Reconstructing Reconstruction

What historian Bernard A. Weisberger called "the Dark and Bloody Ground of Reconstruction Historiography" began in the early 20th century with the writings of the first professional historians trained at Columbia University. They interpreted the dozen years after the Confederates' surrender at Appomattox as a proverbial "chamber of horrors" for white Southerners.

In "Reconstruction in North Carolina" (1914), Joseph Grégoire de Roulhac Hamilton, a Hillsborough native and celebrated professor at the University of North Carolina, bemoaned Reconstruction as a time when "selfish politicians, backed by the federal government, for party purposes attempted to Africanize the State and deprive the people through misrule and oppression of most that life held dear." Hamilton accused U.S. Army commanders of interfering in civil and criminal cases, "and when their minds were made up to any course, it was practically useless to advance any arguments in opposition."

Mark L. Bradley's meticulously documented history of civil-military relations in Reconstruction-era North Carolina thoroughly revises Hamilton's work. Bradley, a historian at the U.S. Army Center of Military History, rejects Hamilton's simplistic, conspiratorial view of federal troops propping up corrupt Republican governments composed of carpetbaggers, scalawags, and freedmen. "Army officers maintained a policy of moderation," Bradley writes, even during the most contentious days of Radical Reconstruction. "In performing their duties with discretion and impartiality, several post commanders became popular with local whites, and the latter showed their gratitude by petitioning district commanders to retain federal troops in their communities."

Bradley credits Gen. William T. Sherman with beginning the process of conciliation in April 1865 at Bennett Place when he offered North Carolinians liberal peace terms -- conditions that Washington officials ultimately rejected as too generous.

Subsequent federal commanders in North Carolina -- including Gens. John M. Schofield, Thomas H. Ruger, Daniel E. Sickles and Edward R.S. Canby -- confronted seemingly insurmountable problems, especially controlling the lawlessness and racially motivated terrorism that wracked North Carolina from 1865 to 1871.

In addition to protecting freed people and white Unionists, Army commanders held responsibility for implementing federal policy, peacekeeping and conciliating former Confederates. They coordinated relief and recovery operations with the Freedmen's Bureau, assisting destitute blacks and whites. Federal troops also supervised the signing and adjudication of labor contracts between former slaves and ex-masters. Bradley notes that given the anger, intransigence and racism of white North Carolinians, "it is remarkable -- if not altogether surprising -- that army officers refused to abandon moderation for a more coercive policy."

Reconstruction-era North Carolina was not a favored posting for soldiers. After two years occupation duty in North Carolina, Col. Nelson A. Miles, a champion of the former slaves, welcomed his reassignment to the Western frontier. "It was a pleasure to be relieved of the anxieties and responsibilities of civil affairs," he recalled decades later, "to hear nothing of the controversies incident to race prejudice, and to be once more engaged in strictly military matters."

Bradley ranks Schofield highly as commander of an occupation force, crediting him with leaving "North Carolina in far better condition than he had found it." With little direction from Washington, Schofield fashioned policies, paroling ex-Confederate soldiers, feeding and sheltering refugees and forming police companies.

Sickles, an ex-congressman and member of the Tammany Hall group of Democrats, gained national attention in 1859 when he killed his wife's lover and was acquitted by reason of temporary insanity. Fearless in combat, he had a leg amputated at Gettysburg. As a military administrator in North Carolina, Sickles violated federal law by denying trials in the civil courts to white terrorists and overrode state statutes by prohibiting whipping as a punishment for crimes. Though Sickles alienated many North Carolinians, Bradley says he established stability and justice and smoothed the way for its readmission to the Union in July 1868. Under Stickles the army expanded civil rights and began debtor relief, penal reform and alcohol and gun control.

The U.S. military's presence in North Carolina never was as large or visible as its critics maintained, and the March 1869 army manpower reduction act from Congress lowered it to a skeleton force and relegated law enforcement to civilian authorities. Federal troops thereafter were employed only when Washington deemed their services imperative and after state authorities had exhausted all other measures.

Bradley notes the strained jurisdictional relationship among the army and state and local agencies. "Army officers found that cooperating with civil authorities often meant having to violate their own orders and regulations," he says. The army, however, proved extremely effective when assisting federal officials in rounding up moonshiners and fighting terrorist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.

Though many Reconstruction-era North Carolina conservatives considered Stickles and Canby to be uncompromising radicals who forced "bayonet rule" on their state, Bradley interprets the men of the U.S. Army as conciliators, not conquerors. By the mid-1870s soldiers practiced "reconciliation with a vengeance," socializing with white Tar Heels, joining them in public rituals that celebrated sectional reconciliation, and most importantly, sharing their racism. "With alarming frequency," Bradley concludes, "bluecoats robbed, beat, raped, and murdered African Americans." Most soldiers assigned occupation duty in the South "identified more readily with local whites than with the freedpeople," he writes.

The historical record thus undermines the demonization of federal occupation troops by Hamilton and others. As Bradley argues in his excellent book, Bourbon Democratic party rhetoric and Lost Cause ideology shaped this persistent myth. The true victims of this tragic era were African-Americans. Government inaction delayed their full citizenship for generations.