Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War
by Nicholas Lemann, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006, 272 pages, $24.
Reconstruction promised African Americans a fresh start—not just freedom from bondage but also the ability to participate in the political process with “equal protection” under the law. The nation passed the 14th and 15th Amendments embodying these promises, and they would be enforced in the South by a federal army of occupation.
In Redemption, Nicholas Lemann has written an important, eye-opening account of how white supremacists in the South engaged in “an organized, if unofficial, military effort to take away by terrorist violence the black political rights that were now part of the Constitution.” Lemann focuses on two states, Mississippi and Louisiana, from 1873 to 1875.
Lemann opens the book in Colfax, La., where Republican African Americans controlled the town’s government. Such “Negro rule” horrified the local whites, who, according to Lemann, spread nightmarish rumors about African Americans’ desire to rape their wives. Lemann intricately explores the bizarre psychology underpinning such racist fantasies. Moreover, many ex-Confederate soldiers saw themselves in the glorious role of “taking their homeland back from what they saw as a formidable misalliance of the federal government and the Negro.” Thus, as Lemann’s subtitle suggests, violence during Reconstruction can be viewed as a continuation of the Civil War.
In April 1873, an armed band of about 300 whites, many ex-Confederates, assaulted the Colfax courthouse and demanded that the African-American officeholders inside surrender. After the courthouse was set on fire, the African Americans inside came out. Accounts differ as to what happened next, says Lemann, but the siege ended with the slaughter of 71 blacks. The white ringleaders behind “the Colfax Massacre” were tried in federal court, but none were ever convicted.
Lemann next moves from Colfax to Jackson, Miss., where Northern General Adelbert Ames was stationed during Reconstruction. In 1873, with strong support from African Americans, Ames was elected governor of Mississippi. He promised to improve public education and protect federally mandated civil rights. This second promise would be his undoing. The state’s “Old Order,” led by Democratic Congressman Lucius Lamar and bolstered by white vigilante groups, fought the carpetbagger Ames every step of the way.
In July 1874, rioting broke out in Vicksburg and the county’s African-American sheriff, Peter Crosby, was literally chased out of office. Governor Ames appealed to President Grant to send federal troops to stabilize the crisis, but Grant did nothing. Vicksburg held town elections a month later and, in an atmosphere of violence meticulously described by Lemann, blacks stayed away from the polls and the Democrats took control of the local government.
Grant’s passivity, notes Lemann, served to embolden white supremacists all across the state, and the mayhem continued. Governor Ames was outraged by the violent takeover of Republican strongholds and, unable to secure any troops from Grant, planned to raise an African-American militia. Grant’s attorney general sent an emissary to Mississippi to resolve the crisis. The emissary brokered a deal between Ames and the head of the state’s Democratic Party whereby Ames promised to disband his militia if the Democrats vouched for a peaceful statewide election in November. This deal, stresses Lemann, implicitly recognized the links between Mississippi’s Democratic Party and white supremacist violence. Right from the start, says Lemann, the agreement was a sham.
Redemption describes the shocking level of brutality accompanying that watershed 1875 election. Armed vigilantes roamed the countryside warning African Americans to stay away from the polls. Even the governor’s mansion was targeted. On election day, whites waited menacingly at polling stations, chasing blacks away. Lemann cites the effectiveness of these tactics. In Yazoo County, with a population of 12,000 African Americans, there were only seven Republican votes. The Democrats had intimidated their way to victory.
Mississippi’s new Democratic Legislature immediately brought impeachment proceedings against Governor Ames, who resigned. With a presidential election coming in 1876, the Democratic Party in the South adopted the “Mississippi Plan.” By forcibly disenfranchising African-American voters in states such as South Carolina, Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana, the Democrats were successful enough nationally to achieve an electoral stalemate.
The ensuing Compromise of 1877 ended Reconstruction and sounded the death knell for the nation’s commitment to civil rights. The Republicans promised to pull federal troops from the South, and the Democrats promised to allow Rutherford Hayes to become president. With the federal government embracing a hands-off approach to civil rights, the way was made clear for Jim Crow.
Nicholas Lemann has written a thoroughly researched and provocative account of how Reconstruction failed to meet its promises and vigilante violence triumphed throughout the South. It would be nearly a century before those promises were reconsidered.
Originally published in the December 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.