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AS Interviews Historian Michael Fitzgerald

In the latest in a series of interviews, Bruce Baker of the After Slavery Project interviewed historian Michael W. Fitzgerald of St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota about the evolution of his scholarship on Reconstruction, and about his forthcoming study of post-emancipation Alabama. Fitzgerald is a prolific author, with two highly-acclaimed monographs, a number of important articles and a recent survey in print, and a third major monograph on the way. He took part in the AS-sponsored Wiles Symposium and contributed an essay to the edited volume After Slavery: Race, Labor and Citizenship in the Reconstruction South (Florida, 2013).


BB: Let’s talk a little about your background and your earlier work and then move on to discuss the book you are finishing up on Reconstruction in Alabama. First of all, where are you from originally?

MF: I was raised in Canoga Park, California, which is a suburb in the west end of the San Fernando Valley. My Dad is from Chicago, and my mom is from Florida. I was a kid in the 1960s and early 1970s. I did my BA and PhD at UCLA.

BB: Who did you work with there?

MF: Alex Saxton was my chair, and was a model of political engagement combined with tolerance. Armstead Robinson was there for a couple of years while I was coming in and was very helpful in terms of focusing my research on Reconstruction, as was Margaret Washington. But my dad was a history teacher, so we did the whole Gettysburg tour, and we had history books around the house. And with a mother from the South and a dad from the North, the race relations stuff of the sixties was being very much talked about in our home, even in Los Angeles. So I’m part of that generation for whom watching the racial chaos of the sixties and the seventies play out had a strong impact.

BB: That’s interesting. One of the things that I saw as I was reading up and thinking about this is that while you were working on your PhD you were working on the Marcus Garvey Papers. To what extent you see that experience feeding into your later scholarship and interests?

MF: Well, very much so. I actually teach African American history here, but it had never occurred to me that I was an African Americanist rather than a Civil War era historian. Certainly the notion that black nationalism is a force in American life has been muted by the political agenda of Reconstruction scholarship, which tends towards celebration of the integrationist impulse of the Radical Republican movement. That issue has been more interesting for me than for a lot of Reconstruction scholars because I do see the community sentiment as one of the things that is driving black politics in the Reconstruction era. While I was writing my dissertation, I spent a couple of years as a graduate student doing that, and those sets of issues were on my mind as I was writing the manuscript.

BB: How close was your first book, about the Union League in the Deep South, to what your dissertation was?


MF: It is my dissertation, almost unedited. Essentially what I’m looking at is the first black political mobilization and seeing it largely as a labor phenomenon, as driven by African American disaffection with gang labor, overseers, women and kids in the workforce, the kind of centralized plantation system derived from slavery. It’s incredibly unpopular among the freedmen. And the political mobilization of Reconstruction becomes a force tearing the old structure of the plantation apart and pushing in the direction of sharecropping. The argument is essentially that the labor mobilization, the explosive mobilization in 1867, 1868 into the Union Leagues is one of the reasons why decentralized farming takes hold. White planters start to decide they have to rent land to freedmen because the freedmen are just not working in a way that they can make a profit on. And the reason this is interesting is that in graduate school my major political activity was organizing tenant union locals for Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights, the West L.A. tenant movement. My buddies were all activists in that movement. And it was funny because UCLA in the late seventies, early eighties was this pronounced social history, left place, and I was kind of on the moderate end of that because I actually believed in electoral politics. The tenant union activities resonated with what I was finding in Alabama in terms of how outside organizers could start things rolling. In terms of the emotional energy of the book, that’s kind of what inspired me, that I was playing off the ideas with what I was finding doing tenant politics in the late seventies, early eighties.

BB: In some ways that sounds similar to the scholarship from that period and a little bit before on the Populists. Things like Lawrence Goodwyn’s work and Robert McMath’s on how does a movement work, how does organization happen.

MF: And I was reading those books. As an undergraduate I actually read the long version of Goodwyn’s book when it first came out. I was very into it.

BB: How did you choose Alabama and Mississippi for your dissertation?

MF: There’s a charming story. I’m in my first year as a graduate student, and I read about this movement in Armstead Robinson’s seminar. And I said, “Union Leagues, that’s really interesting.” So I go over to the old card catalogue in the university research library and look up “Union League,” and there’s almost nothing there. And I say, “Gee, how frustrating.” And then I thought about it and said, “Hey, wait a minute, this is interpretively significant. There’s nothing here.” And it turns out almost nothing’s been written. Well, the last full-scale history of Alabama in Reconstruction is Fleming in 1905. There really hasn’t been a full revisionist state study, though certainly elements have been done. And so once I got into it, I realized that there was some writing room. That’s one thing. And the other thing is I was thinking a two-state study because you don’t want to have it be utterly unique to the politics of one state rather than the other. Alabama has the best evidence, and I spent more time on Alabama than I did on Mississippi.

BB: Is that part of why you got interested in Alabama and stuck with Alabama for the Urban Emancipation book?

urban-emancipationMF: Yeah. You know, I’m not at a big research university. I’m at a liberal arts college, which means that time to pick up a whole new field and do it comes tougher to me. So if you want to do good scholarship, the inclination is to stick with things you know and expand on them. And that’s what I’ve done. In fact, Armstead Robinson told me in the old days, “Alabama, nobody’s done it. Go do it.” And he was right. So the Reconstruction in Alabama book I am writing now is the culmination of my career, and it draws on all the work I’ve done.

