- Reconstruction in Alabama: From Civil War to Redemption in the Cotton South by Michael W. Fitzgerald
Reconstruction in Alabama is an important book. The decade between the Confederacy's defeat in 1865 and the 1875 state constitution shaped Alabama history in fundamental ways. Yet, most Alabamians today know little of what happened then, and much of what we think we know is wrong. Michael W. Fitzgerald's new treatment of the story is an eye-opening reengagement with this period. Fitzgerald has spent much of his career studying Reconstruction, writing other books along the way such as The Union League Movement in the Deep South: Politics and Agricultural Change during Reconstruction (1989), Urban Emancipation: Popular Politics in Reconstruction Mobile (2002), and Splendid Failure: Postwar Reconstruction in the American South (2007).
Reconstruction in Alabama is divided into three parts, which are further divided into twelve chapters. Part I consists of chapters 1 through 4, focusing on Alabama politics up to the time of Congressional Reconstruction in the spring of 1867. Chapter 1 reviews the political and social tensions in Alabama before the Civil War and then describes how the war affected those relationships. Much of Alabama's antebellum politics turned on the hostility of yeoman farmers toward planters. Yeoman farmers, who were overwhelmingly Jacksonian Democrats, dominated Alabama politics in the first two generations following statehood. The Civil War, which many yeoman farmers saw as a disastrous struggle to protect planter interests, intensified [End Page 65] these tensions. At the war's end, these two old rivals competed again for leadership, as new players joined to complicate the struggle.
Chapter 2 describes the chaos at the end of the war, and it is the best account of these hard months I have read. Fitzgerald's presentation here and throughout the book is remarkably even-handed. He describes, for example, the idealism of many Union soldiers who moved into Alabama. Yet other Union soldiers looted and mistreated civilians, and some federal officials sold confiscated Alabama cotton—at high prices—for their own financial gain. These abuses helped undercut the moral authority of the conquerors, at least in the resentful eyes of many white Alabamians.
Chapter 3 concerns the first post-war government in Alabama. On June 21, 1865, more than two months after combat ceased, President Andrew Johnson appointed Lewis Parsons provisional governor of the state. Amid social upheaval and widespread violence, Parsons labored earnestly to restore order. To conciliate political opponents and to maintain continuity in government services, Parsons left many Confederate officials in office. He was far less solicitous of the interests of freedpeople, focusing primarily on getting them back under white control and back into the cotton fields. The August election of delegates to a new state constitutional convention excluded freed-people from voting.
Chapter 4 covers the administration of Robert Patton, the first elected governor after the war, who took office in December 1865. Governor Patton, a respected businessman, concentrated on economic recovery and displayed a degree of moderation on racial issues that helped distinguish Alabama from other states of the former Confederacy. Nevertheless, Patton's administration continued the earlier efforts to reestablish white control over freedpersons and to compel them to return to work.
Having thus set the background, Fitzgerald begins Part II, which consists of chapters 5 through 10. Chapter 5 opens at the war's end with formerly enslaved people first experiencing freedom. After a time of rejoicing and testing their boundaries, freedpeople in Alabama [End Page 66] had to find ways to establish new lives and support themselves. With little federal assistance and hemmed in by white control measures such as vagrancy laws, most freedpersons had no alternative but to return to the cotton fields. But they firmly resisted efforts by planters to re-establish the pre-war gang labor system enforced by the whip. Because of their resistance, a new labor system soon emerged that came to be known as sharecropping. Meanwhile, the new U.S...