The story of Reconstruction is not simply about the rebuilding of the South after the Civil War. In many ways, the late nineteenth century defined modern America, as Southerners, Northerners, and Westerners forged a national identity that united three very different regions into a country that could become a world power.
A sweeping history of the United States from the era of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, this engaging book tracks the formation of the American middle class while stretching the boundaries of our understanding of Reconstruction. Historian Heather Cox Richardson ties the North and West into the post–Civil War story that usually focuses narrowly on the South.
By weaving together the experiences of real individuals who left records in their own words—from ordinary Americans such as a plantation mistress, a Native American warrior, and a labor organizer, to prominent historical figures such as Andrew Carnegie, Julia Ward Howe, Booker T. Washington, and Sitting Bull—Richardson tells a story about the creation of modern America.
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Spring 1865 The View from the Civil War
After an uneasy night, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant awoke on April 9, 1865, still suffering from a migraine that had hit the day before. Tired and aching, he pulled on rough army clothes, mounted his horse, and rode out toward Appomattox Station, Virginia, where his men had engaged an advance column of soldiers from General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. On the way to the head of the column, Grant received a message from Lee, who requested an interview for the purpose of surrendering his army. "When the officer reached me I was still suffering with the sick headache," Grant recalled, "but the instant I saw the contents of the note I was cured."
Grant found the Confederate general, painstakingly clothed in full dress uniform, waiting for him at the small village of Appomattox Court House in the substantial home of Wilmer McLean. The elegant, white-haired Lee and the weathered bulldog from the North commiserated on the terrible cost of the war and agreed that the bloodshed should end. As terms for surrender, Grant required only that the officers give their word that neither they nor their men would fight against the United States again, and that they turn over their military arms and artillery. The men could keep their own side arms and horses. Grant wanted them "to be able to put in a crop to carry themselves and their families through the next winter."
Lee could surrender only his own men, but his army was the pride of the Confederacy and its demise signaled the end of the war. It was simply a question of time until the estranged sections of the country would have to begin to build a new postwar nation. The South, devastated and despairing, the North, bustling and proud, and the West, rich in resources but deeply embattled in a war between Native Americans and eastern settlers, somehow would have to create a unified America.
Of course, not everyone saw it this way. For his part, Lieutenant General Wade Hampton III of South Carolina was not willing to abandon the Confederacy. Serving with Joseph E. Johnston's crumbling army in North Carolina, he gathered his men and angrily told them that the report of Lee's surrender was "a rumor he did not believe." In any case, Lee's Army of Northern Virginia was only one of three major Confederate armies, and its surrender did not end the war. With the Army of the Mississippi and the Army of the Tennessee still in the field, Wade Hampton begged Jefferson Davis not to give up. Hampton promised his president that he could find almost 100,000 men still willing to fight; they could force their way over the Mississippi River to Texas and launch a guerrilla war from there. The Montgomery Advertiser agreed: "As the crushing wheel of invasion rolls onward, behind it life and hope rise anew amidst the smoking ruins, and patriotism, torn and bleeding but still defiant, girds its loins for new struggles and new sufferings." When his commanding officer surrendered to General Sherman, Hampton carefully noted that since he had not been present, he was not bound by his superior's actions. "Those ... who were absent can either accept or reject the terms. Nothing can be done at present, either here, or elsewhere, so I advise quiet for a time. If any opportunity offers, later, we can avail ourselves of it," he wrote. He remained hopeful of continuing the war until Union soldiers captured Jeffierson Davis on May 10. The tall, squarely muscular Hampton had poured his vast wealth, his prestige, his blood, and the lives of his brother and son into the Confederate cause. He clung to the belief that his sacrifices had a purpose.
For many Americans, Hampton seemed to represent the South. He was born into a powerful plantation family, graduated from the elite South Carolina College, and married Margaret Preston and then, after her death, Mary McDuffie, both from prominent planter families. In 1860, Hampton owned over 10,000 acres of land, which were carved into five plantations worked by more than 900 slaves. The rice, cotton, sugar, and corn that grew in Hampton's fields made him the richest man in South Carolina; a good year before the war brought a gross income of more than $200,000. Hampton sat in the antebellum state legislature, but his influence from Millwood, his beautiful home outside of Columbia, was probably more politically important. There, he regularly entertained the nation's leading men — governors, congressmen, cabinet officers, and army brass — expounding upon the issues of the day over gourmet food and fine wines.
