Bluecoats & Tar Heels: Soldiers and Civilians in Reconstruction North Carolina
by Mark L. Bradley, University Press of Kentucky
“The War is over—occupation’s gone,” Union Major General William T. Sherman shouted when he learned that his longtime Confederate nemesis, General Joseph E. Johnston, had agreed to meet him at Durham Station, N.C., to discuss surrender terms. Unfortunately, Sherman’s quote lifted from Shakespeare’s Othello proved to be only half-true. For all intents and purposes, the Civil War was finished, but the long and often painful process of occupation and reconstruction had only just begun.
For 12 long years, the citizens of North Carolina would cohabitate with blue-coated Union soldiers who were engaged in America‘s first attempt at “state building.” A series of Union Army officers and an occupying force of troops—both black and white— would live among a predominantly hostile white population and thousands of newly emancipated freed people, trying to restore a democratic government based on the Constitution.
It proved a daunting task. In his memoir, occupation commander Colonel Nelson Appleton Miles re – called that when informed he was being transferred to the Western frontier to chase Geronimo and his Apaches, he felt it “was a pleasure to be relieved of the anxieties and responsibilities of civil affairs, to hear nothing of the controversies of race prejudice, and to once more be engaged in strictly military duties.”
Mark Bradley tells the story of this often contentious but sometimes surprisingly congenial relationship in a scrupulously researched, deftly organized monograph. He begins with an elegant paean to Sherman, “the warrior as peacemaker” who offered generous terms to Johnston and his men and ordered that rations be distributed to the inhabitants of a state whose economic, financial and governmental infrastructure was in shambles. Sherman then left North Carolina, leaving it to others to forge and enforce reconstruction policy there. “Only by interacting with the state’s citizenry,” Bradley contends, “would bluecoats grasp the difficulty of reconciling whites to the new state of affairs while protecting the rights of freed people.”
After two years of martial law and relatively lenient presidential Reconstruction, an angry Congress passed a harsher Reconstruction Act that specified how to form new state governments based on ratifying state constitutions by all adult males and accepting the 14th Amendment, which safeguarded the rights of the freed people. For the Army, the situation now went from difficult to nearly impossible. “In addition to protecting blacks and white loyalists,” Bradley points out, “the army’s mission included implementing federal policy, peacekeeping, and conciliating former Confederates….Given the violence, lawlessness, and terrorism that plagued the state from 1865 to 1871, it is remarkable—if not altogether surprising—that army officers refused to abandon moderation for a more coercive policy.”
Bradley contends that the role played by the Army allowed Reconstruction in North Carolina to be more orderly and less violent than it was in many other states of the former Confederacy. Recent studies focusing on Mississippi, South Carolina and Louisiana support this view. “During North Carolina’s lengthy transition from war to peace,” Bradley opines, “the army protected those most in need of it when the civil authorities proved unwilling or unable to do so.”
But Bradley’s final analysis holds true for Reconstruction throughout the South. The “federal government ultimately abandoned African Americans for the sake of nation al reunion,” he says. “In doing this, it bequeathed to later generations the task of securing full citizenship for blacks.”
Although the last bluecoats left North Carolina in 1877, the work of Reconstruction continues to this day.
Originally published in the August 2009 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.