Monday, June 12, 2006

The day the North lost the Civil War: March 5, 1877

What, you thought the North won the American Civil War? Well, sure, they won the military phase of the campaign, when General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General U.S. Grant on April 9, 1865, and the commander of the other remaining Confederate armies, General Joe Johnson, surrendered to General William Tecumseh Sherman on April 26, 1865. But on March 5, 1877, the Government of the United States of America agreed to allow the former Confederacy to be reconstituted, with the former Confederates in charge and with slavery re-instituted. All the former Confederates had to do was pretend they no longer had slavery and pretend to be part of the United States of America, and, oh, pretend that they voted for Rutherford B. Hayes for President and give him their electoral votes. The result was almost 100 years of poverty, ignorance, and atrocity in the former Confederacy, until the combined forces of mechanization, the Great Migration, and external pressures (i.e. the Civil Rights movement and the need to fight WWII and the Cold War) forced the South to re-join the United States in reality as well as name.

This little-known incident in American History is called the Hayes-Tilden Compromise. The proximate cause was the disputed elections in Florida and Louisiana. In both states, the White Leagues used a campaign of violence and intimidation to keep blacks away from the official polling places, and ran their own parallel set of polling places that only whites were allowed to use. Then the forces of the former Confederacy proclaimed that they, the southern Democrats, had won the state government elections in those states as well as that Democrat Tilden had won their electoral votes, while the real election officials proclaimed that the Republican-backed candidates had won and that Republican Hayes had won their electoral votes.

The controversy raged for months, until finally the Compromise was agreed upon: The U.S. government would remove its troops from Louisiana and Florida (thus allowing the former Confederates to take charge, since the legitimate government could only be maintained with federal troops), if, in exchange, those former Confederates gave their electoral votes to Hayes. All sides accepted, and the Northern conquest of the South was over -- the South had won.

How did this happen? How was it that, in a little over ten years, the North had gone from complete military and political dominion over the South, to having to declare victory and go home? The proximate cause is simple: the legitimate governments of the South could not maintain themselves in power without federal soldiers. The former Confederates, after the struggles for survival in the period 1865-1867, re-organized as a shadow government. They had military training and weapons. The forces of the legitimate black-elected governments did not -- blacks in the South had not been allowed to own or shoot firearms. Furthermore, they had education and organization. The legitimate governments, dominated as they were by blacks who had little education (since it had been prohibited in the ante-bellum South) and little understanding of military principles (since they'd never been in the military and lacked education to understand said principles), simply were outclassed by the guerilla warriors of the shadow government.

The result is that in town after town, the legitimately-organized governments of those towns and counties (the governments elected by the black majority) were forced from power at gunpoint by the forces of the Confederacy. The White Leagues never attacked federal troops -- they didn't want General Sherman turned loose again to burn their homes to the ground again -- they focused upon the popularly-elected governments instead, picking them off one by one. Finally, by 1874, only the largest cities containing only a small percentage of the mostly-rural Southern population were still held by the popularly-elected governments. But that was not to be for long.

The taxpayers and voters in the North were rather heartily sick of the situation by this time. So was President U.S. Grant and General of the Army William Tecumseh Sherman, neither of whom had been particularly interested in civil rights for blacks in the first place -- indeed, Sherman had regarded the freed black slaves who'd followed his marauding army as it marched through Georgia and South Carolina as "useless parasites" and had made a deal with General Johnson that would have basically put the former Confederates right back in charge in 1865 (said deal overruled by President Johnson, under pressure from radical Republicans outraged over the assassination of Abraham Lincoln).

So here we are, with neither the President nor the general of the army enthusiastic about using the army to keep the popularly-elected governments in power, and with the countryside back into the power of the former Confederacy, re-instituting slavery via "forced share-cropping" under various local Vagrancy Acts and holding the reins of power in all but the few large cities of the South. The next logical course of action was to take the cities. The Battle of Liberty Place in New Orleans on September 14, 1874, was one of the pivotal attempts to do so. In that battle, General James Longstreet proved that he was as incompetent a general for the U.S. Government as he'd been for the Confederacy -- his mostly-black Louisiana militia was routed by the hardened war veterans of the White League. President Grant and General Sherman, alarmed that a federal building had been fired upon, swiftly rushed federal troops and gunboats to the city. But it was clear that the patience of the North was at an end -- both the taxpayers and the national government were looking for an honorable way to declare victory and go home.

So the election controversy of 1876 happened, and on March 5, 1877, the North declared victory and went home. The former Confederates re-took power in the South, and re-imposed slavery in all but name, condemning generations of Southerners to poverty and ignorance in order to uphold the power of a small white elite of plantation owners and (relatively) prosperous businessmen. It was not until after World War II, with most of their black workers having fled to Los Angeles and New York and Chicago and Detroit and with mass mechanization, that the plantation system collapsed. And it was not until the mid 1970's that the South really finished re-integrating its economy with that of the rest of the nation. And now, the culture of the South, with its petty vindictiveness and false piety, rules the nation. So who won the Civil War, again? No one, it seems... and that's a pity.

BTW, this is why I was skeptical from the first about the possibility of a viable American-backed government in Iraq. The United states showed no patience even on its own soil with propping up governments using U.S. troops over a long period of time. What made the neo-cons think that the American public had any more stomach today for such a task than they had in 1876? Hubris? Curious penguins want to know!

- Badtux the History Penguin


  1. We all realize that it was just a simple typographical error when you typed "Civil War". Obviously, you meant to type "War Between the States", but your flippers (err, wings? arms?) just happened to
    hit the wrong keys.

    As for democracies, what's that quote about "bread and circuses"?

    As for Iraq, sometimes a benevolent dictator is better than a democracy. But, the US seems totally opposed to any such idea. Then, again, what's that saying about total power?


  2. What made the neo-cons think that the American public had any more stomach today for such a task than they had in 1876? Hubris?

    Probably the US success in Japan gave the cover they needed to convince the nation that it was possible, and they knew it wasn't probable, but did it because they wanted the "long war". That, they pretty much got - that's until we declare bankrupcy, and toddle home with our tail between our legs to do the hard work of hauling ourselves back up out of debt.


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