Gregory P. Downs's meticulously researched book argues that the American Civil War lasted ten years. He unpacks the difficult battle the federal government faced to subdue the former Confederacy and provide freed people with some degree of their newly won human and civil rights. Historians have focused on many aspects of Reconstruction during the sesquicentennial: the failures and successes of presidential, congressional, and military Reconstruction have all been thoroughly fussed over. Although incredibly ambitious, Downs has skillfully synthesized these topics into a study that will prove to be very valuable in understanding not only Reconstruction but the subsequent nine decades that followed.
In his first inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln appealed to the seven seceded states not to leave the Union, stating, "We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies." In his second inaugural address, he spoke of having malice toward none, charity for all, and binding the nation's wounds. After four long, bloody years of warfare, resulting in hundreds of thousands of American dead, Lincoln wanted nothing more than the reconciliation of North and South and the continuation of America's republican experiment. The Confederate government, however, had been fighting for its own independence, based on unfettered chattel slavery, and it did not want reconciliation. Moreover, after Appomattox, many former Confederates did not feel [End Page 689] defeated. Therein lay the dilemma: would Appomattox bring peace and the end of war? Or just the end of war?
Despite Lincoln's wishes, long after the surrender at Appomattox, and his assassination, defeated white southerners still saw the federal government as their enemy. Downs contends that the new president, Andrew Johnson, and Congress "would not declare peace because [they] could not be certain of the national government's own safety … and because slavery had not died" (p. 2). Throughout the text, Downs sheds light on the differences between "war" and "a state of war." He distinguishes between battlefield engagements, post-surrender wartime, and peacetime. Had the cessation of battles brought peace, there would have been no need for occupation of the South. But for white southerners, surrender did not mean defeat. Thus, until civil authority was fully restored and the states had returned to Congress, the country would remain in a state of war. The author tells us that peace and the end of war did not come until 1871, after the last rebel state, Georgia, seated a senator in Congress.
But some conservative Union generals, Winfield Scott Hancock and William Tecumseh Sherman among them, believed that peace had come after Lee's surrender and asked permission to withdraw their troops. The freedom of white southerners was their primary concern. Military surrender only marked a turning point, Downs asserts. Since military personnel did not have the right to declare peace, they could not remove their armies—only the government could do that. Men in blue, especially African Americans, infuriated the nominally defeated Rebels. Downs juxtaposes the effort to get civil rights for black people with the rancor of unreconstructed southerners and the government's attempt to control them. Quickly, the task became a competition between Andrew Johnson, a factionalized Congress, and the United States military—which branch of government controlled it, and how much power it had. Complicated by a severe reduction of army personnel and increasing numbers of racist vigilante gangs throughout the South, the discordant government walked a tightrope between passing legislation for African Americans [End Page 690] and fulfilling Lincoln's dream of readmitting the defeated states, all while safeguarding the Constitution. Downs has done a masterful job of demonstrating the many reasons why Reconstruction was so difficult. His critical work here is an important contribution to political and social historiography.
ALBERT DORSEY JR. is a visiting professor of history at Florida Atlantic University. His research focuses on black landowners and their political engagement during Reconstruction, which led to the 1874 Vicksburg, Mississippi, massacre.