A tragic era

On Monday and Tuesday nights, PBS ran a two-part series on the Reconstruction Era. Overall, I thought the series did a good job of chronicling the failure to reconstruct the South and the tragic consequences of that failure. It’s difficult to believe that, as recently as 40 years ago (and perhaps more recently), students were taught that the tragedy of Reconstruction lay in the “overzealous” efforts of Republicans to remake the South, and that the demise of Reconstruction was a positive development. Listening to the words of the racist egomaniac Andrew Johnson on Monday night, I found it diffiicult to fathom how school children of my era could have been taught that Johnson was just another bad president, perhaps more sinned against than sinning. Or how Rutherford Hayes, who pulled the plug on Reconstruction as part of a deal to become president, purporting to rely on southern promises that no reasonable person could have believed, was rated a pretty good president. Or how Grant, the only one of the three Reconstruction presidents (I’m excluding Lincoln) who attempted to protect the lives and freedom of southern blacks, could have been rated one of the worst two presidents in our history (along with Harding).
The series was interspersed with stories from lives of little-known actors in the tragedy. One was Tunis Campbell, a freedman who led a short-lived all-black colony on an island off the coast of Georgia, then was a political leader in a predominantly black Georgia county, then found himself a prisioner working on a chain gang, and then finally escaped to the North. Another was Marshall Twitchell, a union officer who installed himself in upper Louisiana after the Civil War, became a wealthy planter, saw most of his family killed by a white gang, and lost both arms in an assassination attempt before escaping to the North. PBS found the great-great grandson of the leader of the gang that drove Twitchell out. This guy couldn’t suppress his pride in his ancestor or his glee in Twitchell’s fate. I couldn’t help wondering whether there was any way to prosecute this yahoo for his great-great grandaddie’s crimes.
But herein lies the flaw in the program. The not so great-great grandson was the only “dissenting” voice in the series, and his was not a true dissent because, though his sympathies differed from those of the producers, his voice reinforced their underlying theme. What was missing from the series was a balanced picture of the North. The narrator asserted several times that white Northerners didn’t care what happened to blacks in the South. But this view is inconsistent with the fact that Congress passed civil rights legislation and constitutional amendments on behalf of blacks, and backed them up with federal troops for ten years. I would argue that a fairer statement about white Northerners is that, by the mid-1870s, they didn’t care enough about what happened to blacks in the South to fight a second civil war after 15 years of non-stop intervention.
The program was similarly one-sided in its portrayal of Grant. It gave Grant some of his due, but mostly pointed out how he eventually yielded and let the Democrats take control of some key states. But that’s not the whole story. As time went on, Grant knew that he lacked the public support and resources to win the battle in every Southern state. He understood too that in some states the Republican party had acted so disgracefully as to become unviable. Grant attempted (heroically, in my view) to figure out which states had Republican parties that could be defended and to use his limited resources to keep the party afloat in those states.
Reconstruction is not one of the more subtle eras of our history. But the PBS portrayal would still have better had it followed Grant’s lead and paid more attention to nuance.


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