Views of Reconstruction Have Changed

Was Reconstruction good or bad? Your view on that topic will largely dictate whether you see the white Southerners of the Civil War time period in a good light or bad light. The view of Reconstruction was largely negative in white society until the 1980’s. With the publication of Eric Foner’s book, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution (Harper & Row 1988), the popular white view changed. A Colombia historian, Dr. Foner is widely respected. His tome received positive reviews. Reprinted several times, it has now become a classic history of the Reconstruction period in U.S. history.

Dr. Foner makes a critical point throughout the book, that with the end of Reconstruction, so ended the right to vote and other civil rights for Southern African-Americans. His research is exhaustive. Yet, he does diminish what had been accepted prior to his book, the degree to which Reconstruction was abused by both Northern politicians and local African-Americans. For example, we know that many African-Americans profited handsomely from their positions of power. The perception in the time before Dr. Foner’s book was that black men had been manipulated by the white Northerners, and that they may have allowed themselves to be manipulated.

Reconstruction Abuses

For example in a book widely read in its day, Charles Nordhoff traveled the South in 1875 on a tour requested by his boss, James G. Bennett, publisher of the New York Herald. Mr. Nordhoff’s mission was to find out the “truth” of Reconstruction. The northern public was aware of charges of corruption. Mr. Nordhoff was sent to either verify those charges or discount them. His resulting book, The Cotton States in the Spring and Summer of 1875, largely verifies the charges of corruption by “carpet-baggers” and by African-American males who appeared to be under the influence of white northerners now living in those Cotton states.

Mr. Nordhoff in his tour of Louisiana talks about seeing “colored” members of the Louisiana legislature – men who were slaves ten years before – now “driving magnificent horses, seated in stylish equipages, and wearing diamond breast pins.” He discussed a box containing election returns from an unnamed parish being carried into New Orleans by a Conservative politician to a house of prostitution in New Orleans. The Conservatives won their election in that parish. So, the unnamed politico concealed the box in the brothel, while holding it ransom for some large reward from the Conservatives in that parish. Norhdoff defined “Conservatives” as white voters who opposed Republican rule. They generally included former Democrats, Whigs and Know-Nothings.  [1]

Nordhoff visited one of the river parishes, to see the operation of a Negro jury. The court had to adjourn due to a lack of potential jurors. From a list of 48 potential Negro jurors, 36 were found to be fictitious. [2]

Failures of the Judicial System

Mr. Nordhoff reported in his book that while most murders in Louisiana since 1870, with two major exceptions – Coushatta and Colfax – were not political, few of the murderers received their just punishment. There were some 33 murders. Of these 33, 31 were of black on black. One was white on white. And, another concerned a colored man who shot a Republican from the North. The Republican served as a tax-collector. He seduced the black man’s sister, and turned the girl “adrift” with her baby. But, most of the assailants who were arrested broke out of jail. In the Fall of 1874, one Republican jailer was indicted for allowing three murderers and a defaulting tax-collector to escape from his jail. Those who were sentenced to life for murder were generally pardoned.  [3]

Mr. Nordhoff, an abolitionist before the war, explained that between 1865-1868, the white citizens of Louisiana did kill and oppress the freed black man. But, when Reconstruction began in 1868, the freed black man was given authority for which he was not prepared. Mr. Nordhoff saw black members of parish police juries (the legislative body for parishes) who could not read or write, or just barely so. Yet, those black police jury members had total control over taxes, roads and bridges. In 1868, the Louisiana legislature paid $4.2 million for 70 miles of railroad that was never completed. The railroad was billed as a connection from New Orleans to Mobile, but it never got beyond the first 70 miles. [4]

The Louisiana Levee Company

One issue always looming in New Orleans and Louisiana was the state of the levees. Without a system of levees, flooding would occur every year. Both Democrats and Republicans built levees with some corruption as part of the price. But, Nordhoff tells us, the corruption was worse during the Reconstruction years. Between 1868 and 1871, $4.7 million in state bonds were issued for the levee system. But, by 1875, when Nordhoff visited Louisiana, no such levees had been built. Most of the money was spent by the “State Board of Public Works.” Its member were appointed by the corrupt governor, Henry Clay Warmoth.

Warmoth was a carpet bagger’s carpet bagger. He had come south specifically to advance himself. He was openly corrupt. But, he did generally support voting rights for blacks.

In 1871, the job of repairing the levees – and the money – was turned over to a private corporation. The company was known as the Louisiana Levee Company. The state gave this corporation one million dollars. The state legislature allowed the corporation to charge sixty cents per cubic yard of work. But, this was a time when local plantation owners performed the same work on their own levees for a much lower rate of fifteen to eighteen cents per cubic yard. As far as Nordhoff could see, the Levee Company performed no actual work during his time in the state.

The members of the state legislature who supported the creation of the levee company were bribed to support it. One black member, named T.B. Stamps, missed the vote on the act. So, he wrote a letter to the Finance Committee of the Louisiana Levee Company asking that his bribe, if he had been present for the vote, be paid to a friend. Stamps was later elected as a state senator. He assured the Finance Committee that had he been present, he would have voted for the act. Stamps viewed his bribe as an entitlement and he wished to pass that entitlement to a friend, as if Stamps had indeed been present for the vote. [5]

The Louisiana Levee Company employed careless construction techniques. It allowed weeds to grow on the levees, preventing the growth of St. Augustine grass. It allowed the levees to be used as roads. Builders often used logs and stumps to reduce costs. In 1876, the act which created the Louisiana Levee Company was repealed.


