DALY: The War after the War (2022)

The War after the War: A New History of Reconstruction by John Patrick Daly. University of Georgia Press, 2022. Paper, ISBN: 978-0820361901. $24.95.

John Patrick Daly opens The War after the War with an account of the Battle of Liberty Place on September 14, 1874. This conflict pitted a biracial Republican police force, led by none other than former rebel general James Longstreet, against a paramilitary terrorist organization known as the White League. The battle, Daly observes, “involved more troops than Little Bighorn or San Juan Hill or many of the best-remembered clashes of the American Revolution and War of 1812” (1). Daly, currently Associate Professor of History at SUNY Brockport and the author of When Slavery Was Called Freedom: Evangelicalism, Proslavery, and the Causes of the Civil War [The University Press of Kentucky, 2002], examines the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War. He argues that the Battle of Liberty Place was “the most dramatic chapter” (2) in a twelve-year war that took place from 1865–1877, a war he labels the Southern Civil War. The book contains some important material, but also suffers from some troubling flaws.

The War after the War examines the violence that took place in 1865–1867 (what Daly calls the terror phase) and then discusses the “state-by-state battles of 1867-1877 when unionists controlled and tried to defend local and state governments” (4). Daly argues that a distinct new war emerged in the U.S. South after the end of the U.S. Civil War and, moreover, that “understanding Reconstruction as a separate war shapes how we understand one of the most important periods in American history” (8).

Daly’s argument that Reconstruction was a war is worth discussing with students, although he is not the first historian to make this point. The data he utilizes in the book—specifically, although not exclusively, the records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands—illustrate the brutality of life in the U.S. South during the period the book covers. Daly is also not the first scholar to examine violence during Reconstruction and his book is in conversation with recent works such as Douglas R. Egerton’s The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America’s Most Progressive Era [Bloomsbury Press, 2014] and William A. Blair’s The Record of Murders and Outrages: Racial Violence and the Fight over Truth at the Dawn of Reconstruction [The University of North Carolina Press, 2021]. The problem with his argument is not Daly’s decision to call the period from 1865–1877 a war, but how he understands this war and how he presents it throughout the book.

To wit, for Daly this is the Southern Civil War of 1865–1877. The failure of the federal occupation of the U.S. South, he asserts, “threw the burden of local defense onto African Americans and their white unionist allies” (3). They faced off against “opponents with the Confederate weapons, training, experience, and organization gained in the four years of the American Civil War and significant support of the population” (3). Thus, on the one side African Americans and white southerners (some ex-rebel, some Unionist during the U.S. Civil War) fought against white southerners. Problematically, Daly tends to minimize one group: the white northerners who went south during Reconstruction. These northerners (often pejoratively labeled “carpetbaggers”) included both Black and white people. Their reasons included searching for new economic and political opportunities and interest in humanitarian work. The label Daly uses—“unionists”—has a very specific meaning when applied to this region during this period (namely, white Southerners who rejected a four-year experiment in treason and held true to the old flag and union of their forebears). To be fair, Daly might reply that “unionists” could be a broader label for anyone who favored the Union cause during the U.S. Civil War. This would be a valid point, but it is not one that he makes in this book. Moreover, if this was the case, the framing and naming of this war would need to be enlarged and reconsidered. In addition, it is worth noting that many of the northerners who went to the southern states would not have considered themselves southerners. Daly insists that this was a civil war in the southern states with very little northern participation. But is that indeed the correct way to view the war that occurred from 1865–1877? This is an example of a broader issue throughout the book. Daly pays far less attention to northerners who went south than one would expect, but he pairs this lack of attention with a generally dismissive attitude toward people in the northern states and a jaundiced view of what the largely northern members of Congress did in Washington, D.C., during the early years of this second war.

Daly is so focused on the U.S. South that he often ignores what happened in other parts of the country. Case in point, he makes several brief gestures to the rich literature on Reconstruction in the West, but he says far less about U.S. campaigns against Native Americans than one might expect in a book about warfare during 1865–1877. Daly’s attitudes toward northerners, as noted above, are puzzling. For instance, he asserts that “after Reconstruction and during the subsequent era of segregation, northerners accepted the white southern narrative of Reconstruction” (4). Not entirely. Many White northerners never accepted this narrative. Furthermore, plenty of Black people also lived in the Northern states and they did not accept this narrative. Daly also comments that “over 190,000 southern African Americans joined the Union army and navy” (12). White it is true that many African Americans who fought in the U.S. army came from the southern states, free Black men who fought for the U.S. also hailed from the Northern states. In sum, Daly tends to focus so closely on the U.S. South that he reduces the northern states to a caricature and pays no attention to other regions such as the U.S. West. In a book that claims to offer a new view of Reconstruction, it is troubling to ignore or caricature a large portion of the U.S.

Daly’s attitudes toward the politics of the federal government are also puzzling. He argues, “Reconstruction has too often been written about as a ‘political’ era, with a focus on laws and policy, when it was actually war” (14–15). Unsurprisingly, scholars have emphasized the political dimensions of Reconstruction because profoundly important transformations took place politically. That said, it is not clear why this needs to be a zero-sum game. One can, and should, acknowledge both the political and military elements of this important period. Even the most dedicated political historian would be unlikely to study Reconstruction in a vacuum and would explore the interplay between political, cultural, military, and social elements. Daly’s analysis moves from puzzling to troubling when he argues that “federal governmental action, however, was utterly irrelevant in this war” (2). This baffling assertion flies in the face of the evidence and the extensive historiography on politics during this era. Daly also adds, “Reconstruction and its policies were failures and irrelevant in the face of the brutal military struggle in the South” (15). One can indeed make the argument that many policies failed—and many scholars have made this argument over the years. However, to say that the policies of the federal government were “utterly irrelevant” is inexplicable.

