Racism, Reconstruction, and the Southern White Hegemony that was not Defeated in the Civil War

“We Hold These Truths to be Self-Evident”: Racism, Reconstruction, and the Southern White Hegemony that was not Defeated in the Civil War



When the Confederate Army General Robert E. Lee surrendered to the Union Army on April 9, 1865, the Northern States were given an unprecedented opportunity to repair the stain that slavery and its negative racial impacts would have on American history. Over the course of the twelve years which followed, the events that occurred during Reconstruction made evident that a dichotomy existed between the ethos of American liberty and the racial ideology of white supremacy that seemed to be a fundamental component of the existence of the Southern States. An ideological conflict between white racism and American liberty, both in the North and the South between 1865 and 1877, led to the exposure of many problems in American society, which impeded the total liberation of African American slaves and caused the failure of Reconstruction. The tangible outcome for the Freedmen during Reconstruction is perhaps best summed by W.E.B Dubois who said, “the slave went free; stood a moment in the sun; and then moved back again toward slavery.”1 This occurred because the liberation of the slaves in the Southern States, both from their former plantation owners and from the economic and political system that permitted their enslavement to persist, was impeded by a racist labour ideology, a complacent Federal Judiciary, inevitable northern indifference, and relatively unabated Southern white terror.


Racism and the Republican Free Labour Ideology

Following the Confederate States’ defeat in the civil war, racism in the South took on many different forms in order to fight back against the movement of Radical Reconstruction that Republicans envisioned would be able to change the South for good; one of these forms was a free labour ideology in a society that was racist at its core. The Republican plan for Reconstruction involved an ideal economic harmony between white labourers in the south and the emancipated slaves whereby they “promoted railroad construction, public education, immigration, the redistribution of public lands, the rebuilding of levees, and river and harbor improvements”2 The Republicans believed that “every man … had been endowed by God with the ability to support and improve himself as his labo[u]r produced value from the raw materials found in nature.”3 However, one of the main problems with this plan was the redistribution of public lands to the Freedmen. While many in the North supported the pursuit of freedom for the slaves in the south, they made a clear distinction between political equality, represented by emancipation of the slaves, and social equality primarily because of Southern sensitivities to race relations.4 This was most evident in the lack of political support necessary for northern radical Republicans like Thaddeus Stevens to implement a program of land redistribution to the former slaves to help them towards economic equality.5 The lack of political support necessary to enact measures to deal with the increasingly inequitable economic status of the freedmen in industrial society is an indication of the propensity of Southern racism to maintain the benefits of white privilege.


In essence, the goal of Reconstruction for Radical Republicans was to utilize the political capital in the aftermath of the Civil war to change the composition of the South through a political and economic revolution determined to root out the culture that fostered slavery. However, the pursuit of an economic revolution during Reconstruction was stymied early on through what W.E.B. Dubois called “The American Assumption,” a concept in which a free market society “offers opportunity to all for social advancement.”6 In addition to their freedom, the slaves began to demand for land, famously known as their “forty acres and a mule” demand to “provide an economic underpinning to their newly acquired freedom.”7 However, Northern capitalists opposed this demand because they felt that it posed a threat to private property and the spirit of the American revolution8 and was contrary to their belief that a free market society provided an equal opportunity for social advancement to all. They insisted that “blacks must acquire land by working for wages and slowly accumulating capital, like everyone else in market society.”9 The concept of an equal access economy was completely unrealistic in an economy that was based around plantations and left the freed slaves vulnerable economically. James Hutson argues that “the refusal of Congress to redistribute land to ex-slaves and poor whites … depriv[ed] ex-slaves [of] an economic base for independence.”10 This abdication of responsibility for economic equality by the Republicans to redistribute land to the freed slaves was the fundamental obstacle to the success of Reconstruction because it prevented the freed slaves from obtaining a meaningful opportunity for economic prosperity and reinforced the racial hegemony that enabled a race based chattel slavery system to exist in the South.