BB: Before talking about Urban Emancipation, I wanted to take a digression into a couple of the articles that you did. You did an article in Agricultural History about the motivations for the Ku Klux Klan. Also the article in the recent After Slavery collection builds on that and expands that. Both of those emphasize the connection between Ku Klux Klan activity and the material circumstances brought about by emancipation. In some ways, the argument that the Ku Klux Klan was responding to petty property theft by African Americans is something that Walter Fleming would have agreed with. The question that leads me to is, what kinds of things can we take from the very old generation of scholarship, like Fleming and so forth, to use as a basis for current studies? (Obviously not the assumptions about racial hierarchy) But more than some other scholars of our generation, I think your work often goes back and says, “Well, wait a minute, there is a good idea here. Let’s see what we can do with it.”

MF: You’re probably referring to the Fleming essay also that I have in that new book about the Dunning School. The problem with redeeming Fleming is that he’s a Klan enthusiast. He really thinks that in order to get what whites need, racial violence was essential. And he rather applauds it. Once he wrote his Reconstruction book, he actually collaborates with Klan-style groups to promulgate the memory of the wonderful KKK. The founders of the KKK wrote a memoir, and Fleming wrote the introduction to that memoir accusing them of backsliding, that they aren’t enthusiastic enough about the wondrous violence they used. So it’s hard to get happy around Walter Lynwood Fleming. But he’s there. He’s intelligent, and the other thing is that he has letters that former Klansmen wrote him that he sticks in the footnotes. He provides us all these wonderful primary sources for Ryland Randolph and other really unpleasant people. So the fact is that there’s all kind of evidence from racists that this white supremacist guy has access to that we don’t. The other thing is that his animating view is that class— the tension between Black Belt planters and whites up in the hills—really is a big thing in white Democratic politics. He’s not wrong about that. There are elements of what he does that you can take, but you need to say what he is all about, very clearly. The part of those two Klan essays that people could object to is that I do think that what’s going on is that as the shift goes on from gang labor, overseers, and the rest, to decentralized tenant farming, like sharecropping, that you go from a situation where the planters are feeding the hands and feeding their families, as part of the wage, to a situation where the hands are providing their own provisions over the crop year by borrowing money from the planter or the local merchants. So they are in a situation where they are providing for themselves. And when you have a bad crop, there is a tendency for them to steal somebody’s hog – and remember, this is the era of open ranging, where people don’t fence in their hogs, but they actually send them off into the woods. And now freedmen have dogs and guns. So if you take the planters’ correspondence seriously, they wail about it all the time: “The freedmen are stealing our hogs.”

It’s not a major motive for the Klan. The major motive for the Klan is electoral violence and putting black people generally in their place. But if we’re talking about a third-tier motive, and one that is easily defended in the public sphere, they talk about theft all the time. If there is an issue of a freedman appropriating their livestock, the planters they can live with it, if cotton pays, but what about the neighbors who were not planters? If freedmen are stealing anything, it’s going to be from both groups, but only one group gets the benefit from the labor of freedmen. I’m not sure if I used the term in the article, but I think it’s like an ethnic cleansing from the point of view of non-planter whites who really want to drive the freedmen out of their neighborhood for a number of reasons. I think that’s what is going on.


BB: Kind of like later whitecapping violence where poor white tenants are driving all the African Americans out of the neighborhood so they can get better wages and better terms.

MF: The other thing is a lot of poor whites are moving from the piedmont and the hills down to the Tennessee Valley or other areas, so they don’t like freedmen as rivals as tenants either. And that’s another mechanism that’s driving this along. What I would also say is that there is a difference between the two articles. When I did the first research, which was in the Agricultural History piece in the late nineties, the research method was to take my list of four hundred or so indicted Klansmen and try to find them in the reels of microfilm and whatever indexes existed. It was a laborious process. It was driven by just, “Oh, that name sounds familiar, let me double check on my list.” So there’s sort of a haphazard quality to it, and I just did 1870. I did the agricultural census, and I did the population census. I found, lo and behold, of everybody I could find that was indicted as a Klansman, they are almost all destitute. So the median wealth for accused Klansmen in 1870 that I found in that first case was zero. They just have no money. And they’re all in their early twenties, and they’re all, so far as I can tell, poor. So I figured, okay, first article, poor whites attacking labor rivals, attacking people for these kinds of class reasons. By the time I wrote the second article, the piece for our anthology, we have Ancestry.com and other things where you can find them more readily. So I took the research back to 1860, too. They’re still poor in 1870. I found more names, and they’re still quite poor, but if you go back to the families in 1860 before the Civil War, they weren’t so poor. A lot of them are from slave-holding families. About half of the ones I could find are from slave-holding families, some of them prosperous slaveholders. In 1870, they’re poor. In 1860, they’re not, which kind of gives you a sense of their potential motivation. They come from families who have been impoverished by the war.   The two articles are in tension simply because the research available to me changed. But I think that the newer version is interesting, too.

BB: One of the things you were talking about just then about poor whites moving down from the hills into the Tennessee Valley and the Black Belt, in some ways that parallels the movement of African Americans from the countryside into the city of Mobile. So that might be a good transition for you to talk about your Mobile book. How was it different studying a city from the very rural environments of your first book?

