Tuesday, March 5, 2024

What America looked like as a very uncivil Civil War wound down

As the Civil War wound down in the spring of 1865, it had mostly closed the book on what is still to this day the deadliest war in terms of U.S. casualties. More than 600,000 died, which was more than the total of U.S. soldiers who died in World War I and World War II combined. The introduction of rapid-fire guns, lots of booby traps, and outdated strategies such as frontal assaults were the main reasons for such horrific and frankly unnecessary death counts.

While the North settled into a law-making and forward-facing geography, the South remained for many years as a total wasteland, with rotting and vacant houses and widows in Charleston and ruined factories in Tennessee and the lawlessness in Missouri that helped people like Frank and Jesse James go on a warpath of bank robberies. The cotton and tobacco crops would not recover for well over a decade. The sugar crop in Louisiana would take three decades to recover and many other crops like rice and hemp basically never did. 

Slavery ended, but Black people were still slaves to society. They had no money or property and had to work hard to find friends and even family. Congress established a “Freedmen’s Bureau” to offer land - “40 acres and a mule” - to former slaves, but this was a difficult process to administer. While new constitutional and legal rights had importantly been granted to former slaves, these were really only temporary relief, with all kinds of problems still existing regarding land use, such as how medical care and schools would work and also how the limited amount of land would truly be divided up. 

As noted in the excellent history textbook called America: A Narrative History, by former University of North Carolina history professor George Brown Tindall abd David E. Ski, President Abraham Lincoln was soon, “in the hour of victory,” shot by “a crazed actor who thought he was doing something for the South.” In a quirk, Lincolns’s murder catapulted Andrew Johnson, an unaffiliated politician from Tennessee, into the presidency. He declared reconstruction unnecessary because he claimed basically that the North and South were still one and that the South hadn’t seceded in any way. 

Despite the blatant racism of many in Congress representing the Southern states, Blacks were now at least holding property and could sue and be sued in the court system. But major hurdles remained, such as in Mississippi, where the penal code leaned heavily towards tough punishment for ex-slaves who got in the way of the law there. Johnson did the cause of freedom for former slaves no favors by becoming a bit of a drunk (although the degrees to which that’s true are still debatable). He took to touring the country to get people onboard with reconstruction, which proved harder than he had imagined. He was fairly renowned as an interesting speaker on the stump, but he was also quite a bit like later president Donald Trump in that most of the things he said were completely idiotic and he was ridiculed and labeled as a “drunken imbecile.” 

As Johnson became more and more ineffective through 1867, Congress began a campaign to impeach him for, in their eyes, not working well with Congress. It was close, but the impeachment effort failed and it contributed to making impeachment a very difficult thing to accomplish going forward. It did however make Johnson even less effective throughout the rest of his term which, in turn, helped reconstruction move forward again in a productive direction. This included the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, which gave former slaves the right to vote. For Black children, the opportunity to go to school under the new state school systems led to more than 600,000 attending schools in the South by 1877.

The Ku Klux Klan was established in 1866 in Pulaski, Tennessee by a group of men who started out pranking Blacks and Republicans who had invited Blacks into their political folds. But the group quickly became violent and other chapters rapidly sprung up throughout the South. When President Ulysses S. Grant was able to mass prosecute KKK members in nine counties throughout South Carolina, in 1871, it significantly halted the terrorist group’s more outrageous acts, although more subtle acts of racist terrorism obviously persisted.

Ulysses S. Grant
Grant was elected in 1868 and was wildly popular for his military record. He could have also run for any party since he had almost no political background but became a Republican mainly because he no longer liked President Johnson. The Radicals pushing to end slavery also admired him. While Grant dominated the electoral college vote, it was still surprisingly close in the popular vote, really taking the 500,000 newly ex-slave voters to push him to victory. A major reason his political record would never match his war one is because he made a series of bad cabinet appointments at the start of his run, failing to consult experts and picking wealthy men that he seemed to be in awe of and who happened to lack talent and integrity. 

Grant won a second term but it didn’t go well. Although he didn’t appear to be involved, his brother-in-law was part of a plan to falsely inflate the value of gold, which caused the market to burst and set back the economy. There were many other financial scandals happening, including one that took railroad funds away from shareholders to line the pockets of politicians, including future president James Garfield. Grant was not implicated in any of them, but his time in office was an exceptionally corrupt time for the country.

Thanks to the two-term limit being in place, Grant would not run for a third term. He probably could have won 10 terms based on his long-ago performance at Appomattox alone. But after a series of more scandals from potentially stronger candidates, Rutherford B. Hayes made it out as the next president. He was a three-time Ohio governor and strong on fiscal matters, despite being “a third-rate nonentity … obnoxious to no one.” Fittingly, he took the office by a measly one vote in the electoral college.

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