Condition of the South at the Close of the War (part two)
We continue with General James Harrison Wilson‘s accounting to the U.S. government, at the close of the Civil War, of the difficulties in bringing the south to reconciliation, both with its nation, and its newly expanded free population. (Blacks were given citizenship under the 14th amendment, ratified 1868.) Again, the work gives the best illumination I have seen of 1860s attitudes on race, among whites who wanted to do right, in accord with what they believed was the proper character of the United States, and what they believed was the will of God. The times we’re living through show us how far we’ve progressed.
CONDITION OF THE SOUTH AT THE CLOSE OF THE WAR OF THE REBELLION
A REPORT MADE TO THE WAR DEPARTMENT, Macon, Georgia, November 23, 1865
Between the almost universal prejudice in the South against free schools and the incredulity of even enlightened men in regard to the capabilities of the negro for mental improvement, the country need not expect the voluntary adoption of a liberal system of education. When it is remembered that the jealousy excited in the minds of ignorant white people, by anything which looks to the elevation of the negro, has already resulted in breaking up more than one negro school, it will be perceived that nothing less than military protection can secure the continuance of the philanthropical labors organized by the Freedman’s Bureau and Northern educational societies.
Many radical Northern men contend that the negro should also have the privilege of voting, and urge that nothing else can protect him from tyranny; but it should not be forgotten that there is a great deal of difference between the rights of a freeman and the privileges of a citizen. Property and intelligence are the natural qualifications for the ballot, but in our civil polity the property qualification is almost entirely excluded, and States are held competent to give the privilege to whom they please. While I doubt the right of Congress to interfere in this matter at all, I have no hesitation in saying that the bestowal of suffrage upon the negro at this time would result in an unmitigated evil to Southern society and the country at large. The assertion of General Schurz that it would result in a war of races is no exaggeration and would be a sufficient reason for withholding it even if the negroes as a class could be depended upon to vote intelligently and independently.
It is unnecessary here to enlarge upon this matter, or the absence of all law specially applicable to the freedmen as independent members of society. The indisposition of civil officers to enforce that which in equity and justice is plainly applicable under the orders of military authority, would seem to indicate clearly enough the duty of the general Government to continue its protection to these unfortunate people, till the States have manifested an honest intention to give them all the rights enjoyed by their most favored non-voting population.
We shall obtain a clearer view of Southern society by remembering that the white race, not liable to blood contamination, and the black, “subjected to an incessant contamination of an extraneous kind,” although physically distinct, have been, for all practical purposes, a unit. Without venturing an opinion as to how far this contamination, the fruits of which may be seen in many households, may be instrumental in the ultimate extinction of the negro race in America, its moral influence upon Southern society cannot be neglected.
At the beginning of the Rebellion there were in the South four orders of men. First, there were the educated and highly intellectual men—politicians, lawyers, divines, and men of wealth. This class furnished the leaders, filled all high offices, propagated Southern ideas, and controlled public sentiment. Second, the intermediate order, includes the less intelligent of the professions, planters, businessmen, overseers, and country politicians. This class was mainly instrumental in adopting the ideas, in following the fashions, and aspiring to the dignity, of the first class. Third, were the poor white people, who, from defective organization of society, mental inaptitude, and a variety of other natural causes, were kept in subordination and benighted ignorance. The only pure, unadulterated American “mudsills” are found in the South, and belong to this order. And fourth, there was the negro, who should fairly be classed intellectually with the poor whites.
Socially these classes are entirely distinct. There is no gradual blending of the one with the other as in the Northern states, nor is there the usual proportion of intelligence to ignorance. The third and fourth orders are hopelessly ignorant, and constitute three-fourths of the entire population. At the beginning of the war the first class were completely dominant, and carried with them the entire white population of the South. With the relentless intolerance of feudal aristocrats they crushed out every spark of independent thought remaining true to the idea of national unity, and drove the poor whites into the ranks of the rebel army. So complete was their sway that they held the negroes in subjugation with scarcely an effort, and used the abundant products of their labor to support their armies in the field. No society for political or military purposes was ever more homogeneous. No despot’s authority was ever more complete or controlled by more determination and energy. The writer has heard many prominent Southern men assert that the controlling idea of their order had been throughout the war “the establishment of a government in which slavery should be so protected by law and interwoven with their domestic concerns that the one could not be destroyed except at the cost of the other”. Their purposes were so far successful in Georgia, that, in the words of Howell Cobb, there was scarcely a paragraph in their entire statute book which did not either directly or indirectly involve the protection of slavery as its primary object.
For a season their plans worked well everywhere, and gave them cheering promises of success, but disaster at last befell their arms, and with disaster the weak-hearted lost faith. The North rose as one man, and with the most determined spirit of loyalty and nationality furnished the Government with a magnificent army, provided it with arms, clothing, and provisions, and pushed it irresistibly forward. Donelson, Shiloh, Antietam, the Proclamation of Freedom, Vicksburg, Gettysburg, Chattanooga, Mission Ridge, Atlanta, the battles of the Wilderness, the Valley, Nashville, the March to the Sea, and finally the fall of Richmond and the complete collapse of the Confederacy, followed each other with slow but unerring certainty. The capture of Fort Donelson destroyed their boast of invincibility; that of Vicksburg, the first vital stroke, severed their Confederacy into two parts. That part west of the Mississippi died like the tail of a snake at sundown. While that part east of the great river struggled on with the poor consolation that its losses were “blessings in disguise”. The victories of the Wilderness, Atlanta, and the Valley of Virginia strengthened the national faith, saved the national credit, and overwhelmed the Northern allies of rebellion and treason. Sherman’s desolating march through Georgia and the Carolinas again divided the Confederacy, separated the rebel armies, rendered their ablest generals hopeless of success, filled the negro with anxious expectations, and convinced the common soldiers that this was “the rich man’s war and the poor man’s fight”.
The final collapse of their cause which followed the splendid victories about Richmond found their unity of sentiment destroyed, their substance wasted, their leaders proscribed, and their society, by the destruction of slavery, its only bond, divided into its heterogeneous elements. The highest intellect of the land was paralyzed by the magnitude of the disaster. The second order, not yet enfranchised from the tyranny of old ideas, was unable to realize the necessity of their situation and unwilling to accept for their guidance the principles which had been forever settled by the war. The poor white people, hopeful of a better day relieved from a tyranny which they had learned to despise, cared only to busy themselves in the reestablishment of their homes and in collecting such of their personal possessions as had escaped the devastation of warfare. The negroes, hitherto the obedient children of toil, suddenly relieved of their yoke by “Good News from a Far-off Land,” resolved to work no longer, but taste fully that liberty whose highest attribute in their dwarfed and benighted minds is a life of idleness and immunity from the lash.
This hasty recital, while it does not describe the absolute condition of the blacks, will give some idea of the white society with which the President was compelled to try the experiment of reconstruction. A moment’s consideration will show that no spontaneous political action was possible, except the course to be followed had been clearly and authoritatively defined. The people as a unit looked to the national government for their inspiration, and were willing to submit to whatever terms the President might think proper to dictate. A few hoped to save slavery in one form or another, or believed they would be remunerated for it if abolished. All were feverish and anxious about confiscation, but I do not remember meeting a single person who did not believe himself compelled to accept whatever terms might be extended to him, or leave the country. The first step in the President’s policy was the appointment of provisional governors with instructions to call conventions, whose duty it should be to annul the work of secession and reestablish the sway of civil law, in accordance with the hereditary policy of the country.
James Harrison Wilson
(2021, Stephanie Foster)