MF: My first book has a chapter on what’s going on in the cities, and a good deal of that chapter deals with Mobile. The thing that struck me was this chaotic factional situation in Mobile where two different factions of the Republican party, largely black and native white, are at each other’s throats to the point that you had actual fistfights, real fights between two Republican factions. And I was wondering, “What in God’s name is going on in Mobile?” So as I began to ponder the next project, I got intrigued with trying to figure out what the Mobile explanation was. What I found was that there were two factions, both of them interracially led. There’s kind of a moderate, native white southerner-dominated faction of which all the leaders are light-skinned – according to the ones I could find in the census – they’re all lightskinned, literate, and a good number of them are Afro-Creoles. So you have this group that is sort of into legal means. You have another group, led by carpetbaggers, and kind of stereotypical carpetbaggers, where the leadership is all dark-skinned, and most of them are former slaves and not as literate as the other group. This Radical group is much more inclined toward mass action: streetcar occupations to integrate streetcars, strikes on the docks. And these two groups are struggling for leadership all through the era to the point that they actually defeat an incumbent Radical Republican congressman, an African American congressman, because they ran a moderate light-skinned Creole against him and divided the Republican vote. This dispute ties into broader social trends. What I did was I analyzed this urban black factionalism, and tied it to the process of emancipation. Huge numbers of freedmen are moving into the suburbs of Mobile, and these immiserated recent migrants from the countryside become the basis for all this direct action on the docks and in streetcar occupations and in other forms of popular direct action tactics. I wish the book had gotten more attention because I think it’s a model for what’s going on in southern cities. You can analyze Republican factionalism in terms of what’s going on in the black community in the urban areas where factionalism is most intense, because there are patronage positions for activists to fight over.

BB: Steve West’s recent article about black politics in Greenville, South Carolina, a year or two ago is a little bit like that. He’s actually talking there about the late 1880s, and elections there over whether the city is going to be wet or dry.

MF: There was a book on blacks in Charlotte, I think, back fifteen or twenty years ago, that found very strong differences over the prohibition issue between the respectable middle-class folks, which I think is part of the West article, if I remember correctly, and political activists who are Republican party people who are more in touch with this broader constituency that is not thrilled with this. I think that actually kind of works here. There’s also an interesting thing in that book about this subculture of black activists who are dependent on federal jobs and how their lives work as political activists and how they support themselves as political activists. My sense is that no one has done it. The problem is that a one-city study doesn’t get as much attention as it deserves in terms of the wider interpretation, which is something you’re going to discover when your magnum opus on Greenville comes out.

BB: Right, whenever that is! Although you’re working on the big book on Alabama, and we’ll come back to that in a moment, you did write a much broader scope book a few years ago called Splendid Failure: Postwar Reconstruction in America. Could you talk a bit about the experience of why you chose to write that, how it – obviously the elephant in the room is Eric Foner’s Reconstruction – how the view of Reconstruction that you present in your book varies from the view that has become standard from Foner’s synthesis?

Splendid Failure

MF: I’m quite an admirer of Foner’s. I think that his book is still the gold standard, and everyone has to situate themselves relative to the excellence of that work. In particular, his emphasis in the late 1860s on the interconnection between what’s going on on the plantation and popular politics is very consistent with my Union League stuff. So I’m a thorough admirer. But I’ve spent, now, twenty-five years teaching in the classroom, and I’ve tried to assign Foner’s short history, and it’s so good and so sophisticated that I had trouble getting my excellent, smart undergraduates to engage with it. I had an undergraduate who went on to library school, from Atlanta no less, who told me she skipped reading the book for my Civil War class! I was trying to figure out what portions of the Reconstruction struggle could be communicated effectively to an undergraduate audience. Another reason for writing the book is that some scholarship has come out since Foner. Factionalism in the black community is something I’m very interested in. And the railroad issue is interesting to me. I was trying to integrate African American agency into the decisions on railroad programs that turn out so badly. They aren’t really responsible, but I do think we should pay attention to at least how they’re thinking about these issues. I’ve always been an admirer of Mark Summers’s book on railroads. So class within the black community, faction within the black community, and the economic development issues that don’t get a tremendous amount of emphasis in Foner’s book I think are important. The other thing was the press approached me and asked if I wanted to do this. It occurred to me vaguely that if I wanted to write a Reconstruction history of Alabama, I needed a better grounding in national politics. It forced me to do the background reading in other states and Washington, D.C. I’m conceptualizing what I’m doing in Alabama as what state studies might look like going forward. I felt like I wanted to contextualize it in the national context because, to tell you the truth, to go back to Fleming, Fleming thinks his Alabama study is the South writ small. I would follow that aspect of his work. Alabama is, to some extent, the model Deep South state, and it is so central to the national consciousness of how the civil rights movement played out that I think that it’s a nice place. Because there haven’t been a lot of state revisionist studies, or post-Foner full scale histories of states. What that means is that Fleming’s book remains the standard place to look for the narrative for Alabama, and that’s ridiculous in the twenty-first century.

BB: If we think about the revisionist period, there are a lot of other state studies. So if we think about the Dunning School, and he sends his various students off to do their state studies, then we did get, in the revisionist period, other state studies of particular states. So, Simkins and Woody start things off with South Carolina. It’s not as revisionist as some of that later ones. And then you get other studies like Jerrell Shoffner for Florida, and so forth. And in all these various states, but why do you think, in the context of Reconstruction historiography, Alabama historiography, why didn’t somebody write a book about Reconstruction in Alabama?

