The South Did Rise Again: Reconstruction as America’s First Failure in Counterinsurgency

Jun 24, 2015 · 5 min read
Wikicommons:Freedmen’s Schoolhouse Burns in 1866 Memphis Riot

Warfare is often cited as the continuation of politics by other means, but the difference can be quite blurry. This is particularly the case in the tense period after the settlement of conventional hostilities, or in the insurgency that sometimes follows that settlement. Congressionally designed Reconstruction following the American Civil War had as a political goal, and in all honesty as a Republican Party goal, the “adoption of new state constitutions that guaranteed African American male suffrage” (Grimsley, p. 12). This would also guarantee Republican national power. In 1876 there were 162 African American legislators in state houses or the U.S. House of Representatives. Within less than two decades, there would be only a small number of representatives and by 1901 the last African American in the House of Representatives would lose his seat (Tarrow, p. 74). If the efficacy of war strategy is evaluated in the success obtained in seeking political and social objectives, Reconstruction is America’s first failure in counterinsurgency. Ths similarities to subsequent counterinsurgency failures are striking. An underresourced political objective was countered by a diffuse but increasingly organized and violent resistance. The victors during conventional hostilities failed to confront the turmoil their objectives provoked and innocent civilians were subjected to terrorism and organized political, social, and economic intimidation.

Reconstruction, which was terminated in a political bargain after the 1876 presidential election, was the morally righteous but politically motivated idea of so-called Radical Republicans who came to power after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. As historian James Hogue has put it, Reconstruction was “the continuation of civil war by other means” (as quoted in Grimsley, p. 20). The fight against Reconstruction ultimately proved successful as Republicans lost interest in contesting the racially defined political order of resurgent Southern power bases. The Republicans abandoned their strategy on the belief that they could maintain their national power as a pro-business party dominate in the West and North (Tarrow, p. 74). As Republican disinterest in the well-being of newly emancipated citizens developed, national leaders within the party pushed the responsibility for ensuring voting and civil rights onto the state governments. At the same time, conservative white Southern interests increasingly organized their opposition.

Wikicommons:Waud — 1867 — The First Vote

The conservative response to Reconstruction went beyond political and economic efforts. It also incorporated the dramatic use of politicized violence that would at times fit every sensible person’s definitions of terrorism or at other times that of a highly organized insurgency (Grimsley, p. 7, 21–22). The historiography of Reconstruction has shifted over the last century from an earlier emphasis of Southern opposition to allegedly repressive so-called Radical Reconstruction to eventually accepting the direct role organized, racially motivated violence had in reestablishing conservative and indeed formerly Confederate power bases by the late 1870s (Grimsley, p. 9–11). While it would be incorrect to argue, as some have, that a unified regional insurgency was in operation in the South, Mark Grimsley argues convincingly that over time a “complex insurgency” did evolve in many Southern states (Grimsley p. 9, 11). The Federal government never maintained a significant military force in the South during the Reconstruction period, and actually downsized that force as opposition developed and became more organized at the state level (Grimsley, p. 12).

Coercive measures used against African Americans included economic pressure, threatening agricultural laborers with ostracism if they voted Republican. In addition to economic coercion, physical violence or the threat thereof was also used (Grimsley, p. 13). Within a decade of the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox, it was estimated that more than 2,000 African Americans in Louisiana alone were killed in politically motivated violence (Grimsley, p. 16). Intimidation and threats of politically motivated violence were endemic in the South near the end of Reconstruction. The Republican Party attempted to push a social revolution on a region of the country after the Civil War, for their own purposes, and the result was a defeat by “counterrevolutionary guerrilla warfare” more so than mere two-party competition (James McPherson, as quoted in Grimsley, p. 15).

George Rable’s research on Reconstruction and the counterrevolution that opposed it argues that violence spread organically across the region and developed “into a conscious strategy of resistance” (Grimsley, p. 16). Paramilitary formations emerged in Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina during the 1870s. The Republican Party was divided and weakened at this point and refused several pleas on the part of Republican state governors who sought Federal intervention (Grimsley, p. 16–20). “Reconstruction did not simply collapse; it was overthrown” according to Michael Perman (as quoted in Grimsley, p. 19).

One of the few significant Federal interventions that did occur took place in 1871 and has often been cited as a success story, but as modern counterinsurgents would no doubt recognize the actual impact of that action has been overstated. The Ku Klux Klan responded to intervention by laying low (Grimsley, p. 19–20). As is well known, the KKK was formed in part by Confederate veterans. But, as is less widely acknowledged, Confederate veterans were also part of the paramilitary organizations in other states that were in fact more effective than the KKK (Grimsley, p. 20–21). In 1875 and 1876, the Federal government decided not to intervene in Mississippi and South Carolina as increasingly organized paramilitary groups intimidated African American voters and Republican officials (Grimsley p. 20). State officials did attempt to organize resistance to these paramilitary groups through the use of state militias, including the Louisiana ethnically mixed militia under James Longstreet — whose battlefield reputation in the South suffered disproportionately to what was deserved. The governor of Louisiana who formed this militia was impeached, and his successor failed to defend the State House when 1500 paramilitaries marched on the building and the state militia guarding it (Grimsley, p. 21).

As Republican power ebbed in the South and Democrats retook state offices behind the support of white paramilitary groups — full of Confederate personnel — an apartheid political order descended on the region (Grimsley, p. 22). The historiography of this period has only begun to recognize the state of war, or at the very least prominent role of political violence — aka terrorism, that existed in the South in the decades following the supposed end of the Civil War. Not only is this period relevant for understanding the political perils after conventional hostilities end, it is also relevant in political and economic debates we have today.


Grimsley, Mark (2012). “Wars for the American South: The First and Second Reconstructions Considered as Insurgencies,” Civil War History, 58 (1), p. 6–36.

Tarrow, Sidney (2015). War, States, & Contention: A Comparative Historical Study.

Point of Decision

Foreign Affairs and Defense

    Chris Zeitz

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    Point of Decision

    Foreign Affairs and Defense

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