Conversation on occupation of the South in the late 1860s

Reconstruction in Georgia | New Georgia Encyclopedia

Had a lengthy and interesting conversation on Facebook with someone who described himself as an amateur historian and appeared to be suggesting that Black people weren’t ready for emancipation in 1865.

He was initially upset by my posting a piece saying that Black Lives Matter people drove off a group of white supremacists, or in his telling, patriotic Georgians who were defending their heritage.

We discussed whether the Civil War was really all about slavery. I replied that yes, it was. As evidence, I supplied a link to the declarations of various Southern states in 1861 that made it very clear that, yes, slavery was the issue that was uppermost in their minds when the war commenced.

We got into a discussion about Black people in the South who died in the years immediately after they were freed from slavery.

Former slaves were left without any livelihood or means of support. They simply moved into the woods and lived a stone-age hunter-gatherer existence. According to a speech given by the Governor of Mississippi, it resulted in the death of one million blacks - dwarfing the combined deaths of Union and Confederate soldiers.

I first encountered this in one of Sierra Club founder John Muir's adventure books. He met such a family while on his thousand-mile walk from Indiana to Florida. His description is appalling.

He supplied a link to a piece that confirmed this after I searched around and found an author who confirmed that yes, perhaps a million Black people died during Reconstruction. He appeared to hint and suggest that Black people just weren’t ready for freedom by suggesting that it was the Emancipation Proclamation that killed them.

My own theory is taken from Carl von Clausewitz, who wrote On War. He lived from 1780 to 1831. The book was published after he died. He was a Prussian general in the Napoleonic wars. Basic idea of the book was that war is politics by another means. What this tells us is that the occupation that follows the fighting can be just as important to victory as the battlefield combat is.

Let’s start with the idea of “40 acres and a mule.” The single most profitable investment a Southerner could make was land and slaves. How much money were Southern landowners putting into land and slaves?

Since planters needed ever more funds to invest in land and labor, they drew on global capital markets; without access to the resources of New York and London, the expansion of slave agriculture in the American South would have been all but impossible.

So then, all of the sudden in 1865, all of the labor that plantation owners had purchased as an investment, walked off the job. Contracts are based on mutual advantage. Slaves weren’t getting any advantage, so there was no reason for them to stay on the job once the force that had been keeping them there was removed.

So the popular idea was to simply confiscate those plots of 40 acres from Southern landowners. That would most likely have required more force than Northerners were willing to deploy. When people who have lost a fortune are pressed further, they’ll strike back.

Now, if I were the George Marshall of the Lincoln Administration (See Marshall Plan of 1948) and was put in charge of planning the post-war reconstruction of the South, I’d give each freed slave money enough to purchase “40 acres and a mule.” That way, Southern landowners would get something out of the deal, even though they’d lose land and might switch to paying laborers as opposed to simply forcing them into working. If the former slave wanted to put money into industry instead, the US was starting up a really expansive phase of the Industrial Revolution, so there were plenty of opportunities there.

Why couldn’t the US do that? Lincoln was assassinated and Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s vice-President, took over. Back in those days, the idea of getting a President and a Vice-President who were on the same page philosophically, the way Harry Truman agreed with Franklin Delano Roosevelt or that Lyndon Johnson agreed with John F. Kennedy, hadn’t really been developed yet. Andrew Johnson didn’t regard Black people as deserving of full civil rights.

Most importantly, Johnson's strong commitment to obstructing political and civil rights for blacks is principally responsible for the failure of Reconstruction to solve the race problem in the South and perhaps in America as well.

So, while the deaths of about a million Black people during Reconstruction is a really terrible thing, it’s not clear there was any obvious solution that the country was willing to accept.