Three Months Among the Reconstructionists

In 1865, an Illinois-based journalist wrote a scathing report on post-Civil War life in the South
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I spent the months of September, October, and November, 1865, in the States of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. I travelled over more than half the stage and railway routes therein, visited a considerable number of towns and cities in each State, attended the so-called reconstruction conventions at Raleigh, Columbia, and Milledgeville, and had much conversation with many individuals of nearly all classes.

I.

I was generally treated with civility, and occasionally with courteous cordiality. I judge, from the stories told me by various persons, that my reception was, on the whole, something better than that accorded to the majority of Northern men travelling in that section. Yet at one town in South Carolina, when I sought accommodations for two or three days at a boarding-house, I was asked by the woman in charge, "Are you a Yankee or a Southerner?" and when I answered, "Oh, a Yankee, of course," she responded, "No Yankee stops in this house!" and turned her back upon me and walked off. In another town in the same State I learned that I was the first Yankee who had been allowed to stop at the hotel since the close of the war. In one of the principal towns of Western North Carolina, the landlord of the hotel said to a customer, while he was settling his bill, that he would be glad to have him say a good word for the house to any of his friends; "but," added he, "you may tell all d---d Yankees I can git 'long jest as well, if they keep clar o' me"; and when I asked if the Yankees were poor pay, or made him extra trouble, he answered, "I don't want 'em 'round. I ha'n't got no use for 'em nohow." In another town in the same State, a landlord said to me, when I paid my two-days' bill, that "no d---n Yankee" could have a bed in his house. In Georgia, I several times heard the people of my hotel expressing the hope that the passenger-train wouldn't bring any Yankees; and I have good reason for believing that I was quite often compelled to pay an extra price for accommodations because I was known to be from the North. In one town, several of us, passengers by an evening train, were solicited to go to a certain hotel; but the clerk declined to give me a room, when he learned that I was from Massachusetts, though I secured one after a time through the favor of a travelling acquaintance, who sharply rebuked the landlord.

It cannot be said that freedom of speech has been fully secured in either of these three States. Personally, I have very little cause of complaint, for my role was rather that of a listener than of a talker; but I met many persons who kindly cautioned me, that at such and such places, and in such and such company, it would be advisable to refrain from conversation on certain topics. Among the better class of people, resident in the cities and large towns, I found a fair degree of liberality of sentiment and courtesy of speech; but in travelling off the main railway-lines, and among the average of the population, any man of Northern opinions must use much circumspection of language; while, in many counties of South Carolina and Georgia, the life of an avowed Northern radical would hardly be worth a straw but for the presence of the military. In Barnwell and Anderson districts, South Carolina, official records show the murder of over a dozen Union men in the months of August and September; and at Atlanta, a man told me, with a quiet chuckle, that in Carroll County, Georgia, there were "four d---n Yankees shot in the month of October." Any Union man, travelling in either of these two States, must expect to hear many very insulting words; and any Northern man is sure to find his principles despised, his people contemned, and himself subjected to much disagreeable contumely. There is everywhere extreme sensitiveness concerning the negro and his relations; and I neither found nor learned of any village, town, or city in which it would be safe for a man to express freely what are here, in the North, called very moderate views on that subject. Of course the war has not taught its full lesson, till even Mr. Wendell Phillips can go into Georgia and proclaim "The South Victorious."

II.

I often had occasion to notice, both in Georgia and the Carolinas, the wide and pitiful difference between the residents of the cities and large towns and the residents of the country. There is no homogeneity, but everywhere a rigid spirit of caste. The longings of South Carolina are essentially monarchical rather than republican; even the common people have become so debauched in loyalty, that very many of them would readily accept the creation of orders of nobility. In Georgia there is something less of this spirit; but the upper classes continually assert their right to rule, and the middle and lower classes have no ability to free themselves. The whole structure of society is full of separating walls; and it will sadden the heart of any Northern man, who travels in either of these three States, to see how poor, and meagre, and narrow a thing life is to all the country people. Even with the best class of townsfolk it lacks very much of the depth and breadth and fruitfulness of our Northern life, while with these others it is hardly less materialistic than that of their own mules and horses. Thus, Charleston has much intelligence, and considerable genuine culture; but go twenty miles away, and you are in the land of the barbarians. So, Raleigh is a city in which there is love of beauty, and interest in education; but the common people of the county are at least forty years behind the same class of people in Vermont. Moreover, in Macon are many very fine residences, and the city may boast of its gentility and its respect for the nourishing elegancies of life; but a dozen miles out are large neighborhoods not yet half-civilized. The contrast between the inhabitants of the cities and those of the country is hardly less striking than that between the various classes constituting the body of the common people. Going from one county into another is frequently going into a foreign country. Travel continually brings novelty, but with that always came pain. Till all these hateful walls of caste are thrown down, we can have neither intelligent love of liberty, decent respect for justice, nor enlightened devotion to the idea of national unity. "Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?"

It has been the purpose of the ruling class, apparently, to build new barriers between themselves and the common people, rather than tear away any of those already existing. I think no one can understand the actual condition of the mass of whites in Georgia and the Carolinas, except by some daily contact with them. The injustice done to three fourths of them was hardly less than that done to all the blacks. There were two kinds of slavery, and negro slavery was only more wicked and debasing than white slavery. Nine of every ten white men in South Carolina had almost as little to do with even State affairs as the negroes had. Men talk of plans of reconstruction;--that is the best plan which proposes to do most for the common people. Till civilization has been carried down into the homes and hearts of all classes, we shall have neither regard for humanity nor respect for the rights of the citizen. In many sections of all these States human life is quite as cheap as animal life. What a mental and moral condition does this indicate! Any plan of reconstruction is wrong that does not assure toleration of opinion, and the elevation of the common people to the consciousness that ours is a republican form of government. Whether they are technically in the Union or out of the Union, it is the national duty to deal with these States in such manner as will most surely exalt the lower and middle classes of their inhabitants. The nation must teach them a knowledge of their own rights, while it also teaches them respect for its rights and the rights of man as man.

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