MF: I have no idea. Maybe Atlanta is a cooler place to do research than Montgomery. I don’t know. I’ve always thought Montgomery is an interesting place. It has a lot of history. Another reason for this absence is that scholars know a state study is probably not going to galvanize the whole field, whereas detailed studies on some novel angle that is of interest to people oftentimes make a bigger splash. But let me tell you what I think is going to be my contribution with the Reconstruction in Alabama book. Beyond just the synthesis of everything else I’ve done, my sense of the great accomplishment of Foner’s book is to take the scholarship on, and use the fresh primary source materials in the Freedom papers project, at the University of Maryland to excellent advantage. He integrates what’s happening socially on the plantations with the great political struggle of military Reconstruction when blacks get the right to vote. So for the late 1860s, it’s a wonderful synthesis of political and social history, and it’s exactly the sort of thing I was trained to do at UCLA in the late nineteen seventies and early eighties. This is the brilliance of Foner’s work, and in the fact that it’s so utterly plausible. But only the last hundred pages of Foner’s book deal with the period after the Greeley election, after 1872. His interpretation—it’s still great—but in terms of the labor connection to Reconstruction politics, it kind of runs out of steam in the early seventies. And you see less of it. He talks about the depression’s impact, certainly. I think you might make an argument that what’s going on in Alabama in the 1870s is kind of like what’s going on in South Carolina, with fairly strong divisions among the white opposition. The place I would look for this is Perman’s book on factional politics during Reconstruction. Here’s what I would say. Foner’s argument in his Reconstruction book is that the Klan is led by planters. The upper class, the political elite has decided that Reconstruction is intolerable, and that violence is the only way they can beat people at the polls and put black people back in their subordinate position. I think he’s right. The Klan has, early on, a lot of elite participation, and at a time when plantation agriculture is collapsing, 1867, there is a lot of fury among planters. And there’s a lot of violence coming from planters and overseers in 1865 and 1866 as they try and deal with people on the basis of freedom. So Foner’s argument is that the Klan is upper-class led. But with sharecropping, a couple of years in, the plantation system improves.

Once the freedmen go to work as sharecroppers and the price of cotton recovers, planters are not so desperate anymore. And in 1870 when the Democrats temporarily regain the governor’s office in Alabama, I think you start getting a conservative push-back of planters who are tired of the violence and whose major issue is becoming labor shortage. Once cotton reaches twenty cents a pound, tenants are really desired. Big planters really don’t like it when you push their tenants out. And by 1871, 1872, the Greeley campaign, this dissident conservative tradition reemerges, especially in the old Whig counties of the black belt. Part of this is that the Klan is driving so many freedmen into their neighborhoods that the areas that are not violent have this relative surplus of labor. I did something sort of interesting, statistically. The way to do a quantitative sample of wealth among black people is to use this 1 percent sample of the census that the demographic history program at the University of Minnesota has. What I found is the freedmen in 1870 are poorer in the richest areas of the Black Belt than just about anywhere else. So workers are being driven from areas where blacks are more prosperous to the areas where there’s so much labor that there’s a surplus. These are the richest areas of Alabama, and freedmen are keeping less of their money. Somebody must be making money off them. You read the planters’ letters, and they say, “Oh, we’ve got 60 percent, 100 percent interest rates down at the store. Things are going really nicely.” I think what’s going on is that in the early seventies there is a real attempt among a lot of planters to try and coexist with the black majorities that they think will be permanently governing their counties. I think that’s what’s going on. What’s interesting is that I think that Foner, because he tends to see the planters as the villains, he’s missing the stuff that Perman is talking about, about these former Whigs who are moving towards some kind of coexistence, or are trying to win through less violent methods. It makes sense to integrate the labor and the political history. It just doesn’t play out the same way in the seventies that it does in the sixties. Then in the fall of 1873, the economy collapses, everything tanks, and the planters suddenly instead of having a labor shortage are trying to desperately drive people away from their plantations. And there’s this big wave of theft fears again. So what happens is you get this white-line, White League as the political situation changes. And some planters still aren’t that thrilled. You find in South Carolina that the planters oppose racial extremists in the areas where blacks are 80 percent, 90 percent of the population. I think it’s exactly what’s happening in Alabama. So what I think my book is doing is taking the Foner labor emphasis and extending it to the seventies with somewhat different results. There’s this conservative subculture who hadn’t been thrilled with secession, who hadn’t been thrilled with the war going on and on, and had basically been persuaded that states-rights Democrats crazy people had wrecked their lives and they were going to do it again. The argument is that there is a subculture of whites whose racial views don’t move them towards the more extreme forms of violence—until the economy tanks in 1874.

BB: So with your book, what is the end date going to be?

MF: There’s a new constitution in Alabama in 1875. It solidifies a lot of stuff. I know that people talk about the “long Reconstruction” but my Reconstruction is already long enough because to make the argument I’m making, I have to go back before the war and talk about the origins of conservative dissent. So I don’t even get to the African American core chapter till Chapter Five because I’ve got to do the war, I’ve got to do occupation, I’ve got to do the impact of what’s going on in Presidential Reconstruction. So my book ends in ’75 because I figure my lifespan is finite. I need to finish this damn thing.

BB: Certainly the new constitution is a good end-point. In a way, there’s a “long Reconstruction” in some places, and a shorter one in Alabama or in southwest Georgia as Susan O’Donovan found. Reconstruction is effectively over for African Americans by 1868. They don’t even really get much out of the seventies.

MF: And part of this that is just distressingly current is the amazing number of ways to prevent local black majorities from meaning anything. There are counties where blacks are still a majority, but they just strip those counties of self-governing powers. There’s a board of supervisors, but they have no power. The power is officials appointed by the governor. You set up a committee to vet jurors so African Americans won’t serve on juries. It’s very impressive. The ways you can make an electoral system do what you want it to if you decide to play games with the ballot box is incredibly instructive in our contemporary situation. I’m sort of hoping there are some lessons there.


Fitzgerald, Michael William. “The Union League movement in Alabama and Mississippi : politics and agricultural change in the deep South during Reconstruction.” Ph.D. diss, UCLA, 1986.

Fitzgerald, Michael W. The Union League Movement in the Deep South: Politics and Agricultural Change During Reconstruction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.

Fitzgerald, Michael W. “The Ku Klux Klan: Property Crime and the Plantation System in Reconstruction Alabama.” Agricultural History 71 (Spring 1997): 186-206.

Fitzgerald, Michael W. Urban Emancipation: Popular Politics in Reconstruction Mobile, 1860-1890. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002.

