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We Don’t Need An Alternate History of the Civil War—Slavery Never Truly Ended

We Don’t Need An Alternate History of the Civil War—Slavery Never Truly Ended

On Wednesday, HBO announced that the creators of Game of Thrones, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, will be working on a new show titled Confederate. It will take place in an alternate timeline in which the South has successfully seceded from the Union and formed their own nation, a nation in which slavery is still alive and well. Following the announcement, there was a general sigh of exasperation on Twitter, as people wondered why HBO would make such a show. The negative reaction to the show took many forms. Some people worried Confederate could glorify the Confederacy, while others were confused why two white guys were going to make a show about slavery. Some professional historians were troubled by excerpts of an interview with Benioff and Weiss about the show, in which they struggled to name the Battle of Antietam and referenced Shelby Foote, a late writer not altogether popular among professional Civil War historians.

However, the main problem with the premise of Confederate is that it assumes that the outcome of the Civil War truly brought freedom to former slaves, and therefore an alternative reality in which slavery still existed is shocking. The reality, however, is that most former slaves and their descendants were never truly free in the post-Civil War world. True, there were many changes wrought by the war: the 13th amendment officially ended slavery in the U.S., and African Americans witnessed a brief period directly after the war in which their rights expanded. However, a decade after the end of the war, white southerners had come back into power throughout the South, and they instituted a drastic rollback of those rights. This rollback resulted in the Jim Crow era, and would only be ended after decades of black activism, which resulted in sweeping federal legislation to destroy apartheid in the South and restore the rights of blacks. 

The questions facing the country after the war ended in April 1865 included howthe former Confederacy would be reunited with the United States, and what would the rights of former slaves be? Andrew Johnson, Lincoln's successor, largely handed the keys to the kingdom back to the South. Johnson decreed that states of the former Confederacy could come back into the Union after they held new state constitutional conventions and ratified the 13th amendment, recognizing that slavery was done. There was no requirement that these states had to recognize black citizenship or respect the rights of former slaves. Most southern states did this, and then immediately passing draconian laws known collectively as "black codes" which attempted to turn former slaves into a lower caste in the South. The black codes passed in many southern states forbid former slaves from from living within certain city limits, imposed strict curfews, forbid public meetings, holding firearms, or the ability to move freely about the state without a pass from an employer. "The whites seem wholly unable to comprehend that freedom for the negro means the same thing as freedom for them," wrote Sidney Andrews, a northern journalist who visited the post-war South. "They readily enough admit that the Government has made him free, but appear to believe that they still have the right to exercise over him the old control." Coupled with the black codes, in the spring and summer of 1866, race riots broke out in several southern cities. As the news of black codes filtered back north, Republicans grew increasingly incensed. The war had just ended, which cost the Union over a quarter million lives, and 3.2 billion dollars, and the North was not going to sit idly by while the South tried to return former slaves to a position of servitude and subordination. These former slaves bravely refused to yield to intimidation and in many cases, they reported their attackers and testified against them.

In 1866, Republicans in Congress, pushed by blacks and their white allies, decided to wrest control of Reconstruction from the President. They started by passing legislation to assist and protect former slaves in the South. In the spring of 1866 they passed laws granting suffrage to blacks in the District of Columbia, extended the Freedman's Bureau (which assisted former slaves in the South), and passed the Civil Rights Bill of 1866 (the predecessor of the 14th amendment). President Johnson stood in the way, vetoing those pieces of legislation that reached his desk, as well as beginning an obstinate quest to pardon thousands of former Confederates. Congress overrode his veto on all three pieces of important legislation. In the fall, midterm elections strengthened the Republican super majorities in Congress, demonstrating that most voters sided with Congress, not the White House.

Emboldened by the will of the voters, Congress moved forward with a radical agenda for Reconstruction. They first proposed another amendment to the Constitution, which would enshrine the Civil Rights Bill of 1866 into permanent law. The 14th amendment would establish birthright citizenship (making former slaves official citizens), rules for naturalization citizenship, and define the rights of citizenship, which would include due process, and equal rights under the law. The 14th amendment would be ratified in 1868. Congress also passed the Military Reconstruction Acts of 1867, which set new hurdles for states of the former Confederacy to clear before they could re-enter the Union. Those hurdles would eventually include ratifying the 13th and later the 14th amendments, as well as guaranteeing universal male suffrage. It was not long before Congressional Republicans decided they wanted to enshrine the right to vote into permanence as well. In 1868 they proposed a 15th amendment to the Constitution, which would protect the right to vote for all men, regardless of race or previous condition of servitude. It would be ratified into law in 1871.