Central to Hampton's antebellum way of life were white southern ideas about the way society worked. Proud of their Revolutionary inheritance, white southerners believed their way of life was the culmination of the ideals of the founding fathers. Those august men had thrown o? the yoke of monarchy and aristocracy and embraced the liberalism of eighteenth-century philosopher John Locke, who argued that individuals were inherently equal at birth. The hierarchical political and economic systems of Europe, where tenants farmed the land of noblemen and had no say in their government, distorted natural law, Locke maintained. Each individual had a right to "the fruits of his labor" and to determine the government under which he lived. America's Revolutionary generation had combined this Lockean liberalism with a profound distrust of the English ministers to the king, whom they saw as misrepresenting the colonists and misleading their sovereign for their own political ends. They came to believe that power — economic, political, or social — was inherently predatory and an enemy of liberty. Powerful people arranged to keep themselves in power by ruling against their opponents and distributing government largesse to their political friends.
Once the Revolutionary generation had rid itself of monarchy — the most stable form of government the world had ever known — in the 1770s, it had to figure out how to create a government for a nation of Lockean individuals. It was all well and good to declare that "all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness," but how could that be translated into an actual form of government? The founding fathers tried to create a republican government based on the votes of economically independent individuals who owned their own land and were therefore able to act without fear of reprisal from an employer. The men constructing the new nation's government believed that by voting for measures that benefited themselves, economically self-sufficient and politically independent voters would also do what was right for the nation. The founding fathers were determined to keep government small so that it could not develop an office-holding class that lived on taxes sucked from hardworking producers. Large government invited corruption, they thought, as officeholders used tax dollars for pork-barrel projects to buy political support. If this were permitted, the government would become independent of its constituents, and the nation would have a new, European-style aristocracy, mercilessly taxing the average person to maintain its political and economic power.
Antebellum southern whites took their heritage firmly to heart, but they looked around them and saw that the realities of human nature and a capitalist economy meant that there would always be propertyless people dependent on others. Poor voters would corrupt the republic, it seemed, for they would be controlled by more powerful men who could make jobs or sustenance depend on a man's willingness to vote as his superior directed. White southerners sought to solve the problem of class divisions in society by enslaving its dependent members. This was especially easy in the South, of course, for race provided an obvious division around which to organize society. Safely under the control and protection of a white patriarch, black slaves could contribute economically to society without "contaminating" the government. Ironically, white southerners believed that a republican society of equals could not survive without slavery. For Hampton, American society rested on the idea that all white men were created equal.
Plantations were worlds in themselves, their white inhabitants convinced that they belonged to an interdependent community that offered the best for everyone. Enslaved black men and women provided the labor that supported the community while white masters and mistresses "cared for" them. The life of a plantation mistress "is a very noble life ... the life of a missionary, really; one must teach, train, uplift, encourage," planter's daughter Elizabeth All-ston recorded. "It is a life of effort; but ... it is ... the life of those who have the great responsibility of owning human beings."
White plantation women were protected and idealized by white men. While in reality most southern white women worked in the fields or as domestic servants in wealthier homes, the image of the white southern women was of sexless, delicate creatures completely dependent on the men around them, who would provide for them and manage society. Never married, Wade Hampton's three sisters lived at Millwood, a potent reminder of how completely they depended on their brother. "I feel that you ... belong to me," Hampton wrote to his youngest sister, "& that it is my duty as well as my happiness to care for you always; to be to you a father as well as a brother." Planters modeled themselves on European aristocrats, managing and protecting those beneath them.
Southern planters owned more than 50 percent of the region's slaves, their lands produced all of the region's rice and sugar and most of its tobacco and cotton, they dominated southern politics, and they determined its social mores. But only 4 percent of white southern men, clustered mainly on the coastlands of South Carolina, Georgia, and Mississippi, owned the twenty or more slaves necessary to be considered a member of the planter class. Most southern whites worked smaller inland farms with a handful of slaves, growing short-staple cotton or tobacco in addition to the hogs and corn that fed their families. Whites on the upland hill country of North Carolina, Arkansas, and Virginia were poorer still, scratching out of infertile soil corn and cotton in addition to the family's food. Rough settlements in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas, begun in the 1830s, produced rich crops to replace declining production in the East, but in 1860 they were still plagued by malaria, yellow fever, and the drinking and violence of the frontier.
Over on the coast near Charleston, Elizabeth Allston enjoyed the European masterpieces, including a Rembrandt, hanging on the walls of her father's six plantations; learned French at a private school; wore silk gowns to fancy dress balls; and ate meals of "delicious things ... shrimp, fish, and rice-birds, and green corn, and lima beans." But the families of white yeomen farmers lived in two-room cabins, and poor whites lived in shacks. Most white southerners would never go to school, would never see a city, and would eat a diet of corn, game, pork, molasses, and greens. Some of the poorest "white trash" would struggle endlessly with hookworm, malaria, and pellagra that sapped their strength and gave them a reputation for laziness.