Fitzgerald, Michael W. Splendid Failure: Postwar Reconstruction in the American South. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2007.

Fitzgerald, Michael W. “The Steel Frame of Walter Lynwood Fleming.” In The Dunning School: Historians, Race, and the Meaning of Reconstruction, edited by John David Smith and J. Vincent Lowery, 157-178. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2013.

Fitzgerald, Michael W. “Ex-Slaveholders and the Ku Klux Klan: Exploring the Motivations of Terrorist Violence.” In After Slavery: Race, Labor, and Citizenship in the Reconstruction South, edited by Bruce E. Baker and Brian Kelly, 143-158. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2013.

Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.

Goodwyn, Lawrence. Democratic Promise: The Populist Moment in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

McMath, Robert C. Populist Vanguard: A History of the Southern Farmers Alliance. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975.

O’Donovan, Susan Eva. Becoming Free in the Cotton South. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007.

Perman, Michael. The Road to Redemption: Southern Politics, 1869-1879. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.

Summers, Mark W. Railroads, Reconstruction, and the Gospel of Prosperity: Aid Under the Radical Republicans, 1865-1877. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984.

West, Steven A. “‘A Hot Municipal Contest’:  Prohibition and Politics in Greenville, South Carolina after Reconstruction.”  Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 11 (Oct. 2012):  519-51.

AS Interviews Historian Bruce Levine

In the latest in a series of interviews with prominent scholars of US slave emancipation, Brian Kelly of the After Slavery Project interviewed historian Bruce Levine about his most recent book, The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution that Transformed the South (Random House, 2013).  Levine is a prolific and wide-ranging scholar whose books include The Spirit of 1848: German Immigrants, Labor Conflict, and the Coming of the Civil War (1992), Half Slave and Half Free: The Roots of Civil War (1992), and Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War (2007), which was awarded the Peter Seaborg Prize for Civil War Scholarship and was a finalist for the Jefferson Davis Award.

Dixie Book

BK: I’m struck by two main trends in recent scholarship on the American Civil War. On the one hand if we look at writing on the war since, say, the publication of James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom in 1988, there seems to be a deliberate turn away from the kind of organic integration of social and military history that he attempted and a return to a more exclusive focus on the logistics of war-making. So much of the recent debate centers on the military history of the conflict, and on the ways in which the North’s conduct of the war reflected a commitment or an indifference to emancipation: Gary Gallagher’s The Union War pushes this in a quite provocative way. Alongside this we see an emerging consensus (Yael Sternhell calls it the “new revisionism”) that the war was “unnecessary”—in one rendering “America’s greatest failure.” [1] In both of these approaches slave emancipation is almost left to one side, as an incidental outcome of the war.

Fall of the House of Dixie seems to cut against these trends. While you pay close attention to military developments, the focus of the study is elsewhere—on the transformative social and political effects of the war, the diverse array of actors that effected that transformation, and the revolutionary effects of the destruction of slavery. It seems quite clearly attuned to the ‘neo-abolitionist’ impulse sidelined in other recent scholarship. Can you explain the reasoning behind your approach and tell us—from your own perspective—what distinguishes it from other recent work?

BL: Scholarship on the Civil War since Battle Cry of Freedom looks more variegated to me than I guess it does to you. There is, of course, still a great deal of military history being produced; I think much of that is quite valuable. But a lot of social and cultural history has been and is being done, too.

I certainly agree with your observation, however, that there’s been a striking increase lately in “new revisionist” or “neo-revisionist” writing about the era. These essays and books revive some views once widespread but then challenged and eventually widely discredited by the fine work of a generation of historians (many of them sensitized by the civil rights movement) including Kenneth Stampp, John Hope Franklin, Leon Litwack, Lawanda Cox, and Eugene Genovese, Eric Foner, and James McPherson. Now the clock is being turned back to the 1930s, 1940s, and early 1950s, and we are hearing once again that the Civil War could and should have been avoided because real differences between North and South were supposedly not big enough to warrant such a costly and sanguinary conflict; that the differences that did exist could and should have been resolved peacefully, through compromise; that the needed compromise didn’t materialize because of ignorance, paranoia, hysteria, political incompetence, careerism and mis-leadership, regional-cultural animosity, or all of the above.

What’s behind this trend? I think both academic-intellectual habits and current political sentiments have played roles here. The profession as a whole has for some time been placing a tremendous (I believe, an exaggerated) emphasis on “contingency” generally. That emphasis received a great boost with the rise of post-modernism and post-structuralism, with their disdain—as Gary Wilder put it—for “the study of long-term and large-scale historical processes. In the name of contingency, particularity, and difference, structural analysis and societal explanation were increasingly discouraged.”[2] In studies of the Civil War, its origins, and its outcome, this preoccupation with contingency probably helped revive the view that the war arose not from fundamental societal differences in the North and South but because of events or developments that were more smaller in scale, less deeply rooted, more ephemeral or accidental – and, therefore, that the war could have been avoided if only one or more links in the actual chain of events had been fortuitously absent.

Modern doubts about the Civil War’s necessity have probably (in some cases, Levine Photoobviously) been nourished by political developments in our own time. These include alarm at the polarization of politics, the sharpening and coarsening of public political discourse, the two major parties’ much-decried “failure to compromise,” and an increasingly skeptical attitude toward all wars stimulated by disillusion with the current US campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. These modern-day sentiments and values then lead (in my opinion, mislead) some scholars toward a neo-revisionist reevaluation of the most important conflict in the nation’s history.

