The South’s ‘Tragic Era’ of Reconstruction: Those terrible carpetbaggers

<i> Rubin's latest book on the American South, "The Edge of the Swamp," a study of antebellum literature, will be published this fall by Louisiana State University Press</i>

The nature of the Reconstruction of the Southern states after the Civil War has been disputed terrain among American historians. The period 1866-1877 had been aptly termed the “tragic era,” although the definition of what was tragic about it has changed over the years.

When I was growing up in South Carolina during the 1930s, everyone was sure what had happened. The defeated South had wanted only to return to its old place in the Union, but rascally carpetbaggers from the North and unprincipled native-born scalawags had together manipulated the ignorant black freedmen to gain control of the various state governments. Backed by the presence of federal troops, they embarked on an orgy of corruption, greed and waste, humiliating and impoverishing the helpless South and spoiling the hitherto-trusting relationship between blacks and whites.

At length, the nation grew weary of the corruption and cost of maintaining troops in the South, the Army was withdrawn, and the responsible white citizenry regained control of their own governments.


Such was the legend. In the 1930s and thereafter, however, a rather different interpretation of what had happened began to emerge. It turned out that blacks had at no time dominated the Reconstruction governments and that only a small number of ex-Confederates were ever kept from voting. There was no more corruption in the post-1865 South than elsewhere in the nation during the Gilded Age. Some carpetbaggers were dishonest fortune seekers, but by no means all of them. The real issue of stake had been the white South’s refusal to allow the former slaves to vote; most of the violence of the period was perpetrated by whites in pursuit of that aim.

The Reconstruction governments had attempted to introduce biracial democracy, and the state constitutions they wrote provided, usually for the first time ever, free public schools and other services that were thereafter retained. The “tragedy” of the Reconstruction consisted of the failure to enfranchise the black man and institute genuine democracy, a failure that was caused by the white South’s intransigence and the virtual desertion of the landless and helpless blacks by the North.

Richard N. Current is a first-rate historian, and his new book ratifies the basic soundness of that interpretation. What he has done in “Those Terrible Carpetbaggers” is to examine the careers of 10 representative politicians. Most had served with distinction in the Union Army and afterward came, or else stayed, South--but not as impoverished opportunists seeking easy money. Some were already quite wealthy. Most were men of good intentions, all were highly intelligent, and most were college graduates. As a group, they were no more dishonest or self-seeking than their Southern opponents, many of whom collaborated with them in business speculations.

Their failure as Reconstructionists came for various reasons. Some proved too eager to compromise with “responsible” Southern whites at the expense of the freedmen’s needs and aspirations. Some were naive in their idealism and unable to face up to the realities of what was going on around them. But the ultimate reason why Reconstruction failed was the hostility of the white South to what they wished to do: make the South a biracial democracy.

Current’s summation is to the point: “All were responsible, in various ways, for causing a disturbance in the relations between the races in the South. As most Southern whites saw it, ideal relations required a continuance of the passivity and deference that had been expected of blacks in slavery days. Southern whites resisted, while carpetbaggers encouraged, the freedmen’s exercise of their newly granted political rights. This was the basic reason for the anti-carpetbagger animus.”

What makes this book so fascinating is the way that Current uses the interwoven careers of these 10 very different men to tell the story of the Reconstruction. We view it in terms of individual people. They are a remarkable group of persons. Some were high-minded idealists, such as Albion Tourgee, who hated having to leave North Carolina, which he had grown to love, and whose novel “A Fool’s Errand,” whatever its shortcomings as literature, was an all-too-accurate depiction of Reconstruction violence.

By contrast, Henry Clay Warmoth, beginning as a reformer, kept his eye on the main chance at all times and ended up as a prosperous Louisiana sugar planter. Adelbert Ames, a high-principled Union general, came to Mississippi as a military commander, stayed to become governor, was abandoned by the Grant Administration and later became a successful Massachusetts businessman.

Daniel H. Chamberlain, a Yale graduate, moved so far toward compromise that he lost the support of South Carolina blacks, but when the Democrats regained power, he was ousted nonetheless. Later, as a prominent New York attorney, he became strongly anti-black. And so on. These were interesting and capable men, and they scarcely fit the traditional carpetbagger stereotype.

My only cavil with Current’s excellent book is that, in his laudable zeal to do justice to these 10 men and their motives, there is a tendency to slight the crucial fact that, however high-principled and well-intentioned most were, they were, after all, Northerners who were in one way or another imposed on a defeated community by force of arms. They held office in spite of the wishes of that element of the community--in all but a couple of states a majority--that was educated, that had always previously governed itself, that owned most of the property and that had fought a war in an effort to be independent of the North.

To expect the white South to have accepted these newcomers on the merits of what they advocated or on their good character is to ask the impossible. Though originally and probably always the root issue, race was not all that was involved in the Reconstruction. Had it been, a man such as Chamberlain would not have been so summarily ousted. The white South wanted to choose its own leadership.

A “tragic era” it was, and what was most tragic about it was that the door was slammed shut on the aspirations of black Southerners, not to be pushed open again for almost a century. Current’s book tells the wretched story of how that happened and will fascinate anyone interested in our country’s history.