The legislative achievements of Congressional Republicans helped to create biracial Republican governments throughout the South to remake post-war southern society. Republican governments in the South helped to begin the rebuilding process, courting railroad development in the South. They also created schools, roads, hospitals, and asylums for the people of the South. For former slaves, the immediate postwar years were experienced, as historian Leon Litwack wrote, “in intense optimism.” Reconstruction saw: “black armies of occupation, families reunited, teachers offering instruction and knowledge, federal officials placing them on abandoned and confiscated land, former masters preparing to bargain for their labor, black preachers organizing separate and legitimate churches.”

It was land that former slaves wanted the most, and it was on this blacks would suffer a bitter denial. During the war, Union armies had redistributed abandoned Confederate land to slaves. Slaves in the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia, as well as Southern Louisiana, saw early land reform efforts. Following the conclusion of the war, however, not even Congressional Republicans had the stomach for massive land redistribution. Throughout this period, former slaves consistently called for land, which would be their only economic saving grace, and thus a political lifeline as well. In January 1865, before the war had even ended, Gen William Tecumseh Sherman and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton met with slaves in Georgia to talk with them. At one point during the meeting, Stanton asked them what they needed to best maintain their freedom? "The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land, and turn in and till it by our labor-that is, by the labor of the women, and children and old men-and we can soon maintain ourselves and have something to spare." The black delegation continued on to say: "we want to be placed on land until we are able to buy it and make it our own." But land reformation was a dream, one which slowly disappeared as the years went on following Appomattox.

Despite the failure of land redistribution, Republicans and their black allies had created massive legislative achievements with the potential to remake the South forever. But racism in the South proved to be a powerful barrier to change, and violence proved a powerful tool for undermining Reconstruction. White southerners, many of them former slaveholders and Confederate veterans, were not willing to quietly witness the enfranchisement of formers slaves. Many white southerners wanted to undermine Reconstruction and subjugate former slaves. To undermine Reconstruction and the biracial governments it created, white southerners turned to political means, but they also turned to terrorism. Mass violence erupted with shocking frequency as horrific race riots broke out in Memphis and New Orleans in 1866. These were followed by bloodbaths at Colfax in 1873 and Hamburg in 1877, in which blacks, many of them veterans of the war, were killed in mass executions.

Violence was not limited to race riots, widespread intimidation and assassinations rocked the Reconstruction South. Republicans were targeted for intimidation and violence, as well as leaders in the black community, such as preachers, teachers and politicians. In 1868, there were thousands of political assassinations throughout the South.

In 1874, Democrats won a majority in the House of Representatives for the first time since the Civil War. They worked to slow down the Reconstruction project and grind the levers of government to a halt. Around the same time, voters in the North were growing disillusioned with Reconstruction, and support for the project waned. In 1877, as part of a compromise package to decide the contested election of 1876, incoming president Rutherford B. Hayes withdrew the remaining federal troops from the South. Reconstruction was, for all intents of purposes, over.

Because of the failure of land reform, most of the landowners remained former slaveholders. Landowners, however, still needed labor to plant, tend and harvest the cotton and tobacco of the southern fields. An exploitative system known as sharecropping developed, which saw southern blacks rent portions of a field and tend the crops, and a portion of the harvest would be paid as rent. Increasingly, this system grew more and more oppressive, trapping blacks in cycles of debt and exploitation. "The white folks had all the courts, all the guns, all the hounds, all the railroads, all the telegraph wires, all the newspapers, all the money, and nearly all the land," one black sharecropper remembered, "and we had only...our poverty and our empty hands."

In many, though not all, southern communities, the Jim Crow era began. White southerners inaugurated on a campaign of political and social disfranchisement of African Americans. Nefarious new restrictions on voting, such as poll taxes, literacy tests and grandfather clauses were passed, making voting all but impossible for blacks. By 1940, only two percent of blacks in Louisiana were registered to vote. A rigid apartheid system of segregation was created, forcing blacks out of certain jobs and industries, as well as certain neighborhoods. Eventually, blacks were expected, required, to be deferential to whites in public. Any violation of this strict system of segregation—interracial sex, black activism, economic mobility—could be punished by violence which took the form of lynching. Somewhere around the range of 5,000 lynchings took place during the Jim Crow era, also accompanied by race riots in Atlanta, Tulsa and many other cities.

But African Americans continued to resist. Sometimes this resistance took small forms, other times it was public and brazen, such as Ida B. Wells’ pamphlets on the horror of lynchings. Black activism spanned from Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King, Jr., and eventually would topple the system of segregation. But it would not end racism, segregation or discrimination.

We don't need an alternate history of the Civil War because most former slaves and their immediate descendants never truly experienced freedom as we know it. What we really need, is a good true telling of their story. The fight for freedom was a real, human, American story of optimism and progress, advancement and setbacks, early failure and ultimate success. It is also a story of continued activism, in the face of long odds and with little chance of success, but one that would ultimately succeed. If we tell that story well, then I reckon, I'll be happy with an alternate history of the Civil War.


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