Book Review: After Lincoln

After Lincoln: How The North Won The Civil War And Lost The Peace, by A.J. Langguth

There are few stories more sad, regardless of one’s perspective, than the sorry tale of Reconstruction. If one is a Southern nationalist, and certainly I am not, there is the gloomy spectacle of defeat and having to prove one’s bona fides in order to re-enter the republic, the destruction of the war, the loss of leadership within the United States, the resistance against majority rule [1] and coming to terms with the ugly reality and repercussions of defeat. For the Northerner who wished to reform the South into something like its own image, there was a dozen or so years of costly efforts in a general societal atmosphere of spectacular corruption that ruined many reputations, followed by a hand-washing over the fate of Southern republican regimes and the well-being of blacks. For blacks, reconstruction was a horror, with the insecurity of endemic violence perpetuated by racist mobs, the lack of property and dignity, the failure to achieve equality, and long decades of exploitative Jim Crow laws and the unsavory reality of separate-but-unequal.

In terms of its contents and structure, the historian takes almost 400 pages to cover Reconstruction, and he does so by telling a narrative through the biographical details of various important people, most of whom have chapters named after them. Among the list of these illustrious figures, as well as momentous issues, is the following list: April 14, 1865 (the assassination of Abraham Lincoln), Charles Sumner, William Henry Seward, Jefferson Davis, Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback, Jefferson Davis, Andrew Johnson, Oliver Otis Howard, Thaddeus Stevens, the 14th Amendment, Edwin Stanton, Salmon Portland Chase, Benjamin Franklin Wade, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Ulysses S. Grant, Gold (a pun on financier Gould as well) and Santo Domingo, the Ku Klux Klan, Horace Greeley, Hiram Revels, Grant’s second term, Rutherford Birchard Hayes, and Jim Crow. The years each of these chapters are included, and the tale is chronological, focusing on elites, on elections, on corrupt business and politics, on the cabinet and the courts, on the pervasive insecurity of life for freed blacks, on the failure of idealism in the face of Southern intransigence, on former generals of the North and South, and the struggle of a nation to live at peace and to live according to its ideals.

What would have been necessary for Reconstruction to have been less than a miserable disappointment? America’s leaders during the period after the Civil War may have frequently been corrupt, but there were at least some people deeply concerned with honor, including President Grant himself. More honorable behavior would have likely made a more difficult task to libel and slander idealistic Northerners who came to the South to teach poor whites and blacks and rebuild Southern society, but even the honorable and innocent were slandered for political gain. Less racism in both North and South would have made Reconstruction a lot easier, but may have made it unnecessary at all, for had it not been for the corruption and racism of Southern elites, there would have been no cause for rebellion and treason in the first place. Even after the Civil War, it was not possible that a South left to its own devices would have found even the decisive defeat of the Civil War enough of a shock to accept a total change in culture and mindset. The North lost the peace because it was impossible to have peace while enforcing equality on the South, and so the North accepted peace on terms that the South was willing to accept—a second-class backwards part of the United States as a whole, but in control of its own culture and local political institutions, and therefore free to exploit its own people. To have achieved a better outcome would have required winning hearts and minds, and not only the war, and the hearts and minds were not a prize that could have been won in the first place.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, Book Reviews, History, Military History and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Book Review: After Lincoln

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