Public Education: The Cornerstone of Reconstruction


Although Republicans planned to bring an array of changes to the Southern States through Reconstruction, prompting high hopes for economic development, the change that brought the most long-lasting benefits to the freed slaves, while simultaneously exposing the continued racial divide in the Southern States, was public education. During Reconstruction, Republicans endorsed state-sponsored public education as a means of allowing all citizens to have access to education. At the time, the educational disparity between the freed slaves and the upper class was very large and contributed to the class divide that existed between blacks and whites. For example, at the onset of the Civil War, it was estimated that a maximum of 10% of the enslaved population could read.11 The literacy rate among black slaves was primarily due to public opposition in Southern States to African American literacy. In some states, the opposition was so vigorous that the states adopted laws prohibiting black literacy.12 The fear among white Southerners was that if African American slaves where permitted to learn how to read and write they may “become dissatisfied with their subjugated status and attempt to overthrow the institution of slavery.”13 The proportion of illiterate former slaves exemplified the importance of the need for education in order to decrease the large economic disparity between former slaves and white southerners. Due to the literacy issues among freed slaves, literacy education became the primary initiative of the Freedmen’s bureau’s in its attempt to educate the former slaves. Literacy education among former slaves, being fundamental to ensuring that freed slaves were not drawn back into slavery, became a cornerstone to public education in the South and represented the primary initiative of the Freedmen bureau’s attempt to educate slaves during Reconstruction.


The Republican’s Reconstruction plan to institute public education in the former Confederate States was not absent from racial considerations even if it was relatively absent from outright white terror. While the Southern States openly opposed public education of the former slaves and their integration into the school system, the Northern states, on the basis of irrational fears grounded upon racial stereotypes of African American slaves, used the textbooks going into the new public school system to mould the former slaves into a subordinate economic class that would attenuate those fears. The textbooks that were produced for the southern school system in collaboration with the Freedman’s Bureau represented a “strategic attempt to perpetuate the racial subordination of southern blacks” and to “mould the former slaves into a subservient labour force.”14 One of the main considerations for the writers of the Freedman’s textbooks was the assimilation of the former slaves into a lifestyle based on Christian values, in particular the adherence to the biblical marriage, principles that were absent from their lives during slavery. As chattel slaves, African Americans were not given any legal rights including the right to marry, which led to fears that the freed slaves would conduct their private lives in a biblically immoral manner; therefore, the Freedman’s textbooks sought to assimilate them through “a form of cultural colonialism or … a deliberate attempt to impose the dominant society’s culture, values, and way of life upon a recently liberated people.”15 Although some textbooks sent to the public schools in the Southern States did not try to perpetuate racial stereotypes, others went a step further, encouraging the freed slaves “to continue working for their former masters, ‘Do not think, that in order to be free, you must fall out with your old master.’”16 The truth about the Freedmen’s textbooks, which were either produced in the North or designed after other textbooks produced in the North,17 was that they often carried a theme of commonality pertaining to racial inferiority that was propagated throughout the United States in various forms. While the North did fight a war to free African Americans in the South from slavery, its vision of America was not free from racial stereotypes which aided to reinforce an economic class division between blacks and whites in the south that would continue for decades.


While the advent of public education was a meaningful step to overturn decades of antiliteracy laws for slaves in the South and to provide freed slaves with an equal opportunity at education, it both originated out of an abundance of racial stereotyping in the North and was met with an array of opposition in the South that was rooted in racism and white supremacy. Even though public education was the cornerstone to the Republican plan for Reconstruction, it was met with clear opposition from white Southerners—especially in cases of integrated schools. Notwithstanding this opposition, the lives of the freed slaves and the outcome for Reconstruction more broadly was largely based on the success of public education in the South. In Freedom and Progress, Mitchell Snay writes that “race was clearly the great challenge to the Republican agenda… the idea of integrated schools provoked widespread resistance among white southerners and was behind much of the Klan violence during Reconstruction.”18 Despite this opposition to public education, the emancipated slaves, the Freedmen’s bureau, and the Reconstruction Governments prior to 1877 were able to create a public school system that incorporated the “ideal of racial equality.”19 While Reconstruction is regarded by historians as a failure, it is commonly referred to as a Splendid Failure due to some of far reaching impacts that it has had—one of the comprehensive impacts is public education.20 Despite the racial opposition to the education of the freed slaves in the South, the effects of the public school system in relation to the freed slaves was not lost on W.E.B. Dubois who wrote, “had it not been for the Negro school and college … the Negro would, to all intents and purposes, have been driven back to slavery.”21