My own book argues, in contrast, that the outbreak of the American Civil War was anything but accidental. Far from being the product of chance occurrences, political malpractice, or misplaced popular passions, it arose from basic trends and long-growing conflicts within U. S. society — from the growth and development of economies, perceived interests, values, assumptions, and norms premised on very different kinds of labor systems.

The first few chapters of The Fall of the House of Dixie advance and document that argument. The rest of the book undertakes a project I’ve looked forward to undertaking for many years — showing just how that war produced a massive social revolution, one that fundamentally transformed the South, and how different parts of the southern population experienced and participated in that social cataclysm. Central to that story, of course, is the interaction between the course and logic of that war and specific nature of the South’s social structure, especially chattel slavery.

“Impressing Negroes to Work on the Nashville Fortifications,”
Annuals of the Army of the Cumberland: John Fitch, 1864

BK: Let’s talk about the process by which the Confederate war effort began to falter, and then ultimately to fail. At the outset of hostilities, you suggest, the ‘House of Dixie’ was a fairly impressive structure: among other things, secessionists seemed to have succeeded in uniting a fairly diverse southern white population behind their project. Elite whites even boasted that their slaves, and the small population of free blacks in cities like Charleston and New Orleans—would remain loyal in the looming confrontation with the Union. But by the fall of 1862 the foundations of that structure are beginning to show cracks, and—as the war continues—to heave and ultimately to collapse. What happened to the seemingly impregnable South?

BL: The white population of the South was, of course, socially heterogeneous. Only a minority owned slaves, and only an even smaller minority owned enough people to afford themselves lives of genuine luxury. In peacetime, much of the non-slaveholding majority remained tied to the planter elite by bonds of convenience (including the perceived material benefits of slavery even to the slave-less) and white-supremacist ideology. And at the war’s outset, those bonds remained strong in most of the South. But as the war continued, its costs in blood and treasure mounted, and these bore down very unevenly on the white population. Non-slaveholders, who had the smallest palpable stake in the Confederacy’s survival, found themselves making the greatest sacrifices in its behalf. It was they who were serving and dying in the greatest numbers; wartime shortages and taxes affected them most severely.

After a few years of this, common whites asked themselves in steadily growing numbers just how much of this they were prepared to tolerate for the sake of slavery and southern national independence. Laws that explicitly discriminated against them (most obviously, the “20-negro” exemption from the draft) or placed a disproportionate share of the war efforts costs on their shoulders (impressment and the tax in kind, for example) only increased resentment of what increasingly seemed to many “a rich man’s war” being waged mostly by poorer families. Masters who placed the preservation of their personal property above the needs of a war that they had themselves brought into being — and such masters included some prominent members of the Confederate elite — fanned the flames of such resentment.

Confederate dead at Chancellorsville, May 1863

Subjected to stresses like these, the bonds holding the white South together began to fray. In some cases, they snapped. In some cases, indeed, they snapped quite early, as in the four so-called loyal border states as well as western Virginia and eastern Tennessee. Elsewhere, disaffection and demands that the Confederate government find a way to bring the war to an end became widespread by the end of 1862, elsewhere during 1863 and afterward. Desertion increased, and armed bands of deserters and draft resisters formed in a number of states.

Military successes, especially in the eastern war theater, could bolster morale and (by making a Confederate victory seem imminent) limit such discontent. But Vicksburg, Gettysburg, and Chattanooga dealt severe blows to such rosy expectations. By the end of 1864, the handwriting was pretty clear on the wall. Lincoln had been re-elected handily, Lee was besieged in Petersburg and Richmond, Sherman had taken Atlanta and was cutting roughly through Georgia on his way to the coast. Even many who remained attached in their hearts to the Confederacy and all it stood for found it hard to continue fighting and dying as hopes of somehow achieving victory winked out.

I’d like to add something here, if I may. As you know, a debate has been raging for years among historians about whether the South lost the war for “internal” reasons (because it lacked unity and morale) or “external” reasons (because of battlefield losses that were caused by other factors and that eroded the Confederacy’s political cohesion and sapped its fighting spirit). Although some reviewers perceive my book as a battery in support of the “internal” argument, I didn’t intend it to be that. As I said above (and tried to make clear in the book), the heavy blows that the Union army dealt to southern society, directly and indirectly, were crucial to the growth of discontent within the Confederacy.

BK: One of the obvious changes in the way historians understand the war in recent years has been the fundamental reappraisal of the slaves’ role in undermining the Confederacy. We’ve come a long way from William E. Woodward’s declaration, in 1925, that African Americans were “the only people in the history of the world…that ever became free without any effort of their own.” Today I suspect it would be difficult to find a college history classroom where the central role of the slaves in linking the war with their own emancipation is not openly acknowledged, and some scholars go quite a bit further. Your own account dismisses Woodward’s fable about “happy, contented Negroes,” but it also suggests we need to qualify the assumption that slaves across the South jumped at the first opportunity to desert their masters or throw in their allegiance with the Union. Can you elaborate?

BL: Much work about enslaved peoples (and, indeed, other oppressed and exploited groups) seems defined by a struggle between an often over-eager search for “agency” and a mounting over-reaction against such a search. I am trying to make a realistic appraisal of what American slaves wished to do, hoped to do, and were actually in a position to do. Only in San Domingue was any population of slaves able to destroy slavery by their own efforts alone. For a whole range of reasons, slaves in the U.S. were not in a position to do that prior to 1861. It took what both David Walker and John Quincy Adams anticipated decades earlier — the eruption of full-scale war between North and South — to allow thousands and thousands of slaves to act effectively in ways that helped directly to break the system down. The trickle of successful antebellum escapes from slavery could now swell into a flood, a hundreds of thousands of recently-enslaved men (and, of course, already-free black men) could actually serve and fight in the armies that destroyed the slaveholders’ state. But whether any given person would or could join in that process was shaped by a number of factors, including that individual’s personal qualities (including courage/audacity and desperation), his or her understanding of what the Civil War was about and who was likely to win it, and the proximity of Union armies. On the last score, Susan O’Donovan’s fine book, Becoming Free in the Cotton South, reminds us how limited was the agency of slaves during the war in places far from Union lines — and, for that matter, how that kind of wartime experience limited what was likely after the war as well.

