- Laura Plantation: A Sugar Plantation Tour With Barely a Mention of Slavery
- Slavery and the American Civil War: A Quick When and Why
- What Is Good History Education: Civil War Battles or Why They Were Fought?
- Free People of Color: Before Abolition It Was a Freedom with Qualifications
- Slaveholders, Militant Immediatists and Others on the Abolition Spectrum
- The Reconstruction: Federal Army, Carpetbaggers, and Blacks in Office
- The Meridian Race Riot of 1871: the Failure of the Rickety Reconstruction
- What Would Black History Look Like if the Reconstruction Had Continued?
- A Few Books and Movies About Slavery I Can Recommend
If the Federal Army had stayed in the South longer, if the Reconstruction had lasted longer, if America didn’t experience the century-long setback that came after the Federal Army left, what would black history look like now?
(04-02-2014, updated 07-15-2018) Lincoln went to war to get the South back into the Union. Although the war was mostly about slavery, his initial aim was not to abolish it. He wrote as much in a letter in 1862:
If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it, and if O could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union.
Because of this stand, when runaway slaves headed north during the Civil War, at first the Union army returned them south, seeing it as somehow the honorable thing to do. Then they started considering the slaves as contraband, to be withheld from their rightful owners because it would thwart the Southern war effort. More Southern white men would have to stay home and work on the plantations to ensure continuation of the food supplies.
But the North still believed blacks should be kept out of the fight. They shouldn’t be enlisted as soldiers or given weapons. They feared that the weapons would end up in Confederate hands.
However, while the politicians in Washington were arguing the issue, the Union generals in the field were faced with reality: lots of runaway slaves offering to help. The generals began to free the slaves on the spot and gave them land or paid them to work on abandoned plantations in the areas that came under Union control.
This worked out extremely well and gradually the army began employing blacks as cooks, drivers, diggers, etc. Running a little after the facts, Lincoln freed all slaves in the rebel states with the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. The army formed Black regiments and by the end of the war about 10% of soldiers were black.
These are the reasons why the slaves were freed. It was more that the North was faced with a fait accompli than that they were all adamant abolitionists. This probably explains why the Reconstruction was so short-lived. Why the North didn’t have the patience to keep federal troops in the South for longer. Imagine if they had, though. What that would have meant for American history, and for black history in particular.
Some people would argue that what-if exercises are pointless, but I do wonder what the country would look like now if the incredible changes made during Reconstruction had continued, if there hadn’t been a hiatus of almost a century until the Civil Rights Movement regained the freedoms won in 1866. What would black history look like?
It seems to me that the North is to blame as well for the Jim Crow era and the systemic racism in the South and, well, everywhere. Reconstruction could have been successful — it just needed more time to really take root. Pulling out of the South too soon was one of the biggest fuck-ups in American history, I think.
Let me know your thoughts.
The next and probably last post in this series is a list of books and movies I recommend about slavery and black history. (Ha! See how I did that, search engines?)
(This post was first published on the blog Resident Alien: Being Dutch in America, under the title: “Reconstruction: What If?”, 04-02-2014)
“United States Colored Troops”. Wikipedia. https://www.wikiwand.com/en/United_States_Colored_Troops
Header image: mine