The act of defining historical time periods and eras is an arbitrary process. Historians search for major turning points and then use those points (and the benefit of hindsight) to separate the past into digestible time chunks. Thus we have, for example, a commonly accepted time period for the “Reconstruction Era” of United States history that begins in 1863 and ends in 1877.
The point in which one era ends and another begins, however, is subject to debate and revision. The end of Reconstruction is a case in point. Historians have generally agreed that Reconstruction ended in 1877 because of a political compromise that year that gave Republican Rutherford B. Hayes the presidency in return for the removal of all federal troops from the former Confederate states. As federal troops left the South, state governments run by white southern Democrats continued their efforts to terrorize black southerners through political violence and disenfranchisement without the military to stop them. And as white southern Democrats “redeemed” their governments from African Americans and white Republicans, black southerners who had the means to do so left the South for the hope of new opportunities in the North and West.
This narrative can be challenged. The Civil Rights Act of 1875–a remarkable piece of legislation that outlawed racial discrimination and segregation in public accommodations, transit, education, and jury service–remained in effect until 1883, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional due to the belief that the federal government could not regulate private acts of discrimination. Is 1883 a more appropriate end point for Reconstruction? What about the failed Lodge Bill of 1890, which would have authorized the federal government to send election officials to any district in which citizens alleged corruption and disenfranchisement in federal elections? Does the writing of this bill mark a continuation of the Reconstruction ideal and its eventual rejection a symbol of Reconstruction’s failure in 1890? Or perhaps we can go even farther and adopt the idea that Reconstruction has never really ended, with subsequent constitutional amendments enfranchising women, abolishing poll taxes, and making 18 the legal voting age all representing further clarifications of citizenship rights since the end of the Civil War. The point is not to make a declaration for any one interpretation, but rather to show that our traditional understanding of Reconstruction’s end in 1877 is subjective.
We are now experiencing new debates about the true “end” of the Civil War with the 150th anniversary of the Appomattox surrender this past month and various other commemorations marking the end of hostilities in 1865. University of Virginia history professor Elizabeth Varon’s recent book on Appomattox suggests that Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant marked the beginning of the end of the Civil War, but argues that the meaning of the surrender was hotly debated throughout the country. Rather than acting as a moment of national healing untainted by ideologies and politics, Appomattox meant different things to different people. As the title of Varon’s Disunion essay suggests, “Lee surrendered, but his lieutenants kept fighting.”
NYU history professor Gregory Downs goes even farther by arguing in the New York Times that “not only did fighting continue in pockets for weeks, but in other ways the United States extended the war for more than five years after Appomattox. Using its war powers to create freedom and civil rights in the South, the federal government fought against a white Southern insurgency that relied on murder and intimidation to undo gains of the war.” In other words, “the war” continued well after Appomattox and into Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency in the 1870s. Although he doesn’t come out and explicitly say it, one gets the impression that Downs believes the legacy of Appomattox is overstated. He even argues that the “Appomattox myth . . . drains meaning from the Civil War and turns it into a family feud, a fight that ended with regional reconciliation.”
There is a lot to agree with in this line of thinking. The meaning and legacy of Appomattox certainly was and continues to be contested. I also think the Ken Burns interpretation of Appomattox–a picturesque sunset in the background as Unionists and Confederates shake hands and agree to play nice with each other and be Americans again–is a myth. Furthermore, I think Downs makes a good point when he criticizes Americans who “wish that wars, like sports, had carefully organized rules that would steer them to a satisfying end.”
All that said, what are the implications of Downs’ argument to our understanding of the end of the Civil War? When exactly does the Civil War end if it doesn’t end in May 1865? I don’t really know.
There are two factors I think we need to keep in mind when going down this path. One is that the majority of people at the time understood that the nature of hostilities had changed after May 1865. Some politicians took war-like activities (such as the lynching of Black Union war veterans by former Confederates) seriously after Appomattox, but the question as to whether or not the South was still in rebellion was hotly debated for years. Was Congress’s passage of Enforcement bills in 1867 and 1871 reflective of an ongoing war with recalcitrant rebels, or were they reflective of something else? When Radical Republicans in Congress “waved the bloody shirt” and warned against electing Democrats who had fought for or were sympathetic to the Confederacy into positions of power, they often did so not because they believed the rebellion was continuing, but because they believed “the fruits of Union victory” could vanish and a state of rebellion restarted if these prewar political elites returned to power. Take, for example, these words from Radical Michigan Senator Jacob M. Howard in 1866:
It is true the war has ceased to drench the earth with blood; the rebels have laid down their arms; they are conquered, but with a supercilious sneer at their conquerors, kindly and condescendingly assure them that they “accept the situation,” that southern independence is a failure, and that they are willing and ready again to be represented in Congress; but we all know that at heart they hate and detest the Government they have betrayed four years ago, and which now holds them in the iron grip of conquest. (Quoted in Blair, 254-255).
That leads us to the second factor: How do we define what a war is and is not? Maybe Downs clarifies this question in his new book, After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War, but he doesn’t tell us in that NYT essay. I think that essay is very good, but it seems like we need to have a clearer definition of war before determining when the Civil War truly ended.