Daly’s attitude toward politics has a very real impact on the book. After making sweeping statements about politics and federal government policies, Daly then has to work to avoid an inconvenient truth: that they did, in fact, matter. Case in point, Daly notes that General John Pope went to Atlanta in 1867 to command the Third Military District, and that Pope “rightly recognized that ex-Confederate extremists were conducting a war of terror and massacres” (54). True indeed, but Daly ignores important context. The Third Military District Pope commanded had been created by the Military Reconstruction Acts passed by the U.S. Congress. Pope, like his fellow district commanders Philip Sheridan and Daniel Sickles, moved aggressively against extremists. Federal government policies and action, in other words, mattered a great deal. Similarly, Daly comments, “after 1867 the biracial coalition controlled southern state governments” (56). He never tells readers exactly how the biracial coalition gained control of state governments. Students of Reconstruction know that this happened because of the Military Reconstruction Acts and generals like Pope, Sickles, and Sheridan. These generals and pieces of legislation shatter Daly’s thesis that the federal government did nothing, and that this was an exclusively southern civil war. To be clear, the issue here is not Daly stating that Reconstruction policies either failed or that the federal government (in the form of Rutherford B. Hayes or the Supreme Court) betrayed southern Republicans. The problem here is Daly’s insistence that the federal government’s policies were irrelevant. It is perfectly fine for a scholar to deplore how the federal government abandoned white and Black Republicans. However, to argue that the federal government’s actions during Reconstruction were “utterly irrelevant” is astounding.

In addition to the issues already discussed, there are other problems that merit some attention. For one, the book is littered with errors. New Orleans did not fall to the U.S. forces in 1861 (1). Democrats did not reclaim Texas in 1871 (64). Rutherford B. Hayes and Republicans did send federal troops guarding statehouses in South Carolina and Louisiana back to their barracks, but they most certainly did not remove all federal troops from the U.S. South (103, 129, 149). Preston Brooks did not cane “William” Sumner in 1856 (108). Then, there are elements of the book that do not make sense. Daly writes, “I use party labels infrequently in this book, in part since as the subsequent reversal of party alignment on race makes ‘Democrat’ and ‘Republican’ potentially confusing” (14). Yes, the parties have changed over time, but this is not a compelling reason for avoiding party labels, especially since politics were often a critical part of people’s identity during this period. It would make more sense to use party labels and offer students a detailed explanation of how the two parties have changed since 1877.

Daly remarks that the agreement between rebel general Joseph E. Johnston and William T. Sherman “was a very generous settlement for Confederates that would have kept the antebellum southern racial order and political elite in place and in many ways preserved a quasi-slavery for African Americans—exactly the outcome of the Southern Civil War in 1877. Far from being acknowledged as at least raising the issue and setting a precedent for clear national action and treaties, Sherman was severely reprimanded by Johnson’s entire cabinet for overstepping his authority” (23). Daly continues, “Sherman’s plan of appeasing white southerners was at least a plan, but it was not clear that if carried out it would have forestalled ex-Confederate terror. Sherman’s capitulation might have been one way to avoid the Southern Civil War” (24). In what universe should Sherman have been praised for vastly exceeding his authority (and, despite Sherman’s self-serving recollections, Lincoln’s wishes)? Moreover, how would Sherman’s solution have been preferable? No violence with the same outcome would have meant no Reconstruction Amendments and no Civil Rights Acts. As Eric Foner’s The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution [W. W. Norton & Company, 2019] and Ilan Wurman’s The Second Founding: An Introduction to the Fourteenth Amendment [Cambridge University Press, 2020] both illustrate, the Reconstruction Amendments were profound and revolutionary, despite the Supreme Court’s narrow interpretation. In sum, Daly offers yet another baffling line of analysis. He also contends that “the Southern Civil War invented traditions of racial terror” (104), but most scholars would agree that traditions of racial terror predated 1865.

All of the qualms raised in this review lead to one final question. Namely, who is this book’s intended audience? Daly is very explicit about his desired audience. “This book had its genesis in the problems professors face choosing a book to assign on Reconstruction. The field needed an up-to-date, short, accessible book that looked at Reconstruction from the perspective of violence on the ground in the South. Very few short, accessible books look at the era as a whole” (4). The question, then, is does this book supplant Eric Foner’s A Short History of Reconstruction [Harper & Row, 1990], Michael W. Fitzgerald’s Splendid Failure: Postwar Reconstruction in the American South [Ivan R. Dee, 2007], or Allen C. Guelzo’s Reconstruction: A Concise History [Oxford University Press, 2018]? These volumes are all short, eminently readable, deeply researched overviews of Reconstruction that many scholars (myself included) have used in undergraduate classes. In sum, no, The War after the War does not supplant any of these volumes. I would not recommend it to colleagues looking for a short history of Reconstruction for use in the classroom. To be clear, the volume could be read by specialists who might, in turn, broach with students Daly’s argument that Reconstruction was a war. However, putting this volume in the hands of students who knew very little about Reconstruction would do them a disservice because it would give them a flawed and incomplete view of the era. Daly’s narrative, as demonstrated above, is beset by numerous problems, inaccuracies, and omissions, and neglects a considerable amount of important context. Students, in other words, would receive some information about one specific view of Reconstruction, but they would not receive much knowledge about many of the important elements of the period. Anyone looking for a short single-volume account of Reconstruction, therefore, would be better advised to stick with Foner, Fitzgerald, or Guelzo.

 

Evan C. Rothera is the author of Civil Wars and Reconstructions in the Americas: The United States, Mexico, and Argentina, 1860-1880.

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