One hundred and fifty years ago today General George Pickett’s division was blasted dead by the Army of the Potomac’s artillery on a blood-filled field in Pennsylvania. The Battle of Gettysburg drew to an ignoble close for the Confederate forces, and General Robert E. Lee abandoned his only attempt at invading the North.
I write this considering the historical revisionism that pervades today. Some of it centers around misunderstanding history even when writing a piece entitled 150 Years of Misunderstanding the Civil War:
What this suggests is that the 150th anniversary of the Civil War is too narrow a lens through which to view the conflict. We are commemorating the four years of combat that began in 1861 and ended with Union victory in 1865. But Iraq and Afghanistan remind us, yet again, that the aftermath of war matters as much as its initial outcome. Though Confederate armies surrendered in 1865, white Southerners fought on by other means, wearing down a war-weary North that was ambivalent about if not hostile to black equality. Looking backwards, and hitting the pause button at the Gettysburg Address or the passage of the 13th amendment, we see a “good” and successful war for freedom. If we focus instead on the run-up to war, when Lincoln pledged to not interfere with slavery in the South, or pan out to include the 1870s, when the nation abandoned Reconstruction, the story of the Civil War isn’t quite so uplifting.
This isn’t the 150th anniversary of Fort Sumter, Mr. Horwitz. But I’m being petty—Horwitz’s point in his Atlantic piece that the aftermath of the Civil War does not put this country in a good light is well-taken. But something is missing…why did the United States of America abandon Reconstruction?
Horwitz’s piece is incomplete given the lack of recognition that the sea change occurred in 1873-74. Reconstruction legislation ground to a halt after the 1874 mid-term elections, where pro-emancipation Republicans lost 93 seats in the House of Representatives, issuing in the first real instance of divided government since the antebellum period (Democrat Andrew Johnson did try to oppose the power of Radical Republicans during his one term in office, but was impeached for his trouble). It would be another 20 years before the Republicans built an enduring majority in the House (the exceptions being two-year majorities after elections in 1880 and 1888, where opposition from third parties like the Greenbacks made governance difficult). Which again begs the question…why?
Historians advance many theories, but the most likely suspect seems oddly overlooked—economic cataclysm. The crushing defeat in 1874 is often blamed on the Panic of 1873, an international financial crisis that set off a six-year economic contraction and triggered what historians now refer to as the Long Depression (until the 1930s the 1873-96 depression was dubbed the Great Depression). In the wake of the long mess that produced eleven economic contractions before the outbreak of the First World War, the U.S. had the privilege to endure the Gilded Age and Lochner Era in addition to the indignity of Jim Crow.
Addendum: I’ve intended to write extensively about the late-nineteenth century economic meltdown. My research into this topic has turned up statistics that indicate recovery from the Long Depression did not really occur until World War I–unemployment generated by the epic Panic of 1893 (peaking at 18%) did not return to the 1892 baseline of 3% until 1906, on the eve of the Panic of 1907 (the catastrophe that finally forced the creation of the Federal Reserve). The 2008-present experience is somewhat eerie in respect to the calamity that befell the world economy 140 years ago.