White Terror and Southern Hegemony


In addition to the racist labour ideologies which harmed the prospect of African American economic prosperity and a public education system designed to impede black amalgamation into Southern society, both of which contributed to the failure of Reconstruction, overt white terror throughout the Southern States was the primary cause for the failure of Reconstruction. The ideology of the racial superiority of the white race espoused by many in the Southern United States continued to contribute to acts of violence after the end of the Civil War; however, instead of open warfare against those who sought to protect African Americans from slavery, the Democrats pursued subtle acts of violence that would instill fear without causing too much ripple effects in the North. On these acts of violence, Richard White writes, “The Democrats solution was … violence [that] would be calibrated: enough to repress black people but not so much as to invite Northern intervention.”22 These racial acts of violence throughout the South were by no means insignificant or isolated. In Shreveport, Louisiana, a man named Henry Adams founded and held secret meetings for “The Committee,”an intelligence sharing organization that recorded the acts of violence throughout Louisiana and other Southern States.23 While not all the acts of violence it recorded were White-on-Black, a majority of them were. The Committee recorded 683 murders of African Americans between 1873 and 1874, until its founder, Henry Adams, lost faith as a result of the violence and the eruption of the White League in 1874, concluding that black people could never live freely among white people.24 These acts of violence, which only grew with time in the South during Reconstruction, represented a concerted effort on the part of White Southerners to terrorize African Americans into a life of subjugation and fear outside of the conventional realities of slavery known at that time.


The Colfax Massacre


The largest eruption of white terror, which exemplified the white supremacist efforts to subvert Reconstruction, occurred in April of 1873 in Colfax, Louisiana when a group of 140 whites attacked the Parish courthouse, which was occupied by blacks, overwhelming and killing most of them. This event, known as the Colfax Massacre, represented the effort by White Southerners to fight back against those who they saw as their enemies, both the blacks who were trying to obtain political representation in their Parish and the whites who supported the Reconstruction efforts of the Federal Government. LeeAnne Keith describes the significance of the whites attacking Colfax stating that the event was “conceived as a lesson to those who advanced the black cause in politics…the white men of Louisiana would unite to defeat their enemies within, killing and dying for white supremacy.”25 This event occurred as an aftershock of the elections of 1872, as competing groups fought for control of the Colfax courthouse and by association political control for the Parish. Richard White notes that in a collaborative effort, organized by The Knights of the White Camellia and The Old Time Ku Klux Klan, 140 whites, equipped with artillery, marched on the town’s courthouse.26 In the aftermath of the initial assault on the courthouse, the vigour with which the white attackers pursued racial superiority and white supremacy as well as their tendencies towards violence were evident following the blacks surrender of the Courthouse. As many as 70 to 165 blacks were killed after the surrender when they were each lined up and called by name to be shot, cut at the throat or hanged.27 Keith notes that by some accounts, as many as thirteen of the black victims were hanged on one tree which later became a symbol of white pride for local whites.28 The vociferous actions of the whites in the South clearly presented a challenge to the efforts of Republicans who wanted Reconstruction to end this type of racially motivated violence in the South.