BK: There is a long-running debate over the effects of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: some argue that since it freed only those slaves under Confederate jurisdiction, it was virtually meaningless as a practical measure. Your study suggests that the effects were far more profound: that the measure had a tangible effect even in territory that the Union had not yet conquered, and that by late 1863 and 1864, slavery as an institution was finished, or at least seriously crippled.

BL: There are widespread misunderstandings of many aspects of wartime emancipation. A number of authors will tell you, for example, that the Second Confiscation Act (1862) freed virtually no slaves. That assertion is wildly off-base. It arises, I think, from confusing two distinct provisions of the law, one dealing with confiscating slaves and another with confiscating non-human forms of property. The second part did indeed have limited effect for various reasons. But the first part certainly did facilitate the confiscation and emancipation of many Confederate slaves during the second half of 1862.

A similar claim that the Emancipation Proclamation was toothless has far less support among modern scholars but a good deal more in parts of the general public. That claim arose during the war years, when both Confederates and northern Democrats deliberately misrepresented the proclamation’s significance in order to demean its issuance as supposedly hypocritical. Here is Lincoln, they said, leaving those slaves living in the Union still in chains while declaring free precisely those slaves in the Confederacy over which he actually has no control.

It is of course true that — primarily for legal/constitutional reasons — the proclamation applied directly only to slaves living in as-yet unoccupied parts of the Confederacy and not to the four slave states still in the Union. But its issuance nonetheless had very real consequences for Confederate slaves. It meant, for one thing, that, thereafter, whenever Union armies advanced further into the Confederacy, they would bring freedom to all the slaves they encountered there. And—as indignant slaveowners in Missouri, Maryland, Kentucky, and even Delaware well understood—any blow directed at slavery within the Confederacy also indirectly undermined slavery within the so-called loyal slave states. The proclamation also encouraged Union officials, their radical-minded supporters within those states, and the slaves themselves to begin directly to dismantle slavery there, too.

As a result, about half a million slaves were free by the end of the war, and many who were still formally enslaved in the defeated states had by then begun to use the palpably weakened wartime position of their masters to increase their own freedom of action. Starting in late 1863, some individual Confederate masters and their political representatives began concluding that the blows by then already dealt to slavery had effectively destroyed it as an institution, no matter how the war ended. This was certainly the thinking behind Patrick Cleburne’s proposal in December 1863-January 1864 to offer freedom to male slaves who would fight for the Confederacy. And the same prognosis lay behind Jefferson Davis’s eleventh-hour decisions to adopt the Cleburne idea and even to offer initiating some form of gradual emancipation if only Britain and France would give him some kind of wartime assistance.

Were Confederates who judged slavery already dead by 1864 right? It’s hard to say. Had the Confederacy won the war, it would likely have begun trying to strengthen the bonds of slavery within its borders (unless, again, France and Britain had accepted Davis’s offer). How effective Confederate forces would have been in such a campaign is also difficult to guess.

BK: Let’s return to some of the issues raised at the outset of the interview. It must be a common experience for those who teach this period to come to the end of a semester, having discussed the collapse of Reconstruction and the harsh regime that later took hold, to find students concluding that despite the huge costs of the war, nothing fundamental had changed—that emancipation had delivered very little for freedpeople. And as we noted this is reflected in much of the recent historiography on the Civil War. You end your book with an acknowledgement that white elites were able to “avoid a radical alteration in southern society” but nevertheless insist that the war was “a worthwhile, necessary, and even glorious one.” How do you reconcile these two assertions?

BL: As a result of the Civil War and its aftermath, slavery’s destruction remained a central fact of postwar life. It’s certainly true that black field laborers found themselves saddled with a sharecropping system that exploited and oppressed them and kept most of them trapped in poverty. But that system never compared in severity and brutality with the work regime of the pre-war South. The southern elite never managed to effect a complete counter-revolution in the sense of restoring the status quo ante bellum. It would have liked to restore slavery but couldn’t. Which meant that millions of black Americans could not again be bought and sold like furniture or cattle. And that white landowners could never re-assert the degree of day-to-day control over black people that slavery had given them.

Rice Raft CroppedNor did those ex-masters ever succeed in reintroducing the kind of global controls embodied in the Black Codes promulgated during presidential reconstruction. In other words, they could not strip black people—even in the nadir of the Jim Crow era—of the greater freedom of action that accompanied emancipation. That fact had weighty consequences for the plantation system. Black field hands now successfully refused to work with the old intensity; they fought the return of gang labor, and they retained far more of the fruits of their own labors than was ever possible under slavery. In the process, they appreciably raised their living standards compared to antebellum times.

Just as (if not more) important, the rights—de facto as well as de jure—that black people won during and retained after emancipation increased immeasurably their ability to fight for greater freedom and equality of rights down the road. Strengthened family and community ties, access to education and political experience, the ability to leave the southern countryside for urban centers in the North as well as the South – all such gains helped the descendants of slaves not only to survive Jim Crow but eventually to triumph over it. It’s very hard to imagine how any of that would have been possible had slavery not been destroyed in the 1860s.

And for those who experienced, or heard, or read about what slavery’s enemies had accomplished during the 1860s, the memory of the second American revolution could provide hope and inspiration.

