The United States elected its first African American President in 2008. Only 14% of white Americans in the South voted for him. That may sound unusual, however looking through the prism of Reconstruction one might explanations.
Yesterday Senator Tom Harkin introduced and received a unanimous up vote on a resolution apologizing for slavery in advance of Juneteenth, a celebration of the ending of slavery. The House is next to vote on it, and a formal event planned for July. The end of the war in 1865 brought liberation to slaves, but there were remnants of pain left for another group of people who have been forgotten through the years. While the nation rejoices about the election of an African American President and the change it brought to the country, the hurts of the Civil War remain part of the nation’s history, in the hearts and minds of many Southerners, particularly those in the very Deep South, like Louisiana.
William Robert Lang of Louisiana gave me a gift of understanding and a stack of books on the Civil War, after a radio program in Natchitoches, Louisiana last week. A red-faced old man, with scrubby, whiskered chin and Louisiana parlance, Lang looked at me with earnest blue eyes and said, “Not just one group needs to be remembered. Not just the African American needs to be freed. There are men who suffered terribly who were forgotten. Someone needs to tell the story.” Then he handed me a stack of books and left. As I thanked him for his story, I understood his mission, some I knew from American history and the rest from the story he told me.
Slavery was painful, and well-meaning people helped to bring freedom to many people in the South. But after the Civil War came a reign of corruption, death and destruction which brought terror to thousands of Southern whites, even as African American slaves were left to survive economically without preparation or economic support.
Three acres and a mule didn’t help them become independent, so former slaves stumbled into freedom while the social divide continued, fanned by the flames of suspicion and distrust that came out of the Reconstruction. Yankee carpetbaggers came to the South in the midst of chaos, as outsiders who took control while confiscating property and savaging the culture along the way.
Reconstruction brought no compassion for poor white Southerners who were painted with the brush of revolution and slave-holding, but who lived in poverty following the desolation and destruction caused by war. Anger was stoked from stories told by Southern confederate soldiers released from Union prisons that described the terrible torture and degradation suffered at the hands of the victors of war. Lawlessness became the order of the day, even as confusion and social flux created stress in the region.
Against this backdrop the rural South became a region with angry white men whose ancestors’ pain continued as part of their heritage and festers even as Barack Obama attained the Presidency. The resentments may indeed be part of the reason why the vote in the South was so low for Barack Obama. Some say Obama was seen supported by perceived Eastern establishment interests, a black man through viewed through the prism of Reconstruction as the puppet of Yankees as opposed to the savior of the nation.
Because apologies were never made for the terrible cruelties inflicted on prisoners, never acknowledged and part of the hurts that remain, there are men like Lang who continue to mourn a body of truth never fully told. Memories recalled by Lang evoke the past and the history of the region that some have never forgotten because reconciliation was never made.
Congress ponders apologies for slavery. Reconstruction meant enemies treated the vanquished with vengeance and never said, “I’m sorry.” It may be, as some people believe, as Lang underlines, and history maintains, the terrible divide of war cannot be surmounted until the forgotten Confederate soldier is remembered for prison sufferings and the horrors of vengeance brought by Reconstruction understood.
The Senate Apologizes for Slavery
Martin’s American History blog, About.com
Donald Stark Essays
Why Did Reconstruction Fail to Change the South After the Civil War