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Reconstruction: The ‘War’ the Army Lost That Changed America Forever

Reconstruction Lost War
Image: Creative Commons.

In the 1870s the United States Army lost a counter-insurgency conflict.  This defeat would have enormous consequences for the future of American politics, consequences that continue to linger in American politics.

Political scientist Dan Byman frames Reconstruction firmly in terms of the counter-insurgency literature that developed over the last twenty years. This literature represented a distillation of lessons learned from decades of counter-insurgency writing, combined with empirical research on Iraq, Afghanistan, and other counter-insurgency campaigns. Byman is not the first to approach Reconstruction and Redemption as a counter-insurgency conflict, but his approach is unusual in terms of framing the conflict in the South in straightforwardly military terms, and in concluding that the US Army suffered a decisive military defeat at the hands of white supremacist insurgents. Most accounts of Reconstruction discuss northern exhaustion and lack of commitment as keys to failure, but few discuss this in the same language that we use to discuss defeat in Vietnam or Afghanistan.

Most insurgencies involve civil wars between supporters and enemies of the occupying army. In the case of the South, the allies of the occupiers were Blacks recently freed from slavery. The enemy was an alliance of rich and poor Whites, led by officers and men of the Confederate Army. White supremacists enjoyed several advantages. Slaveholders had undertaken a variety of steps to limit the potential for slave revolts, including making it difficult for Blacks to communicate and mobilize. Former Confederate control of the press and other social institutions, conversely, made mobilization easier. Many white supremacists had military experience, and many had kept their weapons from the war. This meant that white militias were better armed and better organized than their Black counterparts.

The purpose of white supremacist terrorism was to achieve Redemption by overturning the political and at least part of the economic settlement that the federal government imposed at the end of the Civil War, which involved full political rights for Black Americans and an end to legal slavery. The federal government did not deploy sufficient troops to the South to defeat supremacist militias, and did not undertake other measures such as arming the Black population or restructuring the economy of the South. The primary strategy of supremacist terrorists was violence intended to intimidate voters, thus enabling the victory of supremacist politicians. When this failed, the white supremacists engaged in more direct anti-government attacks, including a coup d’etat against the government of Wilmington, North Carolina in 1898.

There’s no question that political factors affected the war, but such is always the case. The Grant administration had a limited appetite for continuing the war against white supremacy in the South, even though Grant fully appreciated the likely consequences of the Klan’s victory. This victory would effectively destroy Black voting rights across the South, and in turn, would badly damage Republican electoral prospects.  Indeed, Grant bemoaned the end of the 3/5ths Compromise, the notorious Constitutional clause that effectively rendered Black Americans less equal than whites in the process of limiting Slave Power. With no 3/5ths clause, the South could reap the benefits of a full free population while still limiting the franchise to whites; in effect, the South could have its cake and eat it too.

White Supremacists also won the ideological war.  Works such as W.E.B. Dubois Black Reconstruction, which magnificently chronicled the rise and destruction of a democratic, multicultural South, were ignored for almost a century.  White supremacists commemorated the victory of their insurgency by erecting statues of military heroes from both the Civil War and from Redemption.  Indeed, the current debate over the removal of statues of Confederate military officers usually makes a category error; these statues are less about defeat in the Civil War than victory in Redemption. The victory of the White Supremacists was not complete, however. Although southern landholders maintained mechanisms for keeping Black farmers on their land, these systems were less complete and effective than the system of slavery. Blacks had a greater capacity to organize politically and more mobility than they had possessed under slavery.

But let there be no doubt; the United States Army lost this war.  The federal government could not (and would not) sufficiently empower Black militias to fight the war on their own. Simultaneous with Reconstruction, the US Army waged a successful guerrilla war against Native American tribes on the western frontier. This conflict drew away not only troops and resources but also some of the best commanders in the Army.  This resulted in large part from self-sorting, with successful commanders tending to prefer operating against Native Americans to fighting white supremacists on behalf of Black Americans.

The consequences of defeat were dreadful for several generations of Black Americans, many of whom were trapped in the South without the protection of or recourse to the law. The Great Migration of the mid-20th century helped break white supremacist domination of the South, as did the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Still, the defeat continues to echo in American politics, both north and south.

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Robert Farley is a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020).

Written By

Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. David Chang

    November 1, 2021 at 9:26 pm

    “Insurgency” is an atheistic term. Democratic Party should stop using it and abide by Ten Commandments.

    Because Lincoln has told, the judgements of God are always true and righteous.

  2. ADM64

    November 2, 2021 at 11:19 am

    This article misses a couple of important points. First and foremost, Reconstruction was sabotaged by President Andrew Johnson prior to Grant taking office in 1869. Johnson, the only Democrat in the Senate not to side with the South, was himself a slave owner (although he did free his slaves) from a poor background who resented the planter, slave-owning class in the South who scorned him. Upon becoming president, he relished in the deference the former Rebels showed him and he pardoned them recklessly, while also failing to enforce equal rights. The KKK formed during his presidency and gained a toehold at that time. Second, once in office, Grant did make a strong and in fact largely successful effort to suppress the Klan as an organization, but by then, time, the effects of the Johnson administration empowering former Rebels (who were once again in state governments and local institutions), and other national matters were running against him.

    I’d note that in 1865 the South was so devastated, especially by Sherman’s efforts, that they were wholly unwilling to continue the war by means of an insurgency. They were therefore ripe for dealing with. Lincoln would have handled things well. Johnson did not. Thus, I’m not convinced one can frame this entirely in terms of counter-insurgency. It was an opportunity lost, but it was also really an indictment of leadership.

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