Editor’s Note: This article is drawn from my long, scholarly article, “White Supremacy, Terrorism, and the Failure of Reconstruction in the United States,” published in International Security. Additional references (often to books that are not online) are in the longer piece, as are specific page numbers of some of the books linked to in the article below.
Reconstruction (1867–1877) was one of the most tumultuous periods in U.S. history, replete with astounding political progress for the formerly enslaved, an unprecedented federal government role during peacetime—and horrific violence. The number of people white supremacists killed during Reconstruction is unknown, but it is probably in the high thousands or even tens of thousands. After Reconstruction, Democrats used their control of state governments to cement white power by enacting a mix of poll taxes, grandfather clauses, literacy requirements and character tests, all while white vigilante groups continued their lynchings and beatings. In South Carolina, there were more than 90,000 Black voters in 1876; by the end of the century, this number had fallen to less than 3,000.
Understanding Reconstruction’s failure is necessary to understand U.S. history, and a close analysis offers many insights into U.S. efforts to fight terrorists and insurgents today. I recently wrote an article for International Security that explores the ways in which the massive stumbles during Reconstruction can inform a better U.S. policy response to contemporary extremist violence, at home and abroad.
As I argue in the article, Reconstruction failed in the United States because white Southerners who were opposed to it effectively used violence to undermine Black political power and force uncommitted white Southerners to their side. The Radical Republican-led U.S. government did not deploy enough troops or use them aggressively. Nor did it pursue alternative paths that might have made success more likely, such as arming the Black community. Reconstruction’s failure illustrates the dangers of half measures. The United States sought to reshape the American South at low cost, in terms of both troop levels and time. In addition, the failure indicates the importance of ensuring that democratization includes the rule of law, not just elections. Most important, Reconstruction demonstrates that a common policy recommendation—compromise with the losers after a civil war—is often fraught, with the price of peace being generations of injustice.
Reconstruction efforts, largely implemented at the point of a bayonet in former Confederate states, helped to achieve important initial progress. After the Civil War ended and Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, President Johnson, a former slaveholder himself, declared that the Civil War’s purpose was fulfilled because it restored national unity and, with the ratification of the 13th Amendment at the end of 1865, abolished slavery. He sought to readmit Southern states to the Union on lenient terms that preserved white supremacy.
In the 1866 elections, Radical Republicans gained a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress and sought to guarantee rights to all citizens regardless of color and otherwise help the formerly enslaved. In 1867, Congress passed the three Reconstruction Acts (the fourth would be passed in 1868, as would the 14th Amendment) over Johnson’s veto. The Reconstruction Acts also required state governments to ratify the 14th Amendment. The acts removed the elected (with whites-only voting) state governments in the South, suspending the state constitutions and putting the former Confederacy (with the exception of Tennessee) under the rule of the Army in five military districts. The Army could replace civil officials, reject local courts, overturn laws, and close newspapers, and otherwise held immense power that was unprecedented in U.S. history.
During the first few years of Reconstruction, both sides sought to use voting restrictions to ensure power, and voting rights shifted regularly. Southern Democrats sought to stop Black citizens from voting, while Republicans feared they would lose elections if all ex-Confederates could vote and used fraud to disqualify many ex-Confederates, who would mostly vote Democratic. In many former Confederate states, military authorities initially banned thousands or even tens of thousands of former Confederates from voting or holding office—a precedent for de-Nazification, de-Talibanization and de-Baathification in subsequent U.S. occupations overseas.
In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, it was by no means obvious even to Northerners what the rights of the formerly enslaved should be. Postwar efforts to extend the franchise to Black men initially failed in Connecticut, Minnesota, Ohio and other states. Because the Military Reconstruction Act of 1867 mandated that Black residents in areas under military rule in the South could vote, the election of 1868 would see many Black men participating in elections throughout the South but not in much of the North.
Despite the many restrictions, threats of violence, and general confusion, initial progress on Black political participation was impressive, even astounding. In Mississippi, almost 80 percent of eligible Black men voted in the summer elections in 1868. Before 1867, no Black American had ever held elected office at the federal level. From 1870 to 1876, there would be two Black U.S. senators, 15 representatives, and more than 600 state legislators—slightly less than 20 percent of Southern political offices in all. Hundreds more Black men held local positions, which were particularly important at a time when government power was highly decentralized. Black representation at the national level peaked in 1875, with eight members of Congress representing six different states.
