Three Months Among the Reconstructionists

In 1865, an Illinois-based journalist wrote a scathing report on post-Civil War life in the South

In Georgia there is something worse than sham Unionism or cold acquiescence in the issue of battle: it is the universally prevalent doctrine of the supremacy of the State. Even in South Carolina a few men stood up against the storm, and now claim credit for faith in dark days. In Georgia that man is hopelessly dead who doubted or faltered. The common sense of all classes pushes the necessity of allegiance to the State into the domain of morals as well as into that of politics; and he who did not "go with the State" in the Rebellion is held to have committed the unpardonable sin. At Macon I met a man who was one of the leading Unionists in the winter of 1860-61. He told me how he suffered then for his hostility to Secession, and yet he added,--"I should have considered myself forever disgraced, if I hadn't heartily gone with the State, when she decided to fight." And Ben Hill, than whom there are but few more influential men in the State, advises the people after this fashion,--"I would vote for no man who could take the Congressional test-oath, because it is the highest evidence of infidelity to the people of the State." I believe it is the concurrent testimony of all careful travellers in Georgia, that there is everywhere only cold toleration for the idea of national sovereignty, very little hope for the future of the State as a member of the Federal Union, and scarcely any pride in the strength and glory and renown of the United States of America.

Much is said of the hypocrisy of the South. I found but little of it anywhere. The North-Carolinian calls himself a Unionist, but he makes no special pretence of love for the Union. He desires many favors, but he asks them generally on the ground that he hated the Secessionists. He expects the nation to recognize rare virtue in that hatred, and hopes it may win for his State the restoration of her political rights; but he wears his mask of nationality so lightly that there is no difficulty in removing it. The South-Carolinian demands only something less than he did in the days before the war, but he offers no plea of Unionism as a guaranty for the future. He rests his case on the assumption that he has fully acquiesced in the results of the war, and he honestly believes that he has so acquiesced. His confidence in South Carolina is so supreme that he fails to see how much the conflict meant. He walks by such light as he has, and cannot yet believe that Destiny has decreed his State a secondary place in the Union. The Georgian began by believing that rebellion in the interest of Slavery was honorable, and the result of the war has not changed his opinion. He is anxious for readmission to fellowship with New York and Pennsylvania and Connecticut, but he supports his application by no claim of community of interest with other States. His spirit is hard and uncompromising; he demands rights, but does not ask favors; and he is confident that Georgia is fully as important to the United States as they are to Georgia.

Complaint is made that the Southern people have recently elected military men to most of their local State offices. We do ourselves a wrong in making this complaint. I found it almost everywhere true in Georgia and the Carolinas that the best citizens of to-day are the Confederate soldiers of yesterday. Of course, in many individual cases they are bitter and malignant; but in general the good of the Union, no less than the hope of the South, lies in the bearing of the men who were privates and minor officers in the armies of Lee and Johnston. It may not be pleasant to us to recognize this fact; but I am confident that we shall make sure progress toward securing domestic tranquillity and the general welfare, just in proportion as we act upon it. It should be kept in mind that comparatively few of those who won renown on the field were promoters of rebellion or secession. The original malcontents,--ah! where are they? Some of them at least are beyond interference in earthly affairs; others are in hopeless poverty and chilling neglect; others are struggling to mount once more the wave of popular favor. A few of these last have been successful,--to see that no more of them are so is a national duty. I count it an omen of good, when I find that one who bore himself gallantly as a soldier has received preferment. We cannot afford to quarrel on this ground; for, though their courage was for our wounding, their valor was the valor of Americans.

The really bad feature of the situation with respect to the relations of these States to the General Government is, that there is not only very little loyalty in their people, but a great deal of stubborn antagonism, and some deliberate defiance. Further war in the field I do not deem among the possibilities. Be the leaders never so bloodthirsty, the common people have had enough of fighting. The bastard Unionism of North Carolina, the haughty and self-complacent State pride of South Carolina, the arrogant dogmatism and insolent assumption of Georgia,--how shall we build nationality on such foundations? That is the true plan of reconstruction which makes haste very slowly. It does not comport with the character of our Government to exact pledges of any State which are not exacted of all. The one sole needful condition is, that each State establish a republican form of government, whereby all civil rights at least shall be assured in their fullest extent to every citizen. The Union is no Union, unless there is equality of privileges among the States. When Georgia and the Carolinas establish this republican form of government, they will have brought themselves into harmony with the national will, and may justly demand readmission to their former political relations in the Union. Each State has some citizens, who, wiser than the great majority, comprehend the meaning of Southern defeat with praiseworthy insight. Seeing only individuals of this small class, a traveller might honestly conclude that the States were ready for self-government. Let not the nation commit the terrible mistake of acting on this conclusion. These men are the little leaven in the gross body politic of Southern communities. It is no time for passion or bitterness, and it does not become our manhood to do anything for revenge. Let us have peace and kindly feeling; yet, that our peace may be no sham or shallow affair, it is painfully essential that we keep these States awhile within national control, in order to aid the few wise and just men therein who are fighting the great fight with stubborn prejudice and hidebound custom. Any plan of reconstruction is wrong which accepts forced submission as genuine loyalty, or even as cheerful acquiescence in the national desire and purpose. IV

Before the war, we heard continually of the love of the master for his slave, and the love of the slave for his master. There was also much talk to the effect that the negro lived in the midst of pleasant surroundings, and had no desire to change his situation. It was asserted that he delighted in a state of dependence, and throve on the universal favor of the whites. Some of this language we conjectured might be extravagant; but to the single fact that there was universal good-will between the two classes every Southern white person bore evidence. So, too, in my late visit to Georgia and the Carolinas, they generally seemed anxious to convince me that the blacks had behaved well during the war,--had kept at their old tasks, had labored cheerfully and faithfully, had shown no disposition to lawlessness, and had rarely been guilty of acts of violence, even in sections where there were many women and children, and but few white men.

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