The Panic of 1873 and the Emboldening of White Southerners


As the racist ideologies of many whites in the South continued to be evident through the acts of violence and white terror perpetrated at their hands, these acts became more evident and severe as the Republicans’ grip on the South began to dwindle in 1873. This change allowed white supremacists in the South to threaten blacks with violent acts such as those carried out at the Colfax Massacre. Moreover, the economic circumstances following the panic of 1873 led to the eventual failure of the Republican economic plan of free labour ideology throughout the South.29 While failure of Reconstruction was aided by the panic of 1873, it was not directly caused by it either. Instead, the economic circumstances in 1873 proved a means by which the Democrats could begin to retake control of some of the Southern Governments, permitting the violence perpetrated by white supremacists to increase. The surge of racial violence throughout the south was directly linked to the changes in Government going on at this time. Many white supremacists viewed the Democratic leaders as sympathetic to their cause and began emerging from the shadows. For example, in Louisiana, both a paramilitary organization called the White League was formed in 1874 and a new conservative newspaper entitled The Caucasian, which would “advocate openly for the Democratic Party.”30 The inaugural edition of the newspaper spoke plainly and openly of the racial opposition to Reconstruction in the South with its promise “no security, no peace, and no prosperity for Louisiana until the superiority of the Caucasian over the African … is acknowledge and established.”31 The inaugural issue of the newspaper was just one example of the way in which white supremacist organizations, including those with political ties, were undertaking a concerted effort to dismantle the progress made by the Republicans through Reconstruction, especially as it pertained to political representation by African Americans. In 1874, Henry Adams recalled whites murdering blacks and threatening allied official who were Republican. Adams said that “Democrats would say to us that ‘you all is trying to follow these carpet-baggers, scalawags, and negro leaders … we are going to kill you just as we did them.’”32 Throughout the South, as Democrats regained political power, white supremacists came out from hiding and openly pursued their goal of blocking Reconstruction and African Americans from gaining any semblance of equality in the South.


Judicial Opposition to Reconstruction


The problems for the continuance of Reconstruction in the South beginning with the Panic of 1873, the ensuing boldness of white supremacist militants, and white terror were not the only forces that aided in dismantling much of the progress of Reconstruction; the Federal Judiciary played a key role in the failure of Reconstruction through two key judicial decisions between 1873 and 1875 which undercut the Congress’ initiatives to provide protection for the freed slaves. The judicial decisions handed down by the Supreme Court of the United States in the “Slaughterhouse Cases” and the Colfax Massacre prosecution case, “U.S. v., Cruikshank et al.” significantly undercut the Reconstruction effort through the narrowing of the 14th and 15th Amendments. Furthermore, as the Court demonstrated in its opinions, it regarded the Constitutional Amendments to have been intentionally worded vaguely by the Congress so that a judicial consideration of their statutes allowed for narrow interpretation which aligned with Southern sympathizers on the bench.


The Slaughterhouse Cases, 83 U.S. 36 (1873)


The first decision affecting Reconstruction pertained to the “Slaughterhouse Cases” in which a five-to-four majority ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, including the equal protections clause, pertained only to the infringements of the rights of American citizens with respect to the Federal Government. In its interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment, the majority opinion, written by Associate Justice Samuel Freeman Miller, distinguished between the rights of “American Citizens” and “citizens of the State. 33 American Citizens were to be the recipient of protections under the Fourteenth Amendment in lieu of infringement by the Federal Government, while Citizens of the State should not receive protections under the Fourteenth amendment, but required further state protections from the state itself and other private citizens through state legislation which did not exist.34 While the Slaughterhouse Cases did not directly pertain to race, they challenged the reach of the equal protection clause—enshrined in the Fourteenth Amendment—and enabled an erosion of the limited protections that the freed slaves in the South had been afforded through Reconstruction and left them vulnerable to State sponsored race based discrimination when the Democrats returned to power in the South.