Beyond politics, newly freed slaves embraced opportunities to acquire land. Black laborers often sought to leave the farms where they had once toiled or to own land themselves, and many bargained over their wages, outraging planters. The formerly enslaved wanted to be addressed with respect, acquired guns and liquor, and refused to yield to white people on sidewalks. White Southerners complained that they were not properly servile.
But the gains achieved by Black Americans in the initial phase of Reconstruction prompted a dangerous backlash from racist extremists in the South. As excellent works by Eric Foner and Allen Trelease make clear, the resulting “insults” were a common source of violence, which was common throughout Reconstruction. White supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) emerged throughout the South and, through the use and threat of force, intimidated or prevented Black people from voting and otherwise helped Democrats opposed to Black equality to gain power. As with most terrorism, the psychological effect of their violence was great. “The Ku Klux terror colored nearly every aspect of Southern life and politics, often far beyond the immediate range of terrorist activity,” argues Trelease. He further notes, KKK participation “was also a patriotic venture which, like military service in wartime, often had the esteem and support of public opinion.” White Southerners who used violence were drawing on the broader community and thus could count on the population to assist them and opposed federal authority when possible.
Throughout this period, violence plagued the South. In Louisiana alone, a congressional report found that white supremacists had killed more than 1,000 people, mostly Black Louisianans, between the April and November 1868 elections, and they killed or wounded 2,000 more in the weeks before the 1871 election. General Philip Sheridan would estimate that white supremacists killed 2,141 Black citizens (the number of white Republicans was not estimated) in Louisiana during Reconstruction. In Arkansas, white supremacists killed more than 2,000 people in connection with the 1868 election alone.
As horrible as these accounts of murder are, the number of unknown deaths is probably far greater. In a few areas, the Army investigated deaths, but in many it did not. Many of the formerly enslaved did not have a last name and lived in rural areas, making it harder to count the dead, particularly when few at the state level sought to do so. White Democrats controlled the press in most of the South, and they often refused to report attacks unless they involved massive death tolls that gained national attention.
White supremacists also often targeted leading Republicans. On the eve of the 1868 election, the KKK murdered Republican Rep. James Hinds of Arkansas, the first-ever murder of a U.S. congressman. When the 1875 election results split the Florida legislature evenly between Republican and Democratic members, terrorists broke the tie by assassinating E.G. Johnson, a Black state senator, to give Democrats a majority.
Although violence occurred for many reasons, it often spiked before elections. Before the 1875 state elections, Democrats in Mississippi vowed to win “the election peaceably if we can, forcibly if we must.” In Alabama, attacks spiked before the 1868 national election and plummeted right after it. They soared again across much of the South before the August 1869 congressional elections and again dropped off after. Violence was particularly common in parts of states where the racial balance was roughly equal, meaning that small shifts in voting rates could tip the election. On election days, the KKK and other white supremacist groups would try to deny Black voters access to the polls or force them to vote Democratic.
The white supremacist violence and intimidation took its toll on voting and, over time, on the balance of power and the control of the apparatus of government. In 1868, Louisiana held both state-level elections and presidential elections in April and November, respectively. As a result of white supremacist violence, one parish that gave almost 5,000 votes for the Republican governor in the spring gave zero votes to Republican presidential candidate Ulysses S. Grant in November; Republican votes in other parishes similarly fell dramatically due to terror.
Local authorities felt powerless. In much of the South, the limited number of federal troops were deployed only in cities, and commanders did not aggressively target the budding white supremacist violence. Republican state governments often passed tough laws in response to the violence, but these laws were seldom enforced. Sheriffs, county prosecutors, local witnesses and jury members were either sympathetic to the white supremacists or afraid of retaliation
For most of Reconstruction, the United States did not deploy enough troops to ensure the peace, and civilian capacity was weak to nonexistent, giving violent white supremacists far more freedom of action. The U.S. Army was responsible for 9 million people living over 750,000 square miles, with many of the most vulnerable of the people under Army control living in remote rural areas with poor infrastructure. Assessments of modern stabilization operations tend to use a conservative 1:50 troop-to-population ratio to optimize for success; using that metric for the number of troops required for Reconstruction-era stabilization would indicate around 180,000 troops were needed in total. But at peak times, the number of troops deployed to the South was between 10,000 and 15,000 in total, and the number was often far lower. Financial pressure was intense, and Congress cut the size of the Army quickly in the war’s aftermath. In 1877, the entire army, including chaplains and West Point cadets, comprised slightly more than 25,000 men.
