What the South Lost
The Impact of a War
The Civil War (1861–1865) ripped the nation apart and cost over 620,000 lives, approximately 2% of the population (what today equals six million people).
In the aftermath, Reconstruction lasted until 1877 and saw the expansion of the federal government with the Thirteenth (1865), Fourteenth (1868) and Fifteenth Amendments (1870) to the Constitution and the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1866, 1870, 1871 and 1875.
These laws federalized issues historically reserved to the states, universal male suffrage and abolition the two most significant. Historiography of the era addresses many questions, and one of the most debated focuses on the Compromise of 1877, an agreement that removed federal troops from the South and established home rule in the region after twelve years of federal occupation.
Who lost the most as a consequence of the Compromise of 1877?
If assessing the question through the lens of the region, most agree that the South, despite the restoration of home rule AND abolition, lost more than any other region in the United States. From 1865 to the mid-twentieth century economically and politically the South remained outside the growth and prosperity of the nation. The decades after WWII marked a turning point when interstates, federal money, compulsory education, Spring Break (the first was in 1938), the SEC and civil rights movements brought the region in step with the rest of the nation. Over the subsequent decades, federal law, WalMarts and Mcdonald’s, and the hegemonic power of media made rural South Carolina indistinguishable in many ways from rural Michigan, what one historian calls the Americanization of Dixie.
Political power is another lens that tells a grim story of the impact of the Civil War on southern power at the federal level because post-1865 it was drastically diminished. Prior to 1860, 9 of the 15 presidents were southerners. After the war, with the exception of Woodrow Wilson who was technically not a southerner, just 4. High-level (non-legislative) representation dropped from 16 percent of all key Cabinet and diplomatic posts in the pre-Civil War years to about 8 percent between 1861 and 1933.
Historian James McPherson sums up the decline in power:
“The Civil War tipped the sectional balance of power in favor of the North. From the adoption of the Constitution in 1789 until 1861, slaveholders from states that joined the Confederacy had served as Presidents of the United States during 49 of the 72 years — more than two-thirds of the time. Twenty-three of the 36 Speakers of the House and 24 of the presidents pro tem of the Senate had been southerners. The Supreme Court always had a southern majority before the Civil War; 20 of the 35 justices down to 1861 had been appointed from slave states.”
After the Civil War, a century passed before a resident of an ex-Confederate state (11 if you need a refresher) was elected POTUS. For half a century only one of the Speakers of the House and no president pro tem of the Senate came from the South, and only 5 of the 26 Supreme Court justices named during that half-century were southerners.
This is clearly an impact of the Civil War and Reconstruction on southern political power.
Shift this grim political lens to economics. The southern region post-1865 struggled as hookworm, depressed agricultural prices, cotton dependency, populist demagogues, poverty, race violence and Pellagra- an icky disease- did little to advance the region (FYI: Spartanburg, SC was home to the first Pellagra hospital).
Add to these problems staggering illiteracy rates. South Carolina and Alabama in 1910 and 1920 had illiteracy rates at 50% black and white combined. And, this accented a very weak public education system in the South where tax dollars were scarce for public schooling. WWII brought the GED, and this combined with the death of a generation of illiterate people and compulsory school laws impacted illiteracy rates, reducing the numbers but failing to eradicate the legacy of weak, tax-funded public education.
After 1865 the South was vanquished, punished, colonized and stigmatized, a legacy still apparent in perceptions about and attitudes toward the region today.
But the people who lost the most with the Compromise of 1877 were African Americans. At the end of the Civil War, approximately 4–4.5 million freed people lived in the region, and very few migrated out until the Great Migration of the twentieth century.
Historian Eric Foner argues that African Americans were abandoned by the Republican Party and circumscribed of their rights in a region where most remained for decades after abolition. Despite the promises made to African Americans with the Reconstruction Amendments to the Constitution and the numerous federal civil rights acts passed between 1865 and 1877, when occupation ended with the Compromise of 1877, the Republicans failed to enforce federal law, the national attention turned away from war and toward expansion West, Indian Wars, industrialization and welcoming 25 million immigrants into the nation.
Meanwhile, African Americans who lived in the South lived in what historian Steven Hahn calls a nation within a nation. The separate but equal concept at the core of Jim Crow was codified by 1896 with Plessy v Ferguson, and it would be the Second Reconstruction of the mid-twentieth century that fulfilled the promises made to African Americans during the First Reconstruction. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 are watersheds in this journey to full citizenship.
Historian David Blight argues what drove the civil rights movements for African American equality was the memory of emancipation preserved within African American communities as the nation moved toward national reunion by World War I. This ongoing struggle to realize full citizenship began- according to historian John Hope Franklin- in 1619 when the first ship of Africans entered the British colonies on a Dutch ship.
As reparations and HR 40 take the stage again in the coming weeks, reflect on national history as a guide.