American Experience: Season 16, Episode 2

Reconstruction: The Second Civil War, Part 1 - Revolution (12 Jan. 2004)

TV Episode  |   |  Documentary, History
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Episode credited cast:
Ryan Dupree ...
Marshall Twitchell
Dion Graham ...


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Release Date:

12 January 2004 (USA)  »

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1.33 : 1
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What Was That War All About, Again?
8 October 2015 | by (Deming, New Mexico, USA) – See all my reviews

President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated a few days after the end of the war. Lincoln had intended to reabsorb the defeated South into the union "with malice towards none and charity for all." "As if they'd never left," as he put it.

Lincoln was succeeded by his Vice President Andrew Johnson, who came from a slave state but had remained loyal to the union. Unfortunately he was inept and rigid, a dangerous combination, and showed up drunk for his acceptance speech as VP. There is a Hollywood feature film about Johnson from 1943, in which his embarrassing speech is excused later in a letter from Lincoln: ""If you took a drink more often, you would know better than to take brandy on an empty stomach because you are ill. I know you only were there because I asked you to be." No such letter exists but it helps establish the picture of Andrew Johnson as a well-intentioned moderate and Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania as an extreme abolitionist who wants to hang every Southerner who had anything to do with secession. Then, as now, as ALWAYS, the universe must be separated into pure good and pure evil, as in a bowdlerized fairy tale for children.

Johnson screwed things up but there were a lot of things waiting to be screwed up in the post-war South. First among them, of course, was the question of what to do about the horde of newly freed slaves, many of them having known nothing but a command economy, shoeless, illiterate, coming from and establishing weakly integrated families, owning nothing but the clothes they're wearing? Should they be issued marriage licenses? Should these people -- to the extent that they were perceived as people -- actually be allowed to VOTE?

Second was the problem of Southern animosity towards the victors. The plantation aristocracy were descendants of the English cavaliers who originally settled the low country. A culture of honor prevailed. The slightest of slights could lead to duels. Jefferson Davis had to post his officers carefully because so many challenges were pending in the Confederate Army that the combatants had to be kept separate. To men like this, and to the women who held the same sentiments about glory and honor, a defeat was not like losing a game of checkers. It was more than a lost war. It was a bitter and humiliating subjugation by the enemy. The war ended one hundred and fifty years ago and the grievance persists. The "solid South" of white supremacist Democrats lasted for one hundred years.

The Freedman's Bureau was established to smooth the transition and it was effective, providing both blacks and whites with clothing and schools. But it was rough duty. The film takes us up to Louisiana's remote and swampy Red River Parish, along with the union veteran Marshall H. Twitchell. It was about the last place to surrender in the Civil War and remained a center of violence and disorder. Twitchell, the sole representative of the Freedman's Bureau, occupied the sheriff's office -- no telegraph, no nothing. He married a local woman of some standing and became a successful cotton planter and member of the state legislator. He fit the stereotype of the Carpetbagger, men of means who came to the South to exploit its remains.

Basically the South and many Democrats wanted slavery back in all but name.In Georgia, General Sherman had disenfranchised the plantation owners and given forty acres and a mule to the freed slaves. President Johnson had other intentions, namely to free the slaves but otherwise reestablish the antebellum society. The plantation owners could have their lands back and the blacks could sign labor contracts for a year or two and be paid and otherwise independent. The forty acres and a mule were taken back. The freedmen now had to work in the cotton fields again, and for very low wages because the owners themselves were almost bankrupt. Black codes made it illegal for blacks to work anywhere but in the fields.

In 1865, more than 2,000 free blacks -- men, women, and children -- were murdered in Louisiana alone. The more charismatic the black, the more likely his killing. As one observer phrases it, "It was the systematic culling of alpha males from the black community."

There isn't space to lay out all the details of this chaotic period. In 1866, a meeting of black leaders and Republicans in New Orleans was disrupted by white supremacists, and thirty four black men were murdered and three white Republicans. The cavalier's response to an insult is violence. The president blamed Congress, painted himself as a Jesus figure, and called the Republicans traitors.

It's symptomatic that in the first meeting of Congress after the war's end, the representatives from the South included Confederate generals, colonels, and even the Vice President of the Confederate States of America. They argued for states rights. The Republicans were outraged. It all raised the question of what the Civil War had been fought for in the first place.

President Johnson denounced the 14th Amendment, which granted full citizenship and voting rights to blacks. Still, it passed in Congress. Johnson vetoed it but there were enough votes to override his veto. Johnson was impeached and his presidency survived by one vote. Those among us who insist that "the worst president in American history" (whatever that means) can be found among the last few presidents don't know American history. More trouble lay ahead, covered in Part 2.

Most of the judgments in this review are mine. The presentation by the PBS series "American Experience" is pretty balanced. None of the expert talking heads makes any editorial remarks.

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