–9 and become 43–31. Similarly, the party’s majority in the House would have dropped from 152–40 and become 152–81. In short, the Republicans would have no longer held a veto-proof two-thirds majority in Congress.

Historians William Cooper and Thomas Terrill elaborate in their American South: A History:  “Republicans’ fears that the Democrats would regain their antebellum political dominance were not fantasies. The dominance of the Republican Party was not assured in 1865, and would not be until the 1890s. Only then were the Republicans able to control the White House and both houses of Congress consistently.”

Historian Arthur Schlesinger’s analysis of Republican motivations concluded, “The technique of ‘waving the bloody shirt’—meaning to advertise for a generation that ‘not every Democrat is a Rebel, but every Rebel is a Democrat’—enabled the Republicans to [direct Northern voter hatred toward Southerners] in order to long submerge the fact that they were becoming the party of monopoly and wealth.” Banker J. P. Morgan, who epitomized Gilded Age wealth, cogently observed, “A man always has two reasons for the things he does­—a good one and the real one.” Morgan was implying that the good reason is a false, benevolent explanation that conceals the real self-serving one.

If, for example, racial equality was the true objective of nineteenth-century Republican black suffrage advocacy, an explanation for why the party did not promote suffrage for Chinese immigrants is needed. The historical record provides no good explanation. Republican inconsistency between supporting black civil suffrage while ignoring Chinese-American suffrage likely results from the fact that Chinese exclusion attracted California voters to the Republican Party, whereas the inclusion of black voters transformed the Southern states from a Democratic voting block into a Republican one.

Beginning in 1882, the federal government responded to racist pressures from California and other Western states with laws that would help deny the vote to Chinese residents and reduce their numbers. The ’82 law was succeeded by additional measures—known collectively as the Chinese Exclusion Acts— that restricted immigration and denied citizenship to the Chinese. California used the acts, which were not repealed until 1943, to deny voting rights to Chinese people. The immigration restrictions effectively cut the number of Chinese in America from 105,000 in 1880 to 62,000 in 1920.

Nonetheless, most contemporary Reconstruction historians are too prone to accept the putative righteous explanations for Republican actions as opposed to the real ones. Conversely, they too readily apply sinister interpretations to the actions of Southern Democrats. Foner, for example, laments that the 1866 Georgia legislature appropriated $200,000 to aid “aged and infirm white persons,” including Confederate widows and orphans, while making no allowance for the dependents of deceased Union soldiers or aged and infirm blacks. He failed, however, to disclose four mitigating points.

First, although Georgia didn’t aid the survivors of fallen Union soldiers, neither did the Northern states aid the widows and orphans in their states who had husbands and fathers in the Confederate army.

Second, the federal government started paying increasingly generous Union veterans’ pensions in 1862. The former Confederate states individually paid much smaller pensions to Rebel veterans. Additionally, Southerners had to pay their share of federal taxes needed to fund the Union pensions. The annual disbursements did not peak until 1921 and trailed off only gradually for years thereafter. During the fifty years prior to 1917, the accumulated Union veterans’ pensions totaled over $5 billion, which was more than twice the amount spent by the federal and Northern state governments to fight the entire war.

Third, the 1866 federal Southern Homestead Act gave freedmen temporary preferential homesteading access to 46 million acres of Southern land. The Republican-dominated Congress, however, declined to provide blacks with preferential access to homesteads outside the South, although it was generous in providing land grants to railroads. The Northern Pacific Railroad, for example, would eventually receive so much federal acreage that it would approximate the size of the state of Missouri.

Finally, even Foner admits that the 1866 Georgia legislature reasoned that aid to blacks should at least temporarily be the responsibility of the federal government through its much better financed Freedmen’s Bureau, which chiefly targeted African-Americans. Emancipation was, after all, a national policy, which justified reliance upon national (i.e., federal) funding sources to pay for the needs of the ex-slaves.

The purpose of this book is to tell the story of Southern Reconstruction by transcending the limitations of a race-centric narrative and to more fully put the account into context with that of the rest of the country. Although racism has been a shameful characteristic and legacy of the era, there is a larger story to be told involving members of all races.


Presently Amazon and Barnes & Noble Online are out-of-stock of my latest book, Southern Reconstruction. Although my publisher has ordered a second printing, the production run will not be completed before Christmas.

Meanwhile, some physical Barnes & Noble stores do have them in stock. Go to this link, and click on the “Want it today? Check Store Availability,” which is in small print to the right of the picture cover. The link will prompt you to enter your zip code and afterward display a list of stores nearby and will also indicate which ones have Southern Reconstruction in stock. Some other independent physical stores may also have the title in stock.

Finally, both Amazon and Barnes & Noble have eBook versions available.

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