United States v. Cruikshank et al. 92 U.S. 542 (1876)


The second case before the Supreme Court of the United States, which contributed to the erosion of the protections afforded to the freed slaves under Reconstruction was “U.S. v., Cruikshank et al.” in which the Court presided over an appeal pertaining to the convictions of William Cruikshank and other defendants who had killed black men during the Colfax massacre.35 The Court unanimously ruled that the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, in conjunction with the Enforcement Act, did not confer upon the Freedmen any additional rights such as the right to assemble or the right to bear arms, instead they simply prohibited the Congress from passing any laws that abridged those rights. Furthermore, similarly to the Slaughterhouse Cases, the Court ruled that the Constitutional Amendments passed under Reconstruction did not apply to individual citizens and in some cases, individual States.36 This ruling acted as a “green light for racial extremism while providing a constitutional rationale for the retreat of Northern opinion.”37 As a result, this jurisprudence paved the way to decades of hostility towards African Americans by the Southern State Governments and acts of terror through white supremacist paramilitary organization to supress the black vote. Regarding these decisions, White writes that “Cruikshank was part of a parade of disastrous decisions that ruled the Reconstruction amendments did not protect freedman from actions of one citizen against another or from actions by the states.38


Northern Indifference


Finally, there was one other factor, rooted in racial stereotyping, that contributed to the failure of Reconstruction and embodied the ultimate failure of Northern Republicans to produce meaningful change in the South for the freed slaves; this factor is commonly referred to as Northern Indifference. As Republicans attempted to enact legislation that would bring about meaningful change in the Southern States, Americans as well as members of Congress experienced a weakness in their resolve to see change in the South which prompted the Civil War. They were influenced towards this mindset in large part by the print media, which aided to shift public opinion. By the mid-1870s, newspapers in the North had moved on from the radical age that tried to shape a better American life in the South. In 1875, Charles Nordhoff wrote a series of articles for the Herald entitled “The Cotton States,” which contributed in part to the complacency towards Reconstruction in the South. In one of Nordhoff’s influential articles that was largely based on a stereotypical view of race in the south, he wrote, “freedmen [were] too ignorant to take a responsible role in politics and too lacking in enterprise to lift themselves out of poverty.”39 The economic problems that arose in the first half of the 1870s, led many Americans in the North to believe that Reconstruction was responsible for the difficult economic circumstances that they were enduring. This belief contributed to the indifference that many Northerners developed towards the efforts of Reconstruction. In his book, Reconstruction: Americas Unfinished Revolution, Foner notes that by the “mid-1870s … reform now suggest[ed] rule by the ‘best men’ rather than the desire to purge American life of racial inequality.”40 Despite this changing trend, Northerners were not unaware of the continual threat that white terror and racial discrimination posed throughout the South and the resolve of the white supremacist ideology. In Virginia, after a mob vandalized a school for black children, the daughter of a famous abolitionist said, “‘[we are] surrounded … by such evidences that the spirit of American slavery still lives.”41 Northern indifference in the presence of hostility from Southern Governments and white militia’s terror towards the freed slaves in the south arose out of a decision to forsake a pursuit of racial equality and economic freedom for the freedmen. In this manner, Northern Americans and their Congressional representatives abandoned Reconstruction and left it to fail in the face of racial adversity by the defeated Southern States despite the consequences for future generations. On this indifference by Northern Americans, Gunja Sengupta writes, “The electorate shied away from the idea of an activist federal government with the power to uphold black civil rights in the South.”42 Northern Republicans contributed to the failure of Reconstruction by declining to recognize how the treatment of the freed slaves—in a racist American South left to its own devices—would impact their legacy and the central conception of American fundamental liberty. As Paul Cimbala and Randall Miller eloquently describe in The Great Task Remaining Before Us, “Republicans entered the Civil War with a belief in freedom … but protecting th[at] … [freedom] required more power and patience than Republicans were prepared to expend and white Americans were prepared to accept.”43


