1865 Alabama: From Civil War to Uncivil Peace explores in unprecedented depth the devastating final year of the war, as well as the tumultuous beginnings of the Reconstruction Era in the state. In the pages of the book, author Christopher Lyle McIlwain, Sr., argues for a reconsideration of our collective understanding of both, contending our hazy shared memories of the denouement to Alabama's wartime [End Page 267] trials and its postwar reality are heavily colored by a debilitating accretion of myth, legend, and partisan scholarship. McIlwain believes the year 1865 in Alabama history is rather simply defined by a cascading litany of bad decisions on the part of irrational leaders which manifested themselves in an unnecessarily prolonged and particularly devastating period of economic struggle, political turmoil, and isolation from the mainstream of American society that handicapped the state's progress for generations afterward.
McIlwain opens his study by chronicling perhaps the paramount blunder among a series of poor choices by Alabama leaders, a decision which, in his opinion, flew in the face of common sense—the attempt to continue to wage a war he contends had long been lost by 1865. Continuing the theme from his recent book Civil War Alabama (Tuscaloosa, 2016), he portrays Confederate nationalism as something akin to either an elaborate hoax foisted on a gullible populace or a tragic disconnect with reality. The state's elite come in for the harshest of his criticisms, as he examines their self-serving efforts to prolong the war, offering either editorial or financial support—but rarely battlefield service—with a thinly veiled contempt. While he tracks in cursory fashion some of the major military campaigns which ravaged the state from the Tennessee Valley to Mobile Bay in the spring of 1865, this is no military history. McIlwain's focus is on the progressive disaffection with the Confederate military effort within Alabama and the wasted opportunities to end the struggle prior to the dismantling of its industrial complex, the complete destruction of its economy, and a wasteful loss of life.
The conviction that the state's leaders should have been willing and able to move on and make the best deal they could with their conquerors in the wake of Appomattox undergirds McIlwain's assessment of events during the latter half of 1865. He notes that despite conventional wisdom, a good deal indeed could have been obtained when viewed from their perspective. President Abraham Lincoln, he argues, offered even more generous and lenient terms than commonly understood, pointing to evidence that indicates the president [End Page 268] did not intend to insist on full political rights for black citizens as a condition of the readmission process. Thus with Lincoln's assassination, Alabama's path towards rejoining the Union with any degree of its traditional political autonomy grew considerably more difficult. But the early days of President Andrew Johnson's administration offered opportunities for a relatively smooth readmission process, as well, asserts McIlwain. When Alabama's leadership stubbornly refused to comply, it not only marked the beginning of a hegemonic shift in the state's political power structure, but spelled doom for the state's prospects of economic recovery.
It is actually in Alabama's marked recalcitrance during the first months of Johnson's tenure, McIlwain argues—not the later vindictive reprisals of radical Northern Republicans—that the state's postwar fate was sealed. Alabama leaders followed a course of arrogant retrenchment in the latter half of 1865, highlighted by the passage of an exceedingly conservative constitution which raised the eyebrows of observers in Washington. Overall, the first few months of Alabama's postwar era revealed state leaders to be committed to subverting efforts toward the full extension of civil rights to black citizens; the election of outspoken former rebels to the highest of offices; and even the entertaining of an outrageous attempt to repudiate the state's war debt. All this only encouraged heightened scrutiny by the northern press and federal officials, and made critical outside...