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A REFORM MENTALITY: Federal Policy Toward Black Marylanders, 1864-1868 Richard Paul Fuke In recent years, such scholars as C. Vann Woodward, George M. Fredrickson, William McFeeley and Louis S. Gerteis have suggested that federal support for black Americans in the South during the Civil War and Reconstruction period fell far short of what was required for significant social and economic change; that officials of the United States Army and the Freedmen's Bureau were more concerned with maintaining the Southern racial and economic status quo than with effecting meaningful reforms. As Gerteis writes: "Whatever changes might have occurred as a result of the war, federal authorities took care to see that they would not be revolutionary. . . . Emancipation did not involve specific changes in either the status of the former slaves or in the conditions under which they labored."1 The findings of Gerteis and others of a like mind contribute to a fresh understanding of an historically and historiographically troubled period. From them we leam that the Northern racism so effectively described in Leon Litwack's North of Sfovery remained pervasive during the Civil War and Reconstruction years and undermined any prospect of racial realignment in the South.2 We learn too that limitations in Northern economic thinking were equally damaging. A liberal-capitalist society with a strong attachment to private property could hardly countenance a legislative redistribution of Southern wealth. The phrase "forty acres and a mule" might make effective propaganda, but it was never a real possibility.3 1 Louis S. Gerteis, From Contraband to Freedman: Federal Policy Toward Southern Blacks, 1861-1865 (Westport, Conn., 1973), p. 5. See also C. Vann Woodward, "Seeds of Failure in Radical Race Policy," in Harold M. Hyman (ed.), New Frontiers of the American Reconstruction (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1966), pp. 125-147; George M. Fredrickson, The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on AfroAmerican Character and Destiny, 1817-1914 (New York, 1971), pp. 165-197; William McFeeley, Yankee Stepfather: General O. O. Howard and the Freedmen (New Haven, 1968). 2 Leon F. Litwack, North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860 (Chicago, 1961). See also Eugene Berwanger, The Frontier Against Slavery: Western Anti-Negro Prejudice and the Skvery (Urbana, 1967); Forrest G. Wood, Black Scare: The Racist Response to Emancipation and Reconstruction (Berkeley, 1968). 3 Fredrickson, Black Image, pp. 194-197. 214 Once this is said, however, it is dangerous to accept these new arguments without careful definition. In their new concentration on Northern deficiency, Gerteis and others tend to ignore positive aspects of government policy and forget that despite their economic and racial conservatism, many federal officials were avowed reformers who thought they were changing the lives of newlyfreed blacks. Although at no point did these men suggest a radical transformation of the Southern society and economy, their behavior did not preclude the presence of a reform mentality. The existence of such a mentality is significant. That these men failed to bring about a social and economic revolution is undeniable . That their limitations contributed to this failure is also beyond question. But that they disavowed a new status for black Americans is simply not true. Gerteis states that "Federal policy toward Southern blacks . . . pursued two major obectives: the mobilization of black laborers and soldiers [against planter interests ] and the prevention of violent change."4 Perhaps so, but this indictment is too simple and one-sided. By concentrating on the negative aspects of federal policy, Gerteis tells us only a part of the story. And even if we accept his general description of federal officials, the latters' shortcomings and failures must still be judged according to every available standard including that of their qwn positive concepts of change. A thorough examination of these concepts and their relationship to practical results would require much more than a study of a single state. Nevertheless, such an approach has its merits. Circumstances in Maryland were such that the immediate pre- and post-emancipation period provides an excellent opportunity to observe federal officials at work. Both the United States Army and the Freedmen's Bureau played an active role in Maryland during the Civil War and Reconstruction years...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 214-235
Launched on MUSE
2013-01-02
Open Access
No
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