In conclusion, while there were many factors which contributed to the failure of the Republican effort of Reconstruction in the South, its failure was fundamentally caused by racially motivated acts of white terror perpetrated by Southern white supremacist militias and aided by the hostility of local governments. The racially motivated acts of terror perpetuated in the south were complimented by several other circumstances that led to the failure of Reconstruction. Firstly, the Republican free labour ideology that did not take into account the lack of equitable opportunities for the free slaves and failed to pass legislation to provide the freedmen with land. Secondly, the public education system instituted through Reconstruction, while beneficial in the long run, enabled many of the racial stereotypes that fostered slavery to continue. Thirdly, the Federal Judiciary played a key role in undercutting the legislative efforts of the Congress to offer Federal protections under the law to the freed slaves. Lastly, an economic downturn in 1873, elections which shifted the balance of power in the South, and Northern disdain for expansive Federal power created a feeling of indifference towards the plight of African Americans in the South. Taken together, all of these factors when faced with the fortitude of the white supremacist militias’ efforts to enact white terror throughout the South led to the failure of Reconstruction.


Notes


1. Foner, Eric, “Black Reconstruction: An Introduction,” The South Atlantic Quarterly

112, no. 3 (2013): 416.

2. Snay, Mitchell, “Freedom and Progress: The Dilemma of Southern Republican Thought

During Radical Reconstruction,” American Nineteenth Century History 5 (2004): 100-114.

3. Richardson, Heather, he Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post-

Civil War North, 1965-1901 (Boston, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 6.

4. Snay, “Freedom and Progress,” 104.

5. Foner, “Black Reconstruction,” 412.

6. Foner, “Black Reconstruction.

7. Foner, “Black Reconstruction,, 413.

8. Sengupta, Gunja, review of Splendid Failure: Postwar Reconstruction in the American

South by Michael W. Fitzgerald, History Reviews of New Books 37, no. 2 (2009): 56.

9. Sengupta, Review of Splendid Failure, 413.

10. Huston, James L., “Reconstruction as It Should Have Been: An Exercise in

Counterfactual History,” Civil War History 51, no. 4 (2005): 359.

11. Brosnan, Annemarie, “Representations of Race and Racism in the Textbooks Used in

Southern Black Schools During the American Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1861-1876.”

Paedagogica Historica 52 (2016): 722.

12. Brosnan, “Representations of Race and Racism,” 722.

13. Brosnan, “Representations of Race and Racism," 721.

14. Brosnan, “Representations of Race and Racism,” 725.

15. Brosnan, “Representations of Race and Racism.”

16. Brosnan, “Representations of Race and Racism,” 726.

17. Brosnan, “Representations of Race and Racism,” 729.

18. Snay, “Freedom and Progress,” 108.

19. Foner, “Black Reconstruction,” 416.

20. Du Bois, W. E. B.. Black Reconstruction in America : Toward a History of the Part

Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880. P.

633.

21. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America.

22. White, Richard. The Republic for which it Stands: The United States during

Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896 (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017),

278.

23. White, The Republic for which it Stands, 278.

24. White, The Republic for which it Stands, 278-9.

25. Keith, LeeAnne. The Colfax Massacre: The Untold Story of Black Power, White

Terror, and the Death of Reconstruction (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008), 110.

26. White, The Republic for which it Stands, 279.

27. White, The Republic for which it Stands

28. Keith, The Colfax Massacre, 108-109.

29. White, The Republic for which it Stands, 280.

30. Keith, The Colfax Massacre, 146-7.

31. Keith, The Colfax Massacre, 147.

32. White, The Republic for which it Stands, 280.

33. White, The Republic for which it Stands, 283.

34. White, The Republic for which it Stands, 284.

35. White, The Republic for which it Stands.

36. White, The Republic for which it Stands, 285.

37. Fitzgerald, Michael W., Splendid Failure: Postwar Reconstruction in the American

South (Chicago, IL: Ivan R. Dee Publisher, 2007), 181.

38. Fitzgerald, Splendid Failure.

39. Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution (New York, NY:

Perennial Classics, 2014), 526.

40. Foner, Reconstruction, 527.

41. Foner, Reconstruction.

42. Sengupta, Review of Splendid Failure, 56.

43. Paul A. Cimbala and Randall M. Miller, The Great Task Remaining Before Us:

Reconstruction as Americas Continuing Civil War (New York, NY: Fordham University Press,

2010), 203.


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