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The Use of Military Force to Protect the Gains of Reconstruction
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The Use of Military Force to Protect the Gains of Reconstruction

In 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes bowed to public opinion—as well as political need—and agreed to withdraw federal soldiers from the former Confederacy. It was an indication that Reconstruction was over and that the government had adopted a policy of nonintervention in what were argued to be state affairs. Even at the time, critics of the policy recognized that the lack of a military presence meant the dofinfall of the Republican governments in South Carolina and Louisiana. With Democratic governments in power—what was called "home rule"—no state administrations remained that were friendly to the cause of black people. For many scholars of Reconstruction, the withdrawal of troops and the lack of an activist posture by national authorities signaled a successful counterrevolution on the part of white redeemers, who employed, among other techniques, terrorism to restore themselves to power. The moment passed that seemingly contained the greatest possibility of ensuring black civil rights for nearly one hundred years.

It would be a mistake to characterize Reconstruction as an outright failure when it also contained successes. Most Northern whites would have listed achievements in three large areas: the Union was restored with new constitutional powers; slavery was ended; and federal authority was recognized as supreme by the conquered South, no matter how grudgingly. Black people also could claim more than simply freedom. As Eric Foner has argued, African Americans made impressive economic, political, and personal gains. [End Page 388] Black people in the South won the suffrage and held elective offices.1 They earned rights as citizens roughly a decade after the Supreme Court's ruling on Dred Scott had denied citizenship to persons of African descent. Even after disfranchisement they retained key institutions (such as family, church, and schools) that enabled ongoing struggles.

Yet African Americans remained vulnerable to the counterrevolution by Southerners who used racism to forge white unity while stacking the courts and most governmental institutions against the freedpeople. This is what historians mean when talking about the failure of Reconstruction—the opportunity to have fair government while avoiding segregation, disfranchisement, and the ugly violence that beset African Americans. Despite promising achievements, African Americans suffered an erosion of their rights, especially as the national government increasingly failed to enforce justice.

So the question remains: What could have been done to ensure that black people enjoyed a better chance at receiving long-term justice and the protection due them as citizens? What if the occupation by the military, and the commitment to use force, had not waned? What if, in fact, the military posture had been greater and for a longer duration? Might this commitment to military force have pushed history along a different path? If so, what resources would it have taken and for how long?

This particular "solution" to Reconstruction is not the wishful thinking of a future generation looking back on what might have been. Military force was recognized at the time as having a beneficial effect on the lives of the freedpeople by ensuring that former Confederates did not overturn the North's victory. This was by no means unanimous, but was a belief more commonly expressed by Radical Republicans and people at the ground level of social conflict in the South, especially Northern transplants and selected army officers who bore the frustration of implementing federal policy. Davis Tillson, who commanded the Freedmen's Bureau in Georgia for a time, argued for military support for the agency. Although he recognized that armed intervention by the federal government in state affairs deviated "from the theory of our Government," he believed that worse things would result from having no troops in the state. The army was needed because former Confederates "ought to be taught some regard for the law and . . . order, otherwise loyal white men to say nothing of negroes, would find it [End Page 389] extremely unpleasant living in the South."2 Albion Tourgée came to a similar conclusion as he summed up his ofin bitter experience of Reconstruction in the South through the character of Colonel Comfort Servosse in the novel A Fool's Errand. He believed...