Dr. Foner allows that black Republicans were not immune to illicit gain, but he compares it to corruption practiced by white Democrats. He suggests that corruption was common throughout the country, not just in Reconstruction cotton states. Foner, Reconstruction, at pp. 388-389.

The Southern Economy

But, Dr. Foner’s book does not address the issues presented in the prior Reconstruction research, that the post-war economy plummeted in the South after the Civil War and after Reconstruction started. The 1874 value of real property in New Orleans had fallen to one-third of its value from 1868, the last year prior to Reconstruction. The Sheriff of Orleans Parish was paid $60,000 in 1868, a time when $500-600 was the typical yearly wage for skilled labor. This was in a city that did not particularly support secession.  [6]

Neither does Dr. Foner address another concern presented by the earlier scholarship on the subject, that many black males of the time simply voted as they were told by white Republicans. The White League, Robert Henry tells us, said the Negroes “invariably” voted like a body of soldiers obeying a command. The white Southerners accused the blacks of voting “blindly” based on how they were instructed. [7]

The Kirk-Holden War

In North Carolina, state Sen. John W. Stephens, who supported the Republican governor, William W. Holden, came to Caswell County seeking evidence to be used in prosecutions under the state’s “Ku Klux” law. He was seeking evidence to prosecute members of the KKK. While there, he met with Negroes at a meeting of the Union League. Sen. Stephens handed a box of matches to twenty Negroes. He suggested to them that the matches would be well used if they were used to burn barns. Nine barns were then burned in one night in the county. So claimed the local Democrats known as Conservatives. While still in the county, Stephens was abducted by the Klan and killed. [8]

The killing of Stephens then lead to Gov. Holden declaring two counties in a state of insurrection. He raised a regiment to put down said insurrection. The “regiment,” lead by a North Carolinian who had served in the Union army, George W. Kirk, tortured whites seeking confessions. They arrested 82 persons. The regiment, which was more like a mob, then roamed the state plundering and insulting the citizens. A Conservative (i.e. Democrat) and fifteen others signed a confession to Klux activity. It was known that the Conservative, James E. Boyd,  had previously been paid by the Governor to ferret out evidence against Kluxers. [9]

The Louisiana Metropolitan Police, created by Gov. Henry Clay Warmoth, were essentially a private army for the governor. Warmoth did not deny his corruption. Without Negro votes, he would never have been elected. Gov. Warmoth was replaced by William P. Kellogg, who was only more corrupt than Gov. Warmoth. See more about Henry Clay Warmoth here. [10]

Spike in Crime

In May, 1874, a white woman was robbed in broad daylight on a major street in New Orleans. The newspaper of the day proclaimed no one was safe due to Negro outrages. [10] That was surely hyperbole, but this was a time when even approaching an unknown woman was socially forbidden. That one white woman would be robbed during the day was shocking. Also in May, 1874, a home was entered while the family was out and all the silver was taken. The newspaper warned New Orleans white citizens to watch out for Gov. Kellogg’s men during the day. In other words, the newspaper believed the daytime burglar was a Republican. [12]

Dr. Foner’s book does not address this apparent spike in crime, or the perception that the crime was due to Republicans. In disregarding these issues, Dr. Foner’s book reveals a lack of balance, just as the earlier Reconstruction books lacked a different sort of balance.

The hysteria of the time did have racial tones. The Battle of Liberty Place quotes news stories of the day indicating widespread fear of “black militia” marching by and possibly storming saloons and businesses. White Southerners of the time felt an irrational fear of newly freed blacks. [13]

Dr. Foner never mentions the open corruption of two successive Louisiana governors. Neither does he acknowledge that unlike corruption in other states, in the South, open corruption was essentially sanctioned by the federal government. Dr. Foner never discusses the extent to which freed blacks were allowed, and even encouraged to harass the white Southerners. His book does help remedy the lack of attention to black suffrage and civil rights in prior Reconstruction research.

But, it appears Dr. Foner remedied that imbalance in part by overlooking the absence of fundamental state police powers. If the state cannot enforce criminal laws, then the state has failed its central function. Foner misses an important point about Reconstruction. When you impose a government on a people otherwise accustomed to democracy, that government must demonstrate some level of competence, tolerably free of corruption.


[1] Charles Nordhoff, The Cotton States in the Spring and Summer of 1875 (New York: D. Appleton & Co. 1876), p. 41-42, 45. When Nordhoff mentions specific “Conservative” politicians, he is generally referring to Democrats.

[2] Cotton States, at p. 43

[3} Cotton States, at p. 50

[4} Cotton States, at p. 58

[5] Cotton States, at p. 58-59

[6] Robert Henry, The Story of Reconstruction (New York: Konecky & Konecky 1999, originally published in 1938), p. 516.

[7] Story, at p. 517. See, also, Justin Nystrom, New Orleans After the Civil War (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press 2010, p. 85. Dr. Nystrom explains that while instances of Blacks voting as they were told was sometimes exaggerated, it did occur during the tenure of Gov. Clay Warmoth 1868-1872.

[8] Story, at p, 412.

[9] Story, at pp. 412-414.

[10] Joe Gray Taylor, New Orleans and Reconstruction, La. Hist. Assoc. (Summer, 1968), Vol. 9, No. 3, p. 196.

[11]  New Orleans and Reconstruction, p. 201.

[12] New Orleans Bulletin, May 8, 1874, p. 3.

[13]  Stuart Omer Landry, Battle of Liberty Place (Gretna, La.: Firebird Press 2000), first published in 1955.

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