In Redemption: Last Battle of the Civil War by Nicholas Lemann a new portrait of the period of Reconstruction in the south is painted. This one, in stark contrast to the glossier versions that are recognizable from film and textbooks, is as bloody and savage as the war that preceded it. Its central thesis is that Reconstruction failed as a movement not because of a lack of Republican strength, but because of the harsh intimidation and violent tactics by white southerners and eventually the Democratic party during elections.
This inability for freed blacks to participate in elections due to such unchecked (for the most part, with exceptions when Grant was able to mobilize enough forces) intimidation and voter/vote elimination, Reconstruction was doomed as were the chances of blacks in the new South. Southern Democrats were poised to win with little to no interference at the ballot box both locally and eventually, at the national level.
White southerners reacted almost immediately to the growing number of black voters who were aiding in the successful election of Republican leaders and in response to this threat, they began to reorganize themselves. While their efforts at organizing were not cohesive enough to constitute a cogent army of Southerners, there were enough militias gathered that the possibility of free elections for blacks were all but impossible. Lemann writes that the situation in the South in the view of many southerners “was intolerable”.
They could not accept Negro rule in Colfax with the freed-slave, plantation-hand majority having legal authority over their former masters. In fact, from the whites’ perspective, the situations hadn’t been tolerable for quite some time—probably since the antislavery sentiment had become an important force in national politics, years before the Civil War” (7). What is most striking about this statement is that although it is being applied to the feelings that led up the massacre at Colfax, it can also be broadly applied to the entire conflict discussed in the book in Mississippi and elsewhere as the Republican efforts to realize Reconstruction were at first challenged and then violently thwarted by Southerners who held the same views those who responded violently at Colfax did.
White southerners reacted with their formulation of the counteractive Democratic Party, which was eventually able to succeed through sheer direct violence and voter intimidation. In many senses then, the events at Colfax represent a parallel microcosm of what happened in the failed effort for true Reconstruction—from the optimistic beginning, to the slow upsurge in white southern reactionary force, to outright brutality, and finally ending with a unsettling “truce” in favor of the whites, who used intimidation and murder to put an end to this final stage of the Civil War.
In such a violent and chaotic climate, there was little chance for newly freed African Americans to have a chance to exert any rights they might have felt they won immediately following Emancipation and the end of the Civil War. While there were pockets where optimism thrived and some political success was wrought by men like Ames, a growing resistance that eventually morphed into a counteractive party to the Republicans toppled these efforts in little time. The use of brute force to intimidate black voters and very effectively dispel any progress they made in developing socially and politically in line with what was viewed as Constitutional rights was critical in the demise of Reconstruction. Naturally, as the efforts of the Democratic Party grew more concentrated, blacks, due to fear, became almost completely disenfranchised from the voting process and were almost wholly silenced and defeated.
The stories of how African Americans were doomed to failure following the Civil War and how the Democratic Party was guaranteed to win the battle over Reconstruction are closely allied. The story is a brutal, dreadful one that is difficult to believe given the historical ideal that once a constitutional amendment is instituted, it will always be protected by the federal government. The paltry federal response to aid the Republican movement eventually fizzled out altogether, which allowed the Democrats to take control and completely erase any possibility of hope for African Americans. This book presents a picture of the Reconstruction that is thus painful in its revelation that the Civil War and its associated Constitutional reforms were not immediate or permanent. Instead, as evidenced by this book, the validity of such reforms depends only on the will of the strongest and most politically able to intimidate.