Browsing "Reconstruction"

The Postwar Radical Inquisition

To destroy President Andrew Johnson’s postwar program, the Joint Committee on Reconstruction was established by Congress in early December 1865, chaired by the sinister and vindictive Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania who made no secret of his aim to firmly plant Republican political control in the South, which he considered conquered territory. General Robert E. Lee was interrogated for two hours by the Committee on 17 February 1866.

Bernhard Thuersam, Circa1865

 

The Postwar Radical Inquisition:

“[Radical Republican] Senator Jacob M. Howard [of Michigan] resumed his questions . . . “While you were in command at Richmond, did you know of the cruelties practiced toward the union prisoners at Libby Prison and Belle Isle?”

[Lee answered] “I never knew that any cruelty was practiced, and I have no reason to believe that it was practiced. I can believe, and have reasons to believe, that privations may have been experienced among the prisoners. I know that provisions and shelter could not be provided for them.”

[Howard] “Were you not aware that men were dying from cold and starvation?”

Aware? Was I aware? The questions must have bitten like strong acid. In those vivid and unspoken images that crowded through Lee’s mind that moment and on other days, what did he see, what did he feel? The historian cannot rightly draw upon reverie; but to think that the real marrow of the hearing got into the stenographer’s notes is to be more naïve than one might want to be.

When the opportunity arose, Lee said quietly, “I had no control over the prisoners, once they had been sent to Richmond. I never gave an order about it . . . No report was ever made to me about them. There was no call for any to be made to me. Prisoners suffered from the want of ability on the part of the Confederate States to supply their wants. As far as I could, I did everything in my power to relieve them, and urged the formation of a cartel.

Pushed further, Lee told of specific proposals made to Grant, and of the work of his Christian Committee. “Orders were that the whole field should be treated alike . . . We took in Federal wounded as well as ours on every field.”

Weeks later the Joint Report of the Committee would lash out at the South . . . “The Rebels heaped every imaginable insult and injury upon our nation . . . They fought for four years with the most determined and malignant spirit . . . and are today unrepentant and unpardoned.” [The editor of the Lexington, Virginia Gazette wrote that the] “devilish iniquity and malignant wickedness” of the Committee’s report he found “so monstrous that no Southern man can read it without invoking the righteous indignation of heaven.” How long was the South to suffer from such wretched injustice and perfidy?

Signs of rebellion began to crop up again. Confederate flags were peddled openly in a dozen cities and were called “sacred souvenirs” by Alabama Governor Parsons. “Stonewall Jackson” soup” and “Confederate hash” appeared on hotel menus. In Richmond, a magazine called The Land We Love began to glorify the “Lost Cause.”

Open conflicts between racial groups spread. Three days of rioting in Memphis, beginning on April 30, left forty-six Negroes dead and scores of homes, churches and schools burned. Summer riots in New Orleans saw sensational and unsavory actions go unchecked. Murder degenerated into massacre. “The hands of the rebel are again red with loyal blood,” proclaimed the New York Tribune.”

(Lee After the War, The Greatest Period in the Life of a Great American, Marshall W. Fishwick, Dodd, Mead & Company, 1963, excerpts, pp. 122-126)

New Masters from New England

The Northern abolitionists and the African slave met for the first time at Beaufort, South Carolina, and the former came face to face with what Jefferson Davis earlier pondered regarding what to do with the emancipated slave. The planters warned their hands “that the Yankees would treat them as slaves and sell them to Cuba,” a prediction that nearly became true.

Bernhard Thuersam, Circa1865

 

New Masters from New England

“The revolution began with considerable destruction of property. The Negroes on many plantations . . . broke the cotton gins [and] in other cases they began looting their master’s houses and furniture, and activity which the federal soldiers took up enthusiastically . . .

The [Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase’s] correspondence during the months following the fall of Port Royal showed him that the government would gain the support of an ever-increasing segment of the public through sterner war measures: “Wagons, cattle, Horses, Provisions, Negroes not excepted, in short everything useful to our army ought to be appropriated . . . advised one correspondent, who sharply criticized the government for looking “more to a peace through compromise, than to a . . . . victory of arms.”

Certainly [President Lincoln’s] cautious treatment of the issue in his message to Congress offered little encouragement. He threw the problem of defining the new status of the Negroes at Port Royal and others in their situation into the lap of Congress, and then asked that provisions be made to colonize the liberated Negroes “in a climate congenial to them.” Small wonder it was that Chase turned his first attention to contraband cotton rather than to contraband Negroes.

The rapid change in their status was not working to the advantage of many Sea Island Negroes . . . as the [Northern] army had made free use of plantation food stores, leaving many in the slave communities with little to eat. Commodore DuPont reported than numbers of the nearly ten thousand Negroes on the islands were by late winter “almost starving and some naked or nearly so . . .

Having no place to turn, they flocked to the neighborhood of the army camps [where] they were as often treated badly as offered employment and help. The New York Tribune’s correspondent reported that one enterprising and unscrupulous [Northern] officer was caught in the act of assembling a cargo of Negroes for transportation and sale in Cuba, thus giving one example of to bolster the late slave-masters’ prediction.

Something had to be done. If the land should lie fallow and the Negroes idle for long past the middle of February, there would be no cotton in 1862, and the Negroes would have to be supported by the government or charity, thus giving the opponents of emancipation a very good argument.

[Some saw in the Northern oversight of continued cotton production] arrangements the outlines of a typical graft opportunity, to achieve its classic form in the “company store” of a later day . . . and it was “of the utmost importance” that [the Negroes] should be kept busy “at the work which they have been accustomed to do . . . “

[One Northern agent] reported that the Sea Island Negroes knew all the steps involved in the cotton culture and that the great majority of them were ready to work, “with proper inducements.” They needed the help and protection of white men, however, in [his] opinion, and a good system of management. The Negroes were no longer slaves . . . Although they were “as yet in large numbers unprepared for the full privileges of citizens . . . “

(Rehearsal for Reconstruction, The Port Royal Experiment, Willie Lee Rose, Vintage Books, 1964, excerpts, pp. 16; 18-25; 29)

 

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