The American Civil War ended with the notorious assassination of a great man, but was that man Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King Jr.?
That question will not make much sense to anyone who learned in school that the war came to a close with Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House 150 years ago this month and that the shooting of Lincoln on April 15, 1865, just six days after the surrender, was merely a sad coda to the conclusion of a tragic fraternal conflict. That is what generations of Americans have been taught, but historians now are suggesting another way to look at it. John Wilkes Booth’s murder of the president can be seen not as a final desperate act of a lost cause but the opening shot of a largely successful guerrilla war that rolled back the gains made by blue-uniformed liberators on the battlefield.
Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia disbanded and went home after Appomattox, but Union troops did not. They spread out to occupy the defeated Confederacy and enforce federal law and new amendments to the U.S. Constitution that gave full rights of citizenship to the formerly enslaved people of the South. It was not easy duty. They met armed resistance from Southerners who wanted to maintain the old racist system, including murderous white-robed members of the newly formed Ku Klux Klan and various paramilitary groups such as the White League and the Red Shirts. There were no massive battles on the scale of Gettysburg or Shiloh, but conflict continued with blacks the most frequent victims of attacks. Peace clearly had not come.
Federal troops were, nevertheless, able to open a political and economic space for African Americans. During the period called Reconstruction, more than 1,500 black men were elected to positions of civil authority, including the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives. Twenty percent of the former slaves who had never owned property before were able to own farms.
Yet the brutality aimed at black Americans did not stop. In 1877, with conservative Northern politicians renouncing the military occupation, the last federal troops finally were brought home. White Southerners had already been busy stripping black citizens of the rights that had been won in bloody battle. With the soldiers gone, blacks were disenfranchised, segregated, violently intimidated, murdered with impunity and, through the sharecropper system, pushed down into an economic servitude that was only marginally better than slavery.
In the post-Reconstruction period, Southern historians got hold of the Civil War narrative. It became the War Between the States, a noble battle among brothers with a moral equivalence between the two sides of the dispute. It was about states' rights, not slavery. It was Northern economic power bearing down on the genteel Southern way of life. Reconstruction was portrayed as a villainous usurpation of rights and property. President Grant, who actively defended black citizens by using the military to suppress the KKK, was grossly maligned as an ineffectual drunk. By the time “Gone With the Wind” was released in 1939 with its sympathetic portrayal of the old South, reactionary Southerners had not only won the narrative, they could rightly claim to have snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.
Not until the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s and the return of federal troops to protect black children entering integrated schools, freedom riders traveling between bus stations and marchers heading from Selma to Montgomery did the tide of battle turn. It was the victories of the nonviolent activists of that era, backed by federal power, that finally brought down the entrenched institutions erected by the heirs of the Confederacy. When King was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968, it truly was a last evil gasp of a defeated cause.
If we take anything away from the 150-year anniversary commemorations of the Civil War that have just concluded, it is that history is not set in stone. History is molded and distorted by politics. To now get the record straight, we should move forward to commemorate the events of Reconstruction, an era when racist forces maintained a rebellion against the federal government and the Constitution, finally regaining an oppressive monopoly on power in the South that lasted for an additional 100 years.