The idealized image of the slave plantation also ignored the realities of forced labor and human slavery. On the large cotton and rice plantations, where more than half of all slaves worked, slaves worked in gangs run by an overseer. Dehumanized by white masters, housed in cabins, fed basic rations, sold at will, and held to work with physical threats, field slaves were hardly a contented peasantry enjoying an enlightened patriarchy. Grouped together far from contact with the big house, field hands were able to develop their own culture, but they were cut o? from the house slaves who were often lighter skinned and educated in trades. On smaller inland farms, slaves and masters often worked together in the fields, and slaves there developed a wider range of skills. Reminiscing about the more than 600 slaves her father owned, Elizabeth Allston recalled that her father's plantations "were models of organization and management" and treasured fond memories of "Daddy Thomas," who ran the establishment's large carpenter's shop. "He was a great person in my eyes. He was so dignified, and treated us young daughters of the house as though we were princesses; just the self-respecting manner of a noble courtier." But Nat Love, a young plantation slave in Tennessee, saw the system more clearly. His master was "kind and indulgent," but Love still believed that while slaves in such conditions were "lucky," "their lot was the same as a horse or a cow."
About one-quarter of all southern white families owned slaves, but almost all southern whites bought into the ideology of slavery. Slavery fed the psychological and economic needs of poor whites as it supported the social, economic, and political power of planters. For the yeoman farmers who made up the majority of the southern population, increasingly squeezed in the booming market of the late 1850s, slavery reinforced the idea that all whites, rich and poor, were equals. White yeomen understood, as one man commented, "that ... where Capital rules, where there are no black slaves, there must be white ones." This "slave-labor republicanism," as one historian put it, meant that a barefoot country man could hold up his head in the presence of a wealthy planter, convinced that they were equals, independent and wielding a vote that supported a pure republican government.
Before the war, white southerners contrasted their society with that of the North, whose growing industrialism threatened to undermine the republic by forcing propertyless wage earners to depend on capitalists while still permitting them to participate in politics. Economically and thus politically dependent, northern workers were not equals to their fellow citizens but rather were "wageslaves," according to southern critics. Because slavery was essentially a paternalistic system, such southerners argued, northern workers were worse o? than southern slaves. "The Southern slave is ... well clothed, well fed, well treated, in every way comfortable beyond the labouring class of any country," wrote a southern woman, "and, although not enjoying the luxuries of life, is as far from starvation as his master." White southerners pointed to northern laborers "with withered forms and haggard faces" as dependent on the vagaries of the economy and the whim of employers for their very survival. "Our slaves are black, of another and inferior race. ... Yours are white, of your own race," southern thinkers insisted.
White southerners believed in 1860 that "fools and fanatics of the North," the radical abolitionists who were determined to achieve black freedom at any cost, sought to destroy the southern system. The dramatic growth of northern cities and the flood of farmers west into Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, and Iowa fed white southern fears that an antislavery North would take over the federal government and then carve away at slavery until it withered and died. Each sectional crisis in the 1850s became, for southerners, a test of their strength. The northern backlash against southern attempts to protect slavery seemed to prove that the South was under attack. The organization of the Republican Party as a sectional party dedicated to preventing the westward expansion of slavery indicated a crisis was at hand. The South had long ago lost its parity in the House of Representatives, where representation was apportioned by population. If new slave states did not balance the new free states forming in the West, the South would lose its parity in the Senate and go down on the ruins of slavery, destroyed by the powerful hand of a Republican-controlled government. Determined to protect slavery at all costs, southern whites stood adamantly for states' rights and argued that the entire American government would be destroyed if the Republicans came to power. If the Republicans won the 1860 election, the South would lose slavery and, the Charleston Mercury warned, "the patronage resulting from the control of ninety-four thousand offices, and the expenditure of eighty millions of money annually" would make the Republicans "irresistible in controlling the General Government." Tyranny would replace republicanism.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "West from Appomattox"
Copyright © 2007 Heather Cox Richardson.
Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Map of America in 1865:,
Chapter One. Spring 1865: The View from the Civil War,
Chapter Two. 1865–1867: The Future of Free Labor,
Chapter Three. 1868–1871: Conflicting Visions,
Chapter Four. 1872: A New Middle Ground,
Chapter Five. 1873–1880: Years of Unrest,
Chapter Six. 1881–1885: Years of Consolidation,
Chapter Seven. 1886–1892: The Struggle Renewed,
Chapter Eight. 1893–1897: The Final Contest,
Chapter Nine. 1898–1901: Reunion,
Map of America in 1901,