Troop deployments were invariably subject to the political winds of the moment, and even when used, the overall numbers remained too small to ensure widespread security. In Mississippi, in the face of white violence, Governor Adelbert Ames asked Grant to send out troops, but Grant did not do so because using force to stop racial violence in the South was increasingly unpopular in the North, and he feared that it would hurt Republican electoral chances in the key state of Ohio. Weariness with the seemingly endless violence, as well as lurking racism, was souring Northern voters on Reconstruction. The inaction led to open violence against Republican rallies and the murder of Black leaders in Mississippi, emboldening white militants in other states. Troop deployment provoked such intense political backlash that the first successful impeachment of a governor in U.S. history occurred in 1871 after North Carolina’s governor deployed federal troops against the Klan, outraging other state officials.
The cost of the military occupation, its unclear endpoint, and the peacetime use of the military raised concerns among congressional leaders and the public as a whole. The priorities of Northern Republicans also shifted during the Panic of 1873, when a stock market crash and subsequent bank failures devastated the U.S. economy and plunged America into a depression, further reducing popular support for the Republican Party and the spending associated with Reconstruction. In the 1876 elections, violence led to disputes about who truly won Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina, the last states with Republican governments. Under the Compromise of 1877, Rutherford Hayes, the Republican presidential candidate, was awarded victory in these contests but agreed to withdraw federal troops from the South. Democrats, in turn, promised to respect the civil rights of Black Americans, which they did not. Such empty promises, however, gave Republicans a politically easy out, enabling them to abandon an increasingly unpopular troop presence while claiming they were maintaining support for Black rights.
The ultimate effect of the failure to stop white violence was not lost on Republican leaders, even as it was happening. The governor of Mississippi noted by force of arms “a race are disenfranchised—they are to be returned to a condition of serfdom—an era of second slavery,” and Grant himself admitted that “the results of the war of the rebellion will have been in large part lost.”
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Nowhere are William Faulkner’s words more poignant than in U.S. racial history. The staggering violence that occurred during Reconstruction, the gross suppression of human rights, and the unbending of the arc of the United States’ moral universe get short shrift in U.S. history classes, as does the remarkable, but brief, progress in political representation by the formerly enslaved. Until we teach history properly, we will not understand it.
And the violence of Reconstruction has had echoes throughout more recent U.S. history. White racists’ victories during Reconstruction gave them a repertoire of violence to draw on in subsequent years when their superior social position faced new threats. Night riding, election fraud, assassination, and similar tactics would continue in the Jim Crow era. The racism embedded in the economy, politics, and society of the post-Reconstruction South changed the United States profoundly, with effects including lower levels of Black wealth and education and the massive Black migration to Northern cities in the decades that followed. Accelerating the failure of government to exploit the resulting chaos remains a favored white supremacist tactic.
Radical Republicans focused on expanding voting access, but true democracy also demands a democratic rule of law. Because the rule of law was lacking, white supremacists were eventually able to use elections and other democratic tools as a force for injustice because they could intimidate their opponents into not voting. When the United States seeks to promote democracy abroad in conjunction with military operations, as it has done in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries, policymakers must remember that elections are only one step. When violence is not suppressed, the elections often mean little or go to the thugs with the most guns, not to the true leaders in a locality.
The study of Reconstruction highlights a problem with compromise itself. If only violence is considered, one could argue that the Compromise of 1877—which saw the Republican Hayes ascend to the White House and federal troops withdraw from the South—reduced the death toll from its heights during Reconstruction. The post-Reconstruction era, though still extremely bloody, was probably less murderous on an annual basis than the Reconstruction era: High thousands or even tens of thousands probably died during the 10 years of Reconstruction, as noted above, while the Equal Justice Initiative documented the terror lynching of 4,084 Black Americans from 1877 to 1950. Compromise in the name of stability, however, also meant surrender on the issue of Black voting rights and equality, cementing injustice into the postbellum foundation of the country.
Understandably, and often appropriately, compromises are often proposed as a way to end conflict. In Afghanistan, the United States sought to negotiate with the Taliban, even knowing that they would impose their draconian social agenda on areas they controlled, and in other cases there are calls to work with tribes or other traditional forces, eschewing efforts at democratization. At times, such pragmatism is necessary, but we must not fool ourselves about the cost to the peoples in the countries involved.
Policymakers must weigh the price of compromise carefully. Concessions can bake injustice into the social system, damning generations to come even when they bring a superficial peace.