Book Reviews

FITZGERALD: Reconstruction in Alabama (2017)

Posted 11/1/2017 Reviewed By Evan C. Rothera

Reconstruction in Alabama: From Civil War to Redemption in the Cotton South by Michael W. Fitzgerald. Louisiana State University Press, 2017. Cloth, IBSN: 978-0807166062. $49.95.

 

Michael W. Fitzgerald, a professor of history at St. Olaf College, is a well-respected scholar who has published several books about Reconstruction. Reconstruction in Alabama is the product of many decades of archival spadework. This volume provides a modern account to replace the Dunningite Walter Fleming’s Civil War and Reconstruction in Alabama (1905). In the book under review, Fitzgerald analyzes divisions among white people, arguing that differences “over development policy, and subsequently over how to avoid state bankruptcy, opened avenues of political influence to African Americans” (3). In addition, Alabama conservatives often sought accommodations with Republicans, which helped inhibit terrorism in the Black Belt. The failure of Reconstruction in Alabama, therefore, was not inevitable. It occurred because of many factors, not the least of which was the devastating Panic of 1873. 

The book is divided into three parts. Part I focuses on white Alabamians and begins by exploring tensions between Unionists and secessionists. During the U.S. Civil War, Alabama Unionists suffered greatly at the hands of the rebels. By 1865, conservatives refused to “join hands with those states’ rights Democrats who had brought them ruin” (32). Divisions among groups of white people played a critical role during Reconstruction. At a moment when the ruling class did not speak with one voice, the army wrought important changes by reducing lawlessness and supervising the transition to freedom. Andrew Johnson’s appointment of Lewis Parsons as Provisional Governor pleased conservatives. However, Parsons quickly abandoned rigor in favor of laxity in regard to pardons and existing officeholders. Unionists became increasingly irritated about the conciliation of ex-rebels, and “civil rights advocacy became the vehicle for preventing premature readmission on the terms of the ex-Confederates” (79).  

In the final chapter of Part I, Fitzgerald assesses Governor Robert M. Patton’s “premature New South.” Patton prioritized reordering the state’s finances, which necessitated “seeking the support of northern elites, especially investors and congressional leaders” (83). His leadership differed markedly from other governors because Patton favored economic diversification rather than racial legislation. Thus, Alabama “mostly avoided the explicitly discriminatory laws that inflamed northerners, undermined President Johnson, and eventually yielded the Fourteenth Amendment” (90). Patton even endorsed the Fourteenth Amendment, a politically courageous stand. Although his efforts did not bear the desired fruit, “for nearly a year, Patton induced much of the political structure to collaborate, or at least remain inactive” (103).

Part II opens by discussing what freedom meant for African Americans. Increases in the price of cotton offered a positive sign. However, planters remained uncertain they could realize a profit without slave labor, and they did not like negotiating with their ex-slaves. Many freedpeople felt their situation was analogous to slavery. Fitzgerald charts the rise of an agrarian insurgency that forced concessions such as tenant farming. Sharecropping, however, was not a panacea because increases in land prices locked most freedpeople into permanent landlessness. African Americans began to wield political power and played an important role in the 1867 Constitutional Convention. Contrary to certain accounts, black people supported some disfranchisement of rebels. Although Republican rule commenced in 1868, Governor William H. Smith made concessions to elites and Alabama never “came under ‘Radical’ Republican rule” (171).

Ku Klux Klan violence and railroads proved to be the most important issues during Smith’s term. “Perhaps nothing could have repressed Alabama’s counter-revolution,” Fitzgerald comments, but Smith made little effort (186). Critically, this is not a story of passive black victims because, when law enforcement abdicated their responsibility, “it fell to rural Republicans to defend themselves or deter violence” (197). Smith’s courtship of Democrats explained his attitude toward Klan violence. On the other hand, members of both parties found common ground on development issues, because “railroad-inspired growth and change had a bipartisan appeal in a war-torn region” (220). However, railroads ran into financial trouble, and Smith was complicit in many shady and unethical deals. Although contemporaries and Dunningite historians blamed African Americans and Radicals for corruption, Fitzgerald assigns the blame to Smith’s shady dealings.

Smith lost the gubernatorial election of 1870 to the “bipartisan disaster” Robert Lindsay. Reconstruction in Alabama should have ended with Lindsay’s victory. However, a holdover Republican Senate and an inability to clean up Smith’s railroad mess prolonged Reconstruction. Was Lindsay really a “bipartisan disaster”? As Fitzgerald notes, “between resolving the bond mess, temporarily, and damping down Democratic lawlessness, Lindsay placed the state on a less violent trajectory. Lindsay sought white supremacy, but his relative moderation might have mitigated the experience for African Americans” (253). In addition, most freedpeople “lived in areas that provided the numbers and influence for some self-protection, and whites dealt with them on a different basis” (230). Ironically, “Reconstruction’s promise came closest to reality during Lindsay’s hobbled Democratic rule” (256).

Part III covers the impact of the Panic of 1873, the unfolding of Redemption, and the aftermath. The Panic of 1873 and agricultural dysfunction destroyed Reconstruction in Alabama. Although some black belt conservatives initially rejected appeals to bullets, Democrats outside the region did not. The miserable economic situation undermined racial coexistence and erased divisions between groups of white people. Alabama Democrats had little patience for subtlety and used the insurrectionary White League as their model. Once in power, Democrats easily solidified their rule. Fitzgerald discusses the Constitution of 1875, Alabama’s third in ten years, and notes that, “captive votes could be tallied as circumstances dictated” (332). These captive votes sent demagogues like “Cotton Tom” Heflin to Congress. 

One problem with the volume is that it ends too abruptly. Fitzgerald offers several pages of discussion about some of the changes in post-1875 Alabama. In reality, the book needed another chapter to fully develop these ideas. For instance, Fitzgerald notes that in the post-1875 era, Redemption did not bring prosperity. Consequently, some white Alabamians turned to other political parties. How did rebellions against ruling Democrats compare to struggles between groups of white people during Reconstruction? Interracial movements, such as the Readjusters in Virginia, made gains in other states. Given that the history of Reconstruction in Alabama often featured interracial cooperation, did similar challenges to Democrat rule occur after 1875? Finally, Fitzgerald concludes that white Alabamians had a “flawed understanding of Reconstruction” which “hobbled their defense of Jim Crow” (337), a fascinating assertion that could have been developed at greater length. Granted, this may ask too much for one volume. However, after offering a rich history of Alabama during the Civil War and Reconstruction, readers would benefit from Fitzgerald’s analysis of life in post-Redemption Alabama.

This thoroughly researched and convincingly argued book is well worth reading. There is no doubt that it supplants Fleming’s as the definitive account of Reconstruction in Alabama.

 

Dr. Evan C. Rothera teaches history at The Pennsylvania State University.

comments powered by Disqus