Thursday, April 28, 2005

Confederate "Heritage" Month - April 28: Reconstruction and ... Iraq?

Here's a bad historical analogy using Reconstruction that also shows how far-reaching the "Redeemer" view of Reconstruction has spread: Post-Civil War era a template for Iraq: Reconstruction of South was called a 'fool's errand' by Cynthia Bass San Francisco Chronicle 12/19/04.  She tries to use Reconstruction as a useful analogy for Iraq.  Actually, all she really does is describe some similarities at such a high level of abstraction that they don't really mean anything.

In the post-Ken Burns era, the Civil War often is seen as a sort of hockey game with guns -- beautiful, apolitical white guys all valiantly met, for unclear reasons, on the field of honor. Too often this knightly mist obscures the fact that, after Appomattox, both sides didn't exactly just bow to each other and agree to forgive and forget.

Quite the contrary. The North viewed the South as conquered territory badly in need of reconstruction (i.e., nation building) before it was worthy of readmittance into the United States. And many in the South viewed the North as an occupying power deserving unwavering resistance. Conquerors bent on instituting change; conquered wanting the occupiers out ... sound familiar? A further parallel between the South and Iraq involves racial and ethnic issues. The North wished former black slaves to have equal rights and a role in government. White Southerners, the beneficiaries of the previous system, did not.

She's right about the prevalent image of the war as being a conflict between two bunches of honorable white guys.  But to make her analogy work, she also describes Reconstruction as being a conflict between white people.  The white folks in the North wanted the freedmen to have equal rights, and the white Southerners did not.  The black Southern citizens themselves sound like passive chess pieces in all this, which they definitely were not.

Now, Bass' article isn't as bad as others it would be easy to find about Reconstruction.  But it's a good illustration of the kind of fuzzy thinking about the whole period that makes understanding it more difficult.

Did the North view the South as conquered territory?  Actually the dispute was over whether the former Confederate states should have been considered as not having really seceded from the Union because they had no Constitutional right to do so, or whether they were states that had been in rebellion who must now be readmitted to the Union.  President Andrew Johnson preferred the former view which he used to justify a mild Reconstruction which would put the planters and former Confederate leaders back in power.  In the grand scheme of things it's a nit, and I'm willing to be corrected by anyone who happens to know the fine points of this, but I'm pretty sure the former Confederate states were never legally treated as territories.

Also, her description of the South as bent on massive resistance ignores a couple of important matters.  One is that in 1865, immediately after the war's end, the defeated Confederate leaders and the Southern whites generally would very likely have accepted much more drastic terms for Reconstruction than what Johnson proposed.  Johnson's disastrous two-year Reconstruction plan emboldened the planters and their allies to be much more aggressive in opposing the more stringent Reconstruction arrangements that followed.

Also, to talk about Southern whites as a bloc in this situation can be very misleading.  In fact, a significant number of whites supported the (Republican) Reconstruction governments like that of Adelbert Ames in Mississippi, along with a big majority of the newly enfranchised black citizens.  Despite all the pretty tales about how devoted the slaves were to their masters, when they actually had a vote to formally express their political wishes, for some reason that did not vote for the candidates and plans of the former master class.  John Lynch, an African-American elected as one of Mississippi's Congressmen during Reconstruction, wrote in 1913 book The Facts of Reconstruction about the racial divide in politics in Mississippi as the 1875 conflict began to unfold (see previous post in this series).  He didn't say how these numbers were derived, but they are likely to be reasonably close:

The Republican [pro-Reconstruction] vote consisted of about ninety-five per cent of the colored men, and of about twenty-five per cent of the white men.  The other seventy-five per cent of the whites formerly constituted a part of the flower of the Confederate Army.  They were not only tried and experienced soldiers, but they were fully armed and equipped for the work before them.  Some of the colored Republic ans had been Union soldiers, but they were neither organized nor armed.  In such a contest [where the Democrats were using violence and intimidation on a large scale], therefore, they and their white allies were entirely at the mercy of their political adversaries.

Cynthia Bass is closer to the truth on one guy than any phony neo-Confederate idolizing of him as some honorable Southern gentleman:

In their violent, anti-democratic nature, Southern night riders and today's radical Muslim terrorists in Iraq have much in common. Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate general who founded the Klan, and Abu Musab al- Zarqawi are virtual twins in their fanaticism, hatred of the United States and love of brutality.

Now, this really isn't a good analogy either.  Because you can't understand the Muslim terrorists without recognizing that they're Muslim.  Their religion plays a major part in who they see the world.  Nathan Bedford Forrest was certainly not a Muslim.  Only if you elevate it to the level of something like Fanaticism can you easily compare those two.  Although for an Adelbert Ames fan like me, Abu Musab Forrest does have kind of a nice ring to it.  Or maybe Nathan Bedford al-Zarqawi.

I'm don't know enough about Forrest to know if he qualified as a fanatic.  In the context of the white South at his time, he may well have been acting in tune with the prevailing sentiment of white society, which is the only real reference point he would have used.  The Klan was certainly a racist and anti-democracy terrorist group.  But in the context, it didn't necessarily need a fanatic to start it.

I actually do think there might be some useful lessons from the Reconstruction experience for Iraq or future "nation-building" undertakings.  But figuring out what they are first requires a reasonably accurate understanding of what actually went on during Reconstruction.  Not superficial, bad historical analogies.

(See the Index to Confederate "Heritage" Month posts 2005 for links to all this year's posts.)

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