As the fog of war lifted and an uncertain peace settled over the defeated Confederacy, anxiety grew among the vanquished as to what lay ahead. Abandoned plantations withered in disarray, and a popular idea gathered momentum it should go to the newly freed. “Forty Acres and a Mule,” became an expectation that, in the end never materialized. Instead Southern landholders who had fled, slowly returned to reclaim their estates and continue their lives.
Outside of Freedman Bureau schools, and temporary bluecoated occupiers, no meaningful assistance for Freedmen materialized.
At the same time, three categories of defeated Southerners turned their attention to meeting the new reality. Military leaders, like Robert E Lee, and James Longstreet accepted defeat, and encouraged fellow veterans to follow suit. In fact, Longstreet, an old army friend of Ulysses Grant, cooperated with the Republican occupiers, earning the pejorative of “Scalawag,” a Confederate who collaborated with the enemy.
Outraged citizens who could not accept defeat were called “Fire Eaters.” Foremost among these was Jefferson Davis, incarcerated president of the Confederacy, Lee’s wife, Mary Custis Lee, who lost her ancestral home in Arlington, where Union forces buried their dead, and politician Edmund Ruffin. So enraged was Ruffin that when news of the defeat at Appomattox Courthouse reached him, Ruffin blew his brains out.
Redeemers made up the balance of Southern Whites who were dangerously patient. These community leaders played their cards carefully, drifting into the Fire Eater lane at times, and back to deadly quiet redemption. Nathan Bedford Forrest was a great example of men who waited. Founding the Ku Klux Klan soon after the war ended, nightriders terrorized freedmen, discouraging blacks from enjoying their new guarantees as citizens. Other terms fit well into this particular era. Share Cropping, and the Crop Lien System invisibly chained blacks to the land that still bound them. Black Codes, and Vagrancy Laws sentenced laborers to the same bondage as before Fort Sumter. No serving on juries, no testifying against whites, Poll Taxes and Literacy Tests limited access to the ballot box. As Federal oversight declined over time, the Redeemers reasserted direct control.
Case law does remain on the books to protect minority voters but without vigilance and resolve remain fragile. These people, these Redeemers are still dangerously patient, and can shift to Fire Eater on a dime. In light of January 6, these zealots have demonstrated they still are quite lethal.
By crafting misleading, banal language in new voting laws, the modern GOP has taken a page from that old Reconstruction playbook. Ironically, it was the Republican Party who protected Freedmen after the Civil War, but now play the part of oppressor, inserting bad legislation to cut off Federal influence.
The old Redeemers must surely be smiling in their graves.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles are available on Kindle.