BK: Its hard not to be struck by the sheer range of your scholarship on the Civil War. Your Spirit of 1848 was one of a small handful of books that inspired me to apply for graduate study in history. My students have used Half Slave and Half Free for as long as I’ve been teaching the Civil War, and in recent years your Confederate Emancipation has been extremely important for cutting through what had for too long been a very confused (perhaps a contrived) debate on black ’service’ to the Confederacy. I expect that this most recent study will get heavy classroom use once its out in paperback. Where do you go from here? Is there another related project in the works?

BL: Thanks, Brian. That’s very kind of you. But it’s a mutual admiration society: I think very highly of your work on southern coal miners and now on Reconstruction.

Stevens 1868
Remains of Thaddeus Stevens Lying in State, 1868

My own next book looks at the life and times of Thaddeus Stevens. None of Stevens’s biographies, I think, has successfully rooted him in his specific time and place. That goes for earlier, rather hostile works (such as Richard Current’s Beardian portrait) as well as for the more recent, friendlier ones — notably Fawn Brodie’s psychobiography and Hans Trefousse’s deeply researched but rather narrowly focused recounting of Stevens’s life. As a result, the social and ideological roots of Stevens’s particular brand of democratic radicalism have not been adequately laid bare. I hope that putting him back in his actual setting — including the post-revolutionary Vermont of his birth and upbringing — will allow me not only to make better sense of who this individual was and why but also to re-examine the roots and flowering of popular antislavery sentiment in the North that made it possible for such an individual to become so influential a political figure in the 1850s and 1860s.

This study will also, I expect, allow me to re-examine some recently controversial subjects such as the rise of and divisions within the early Republican party, the nature and evolution of wartime Republican policy, and the strengths and weakness of the postwar attempt to remake the South into a more democratic and egalitarian society — to look more closely than I’ve previously don at the latter stages of the Second American Revolution.


[1] Yael Sternhell, “Revisionism Reinvented? The Antiwar Turn in Civil War Scholarship,” Journal of the Civil War Era 3:2 (June 2013): 239-256

[2] Gary Wilder, “From Optic to Topic: The Foreclosure Effect of Historiographic Turns,” American Historical Review 117: 3 (June 2012): 723-745.

New Reconstruction Collection forthcoming from the After Slavery Project

Bruce Baker and Brian Kelly are in the final stages of bringing an edited collection of essays,  After Slavery: Race, Labor, and Citizenship in the Reconstruction South, to print. After a long prehistory the book should be available in August 2013.

AS Book Cover

This collection emerges from two events put together by the After Slavery Project. In October 2008, a dozen leading scholars of Reconstruction gathered at Queen’s University Belfast for the ninth Wiles Colloquium. Over three fairly intensive days, the group discussed pre-circulated papers, several of which appear in the book. Thomas C. Holt gave a brilliant keynote lecture at Belfast’s historic Linen Hall Library. We will be making available the video version of that keynote on this blog in the near future, and the print version now makes up the first chapter in the forthcoming collection. Crossing the Atlantic, in March 2010 we sponsored–alongside the Carolina Lowcountry and Atlantic World Program, the SC African American Historical Alliance, The Citadel and others–the largest academic conference ever on the history of Reconstruction, gathering together several more outstanding papers for the volume. And to top it all off, the book includes an afterword by Eric Foner: those of you who heard his talk in Charleston recently, or who have read his prize-winning The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, will want to have a read.

Charleston Conf Poster
Poster from the March 2010 conference in Charleston

Here’s the tantalizing blurb from the back cover:

“Is there really anything new to say about Reconstruction? The excellent contributions to this volume make it clear that the answer is a resounding yes. Collectively these essays allow us to rethink the meanings of state and citizenship in the Reconstruction South, a deeply necessary task and a laudable advance on the existing historiography.”               –Alex Lichtenstein, Indiana University

The contributors to this volume range from the most senior scholars in the field—Thomas Holt and Eric Foner—to those who are at the start of their careers and will be shaping our understanding of Reconstruction for decades to come. Here is a list of the authors and their essays:

  • Introduction
    Bruce E. Baker and Brian Kelly
  • 1. Slave and Citizen in the Modern World: Rethinking Emancipation in the Twenty-first Century
    Thomas C. Holt
  • 2. “Erroneous and Incongruous Notions of Liberty”: Urban Unrest and the Origins of Radical Reconstruction in New Orleans, 1865-1868
    James Illingworth
  • 3. “Surrounded on All Sides by an Armed and Brutal Mob”: Newspapers, Politics, and Law in the Ogeechee Insurrection, 1868-1869
    Jonathan M. Bryant
  • 4. “It Looks Much Like Abandoned Land”: Property and the Politics of Loyalty in Reconstruction Mississippi
    Erik Mathisen
  • 5. Anarchy at the Circumference: Statelessness and the Reconstruction of Authority in Emancipation North Carolina
    Gregory P. Downs
  • 6. “The Negroes Are No Longer Slaves”: Free Black Families, Free Labor, and Racial Violence in Post-Emancipation Kentucky
    J. Michael Rhyne
  • 7. Ex-Slaveholders and the Ku Klux Klan: Exploring the Motivations of Terrorist Violence
    Michael W. Fitzgerald
  • 8. Drovers, Distillers, and Democrats: Economic and Political Change in Northern Greenville County, 1865-1878
    Bruce E. Baker
  • 9. Mapping Freedom’s Terrain: The Political and Productive Landscapes of Wilmington, North Carolina
    Susan Eva O’Donovan
  • 10. Class, Factionalism, and the Radical Retreat: Black Laborers and the Republican Party in South Carolina, 1865-1900
    Brian Kelly
  • Afterword by Eric Foner