The pace of this timeline certainly has slowed down over the first few months after the American Civil War ended 150 years ago. Things will pick up again later this year, as state and federal political machinery kicks in and after the harvest is over.
Crops now ripening in the summer fields were vitally important both for food and as economic resources for the country’s recovery. It’s difficult for modern Americans to understand how much more farming oriented the US was in the mid-nineteenth century. Everybody would have been much worse off in 1865-1866 if the war hadn’t ended early enough in 1865 for most soldiers to return home and plant something for fall.
For example, Nathan Bedford Forrest returned to his plantation in northern Mississippi (not far from his old civilian stomping grounds of Memphis, Tennessee) a little over 150 years ago this month. He then hired some of his former slaves to help him plant his fields in corn that would bring in needed cash to pay off notes that had gone unpaid during the war as well as lay an economic foundation for the transition to civilian life. (12)
Forrest, a former slave trader, also had to find a new occupation. In addition, he was one of those excluded by President Johnson’s amnesty proclamation. Back in August 1865 he and other former Confederate officers were busy building up political contacts in Washington and locally, where each seceded state had to hold a new constitutional convention and ratify the 13th amendment before it could return to the Union.
Under President Johnson’s plan, black people could not vote for delegates to these conventions, which were held between the summer and the end of the year. Not surprisingly, reconstructed state governments arising from these conventions were white and soon legislated the infamous “black codes.”
Meanwhile, in Washington, DC, President Johnson did not call Congress back into special session to deal with Reconstruction – a sore point with many Congressmen who could do no more than watch the executive branch of government take control of the process of rebuilding the US.
And many influential people in and out of Congress who were hoping to see the dawn of a new order after the Civil War were very unhappy that the terms of Johnson’s amnesty allowed him to restore the antebellum Southern political power base almost completely intact. Support from that base that would certainly benefit him in the next general election.
And everywhere, North and South, in spite of racism and other disadvantages, many black Americans for the first time were experiencing the joys, hopes, and fears that come with freedom.
Carpet-baggers and scalawags
Since 1862, northern abolitionists and missionaries had traveled to the South to help African Americans. The ranks of these newcomers (unwelcome outsiders to most local whites) swelled as Union control expanded. Railroad workers, mostly Irish-Americans, also came in to rebuild the vital iron highways – a job which until now had been done by black Americans. And now, 150 years ago this month, northern businessmen and former Union soldiers were also moving South or settling in after being mustered out, taking advantage of economic opportunities in the devastated region.
Most incomers packed for a long stay. Since the fashionable suitcases of the day were made out of carpet-like material, by 1868 Southerners resentful of the outsiders’ interfering ways would be calling all of them “carpetbaggers.” The pejorative for native white supporters of the North and the newcomers was “scalawag” – before the war, this term, derived from the name of one of the Shetland Islands, had referred to an undersized or worthless animal.
What it means to lose a war
So future Reconstruction troubles, as well as crops in the field, were taking root this summer 150 years ago, though it would only show up in hindsight. For most people, it was sufficient to spend August watching the green fields while recovering from four years of horror and wondering what the future would bring.
However, for the captain of the Confederate raider Shenandoah, who suddenly learned that the war was over, there was nothing but shock and anguish this month. Below, I have copied part of his log entry for that day because I remember people saying, back in the Sixties during the Vietnam War protests, that America has never known what it’s like to lose a war.
Those people were poorly informed.
Half of the country, more if you include (as you should) non-white Americans, has had prolonged, deep, and bitter experience of being on the losing end when stakes are high. It is the secret of our country’s true strength. And on August 2, 1865, a white Confederate naval captain expressed very well just how awful that feels.
We all should remember his words because nothing, not even today’s so-called Pax Americana, lasts forever. One of the best incentives to keep growing and winning is not to take dominance for granted, but instead to be aware always of the ever-present possibility and agony of defeat.
Too, in Captain Waddell’s words there is also something powerfully positive. He wanted to but did not kill himself. And that was the right decision, even at such an extreme moment.
Well, let’s check out the daily timeline. It’s still quite short, compared to the one during the war.
Lat: 16°20’N. Course SE 1/4 S. 68 m. Bar. 29.78 to .86
Long: 121°11’W. Wind. NW, N by E. Calm & SE. Ther. 78° to 87°
The darkest day of my life. The past is gone for naught – the future as dark as the blackest night. Oh! God protect and comfort us I pray. In a few words I will say why we are plunged into the deepest distress that ever men were thrown. At 12.30 made a sail bearing NW. Got up steam and gave chase. Overhauled the chase which hoisted English colors, an iron Bark. Boarded her: she proved to be the Bark Baracouta from San Francisco 13 days ago, bound to Liverpool. She brought us our death knell, a knell worse than death. Our dear country has been overrun; our President captured; our armies & navy surrendered; our people subjugated. Oh! God aid us to stand up under this, thy visitation. There is no doubting the truth of this news. We now have no country, no flag, no home. We have lost all but our honor & our self respect, and I hope our trust in God Almighty. Were men ever so situated. The Captain gave me an order to dismount & strike our battery, turn in all arms except the private arms, and disarm the vessel, as no more depredations, of course, upon the United States shipping will be done. We went sorrowfully to work making preparations but night coming on, we will await tomorrow to finish our work. Hoisted propeller and made all plain sail. I feel, that were it not for my dear ones at home, I would rather die than live. Nearly all of our work in the Arctic must have been done after this terrible visitation, but God knows we were ignorant. When I think of my darlings at home, and all our dear ones, my heart bleeds in anguish…I am almost mad, and will lay down my pen.
Log entry (Chapter 8, and scroll down)
Captain James Iredell Waddell
Washington, D. C.: Until today, if you had a good reason, your chances of having an interview with the US President were good. Now President Johnson has bluntly changed that policy, isolating himself from the public much more than his predecessor Abraham Lincoln did. This tactless move will not endear him to anyone.
Military: General Grant orders General Sheridan to keep up pressure along the Rio Grande against former Confederates who have fled to Mexico. (4) (Of note, ex-General Sterling Price will found a Confederate colony in the state of Veracruz, but will eventually return home to Missouri.)
Mississippi: The state Constitutional Convention voids the January 1861 secession ordnance. (3) Mississippi will also, as required, ratify the 13th amendment, although due to a small paperwork snafu, the ratification will not be official until 1995.
Washington, D. C.: President Johnson removes the last trade restrictions against the South, effective September 1st.
Front page image: Morguefile/kburggraf1
(2) Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson (2003 – see side bar for link).
(4) Grant Chronology, Mississippi State University.
(5) Up From Slavery. Booker T. Washington
(7) The Papers of Jefferson Davis, timeline. Rice University.
(8) Reconstruction Timeline. Mount Holyoke College.
(9) The American Presidency Project – Presidential Documents.
(10) Andrew Johnson Timeline. National Park Service.
(11) Georgia History Timeline/Chronology 1865.
(12) Nathan Bedford Forrest. Jack Hurst. Knopf. New York. 1993.
(13) Andrew Johnson’s Civil War and Reconstruction. Paul H. Bergeron. University of Tennessee. Knoxville. 2011
(14) Andrew Johnson: A Life in Pursuit of the Right Course 1808-1875 Fay Warrington Brabson. Seeman. Durham, NC. 1972
(15) Toward A New South? Studies in Post-Civil War Southern Communities. Edited by Orville Vernon Burton and Robert C. McMath, Jr. Greenwood Press. Westport. 1982.
(16) Entrepreneurship and Self-Help among Black Americans: A Reconsideration of Race and Economics. John Sibley Butler. SUNY Press. 2005