Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

We Haven’t Learned a Damn Thing, Have We?

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on June 18, 2014

Over at That Devil History, Jarret Ruminski suggests that the United States’ ongoing involvement in the Middle East, and especially Iraq, ignores the big lesson of Reconstruction in the post-Civil-War South — that nation-building is damn nearly impossible if the locals refuse to buy into it; they just have to wait us out:


When the southern Confederacy surrendered to Union forces in 1865 after four brutal years of combat, American government and military officials were tasked with rebuilding a vast swath of U.S. territory — the South — that had been reduced to ruin during the conflict. This sounds simple enough, right? I mean, the Confederate South wasn’t Afghanistan; in 1861 it was still literally a part of the American nation, and not all of the southern states even seceded from the Union. But the ones that did secede found their world turned upside down in the wake of military defeat: much of their infrastructure was destroyed, tens-of-thousands of their men were dead, and, most significantly, their slaves were freed. And those freed slaves were bound to start agitating for, you know, political rights — and the South would have none of that.
In order to deal with the newly freed slaves and “reconstruct” the South back into the Union, the American government divided the South into five military districts occupied by U.S. troops, and it established a federal humanitarian aid agency, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands — better-known as the Freedmen’s Bureau — to help aid the former slaves’ transition to freedom. But American military and civilian forces in the South soon found that the local yokels were restless: white southerners remind defiant in the face U.S. forces attempts to rebuild their society according to rules hammered out in Washington D.C., and they remained especially hostile towards any attempts to integrate newly freed African-Americans into southern society as the political and social equals of whites.
So southern whites organized into irregular bands of paramilitary insurgent groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, the White Leagues, the Red Shirts and others. These domestic terrorist groups waged a campaign of political intimidation, property destruction, and murder against freed people and northern Republicans across the South. They usually attacked at night using guerilla tactics to burn houses and assault blacks and political opponents of the southern Democratic Party. During the daytime they melted back into the civilian population, which often tacitly, and sometimes openly, supported the white supremacist insurgents.
U.S. forces tried to squelch these terrorist groups, and sometimes they succeeded. But in the long run, tamping down on southern insurgent violence and enforcing the rights of freed blacks always meant more violence, more troops, more political will, and more money – with no end in sight. A weary northern government and public eventually soured on this seemingly endless dirty war and gave up on reconstructing the South. By the late 1870s, the old-line white supremacists — many of whom had fought in the Confederate armies — were back in control of Dixie. Thus, after the Civil War, American forces found themselves caught up in a long-running conflict with local and national elements that was driven by ethnic factionalism and power-struggles over how political and economic resources were to be reorganized and controlled following a destructive conflict. The more things change…the more Americans try to nation-build.



Ruminski’s analysis is as persuasive as it is depressing.




14 Responses

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  1. Bob Nelson said, on June 18, 2014 at 1:38 pm

    No we haven’t. I had never considered Iraq or Afghanistan in the same breath as reconstruction but it certainly makes sense, Andy. Yes, Ruminski’s comments are depressing but not as depressing as the 4,500 U.S. troops that were killed between 2003 and 2012. At least after it won the Civil War, the Federal government was rather quick to readmit Southern Democrats to Congress. When the Shiites largely exclude the Sunis from government (or do I have that backwards?), the logical outcome will be civil war. I hope it doesn’t spill over into an Iraq-Syria-Iran confrontation — in other words, a real Middle East war. If that happens, the world will have to do something and that will mean sending Americans there again. I shudder to think of that.

  2. n8vz said, on June 18, 2014 at 2:08 pm

    Well, Andy, I think Ruminski does describe the situation with Reconstruction correctly, but appears to draw the wrong conclusion. The problem with Reconstruction is that the North’s will to continue it waned and it was stopped too soon. Read the novels and other books by Ohioan Albion Tourgée to get a flavor of this problem. Tourgée was a “carpetbagger” in North Carolina after the war; he worked tirelessly for the rights of the newly freedmen and helped to rewrite the constitution of North Carolina to assure civil rights for all. He left N.C. after more than decade totally disillusioned with the lack of resolve of the Federal government to finish the job and the intractable attitude of the many elements of southern society. At that point, he wrote several books — including two acclaimed novels — “Bricks without Straw” and “A Fools Errand” — and a history of the KKK. Later he was the lead attorney for Homer Plessy in Plessy vs. Ferguson and coined the phrase “colorblind justice.” I think if Tourgée was alive today he would say that our biggest error in Iraq was leaving too soon and not keeping troops in place long enough for some level of sanity to prevail. While that would have been a long time, perhaps not as long as it took for Tourgée’s dream of civil rights enforcement to come to fruition a century later with the rise of a new leader — MLK.

  3. Craig Swain said, on June 18, 2014 at 2:14 pm

    The counter arguments … Japan, Germany, South Korea.

    • Andy Hall said, on June 18, 2014 at 2:17 pm


    • Bob Nelson said, on June 18, 2014 at 3:00 pm

      I can see Germany and South Korea fitting in with this discussion — Germany was split for decades, Korea still is — but how does Japan fit it. Maybe I’m just a dunce.

      • Andy Hall said, on June 18, 2014 at 3:07 pm

        The parallel between Iraq and the post-CW South is that in both cases you have deep ethnic/racial/sectarian divides and the collapse of strong-arm governmental institutions that kept a lid on things, generally by keeping most of the power in the hands of one side.

        As they say, the only real Yugoslav was Tito.

        • Rob Baker said, on June 18, 2014 at 9:54 pm

          You also had those deep ethnic/racial divides in Japan as well.

        • H. E. Parmer said, on June 18, 2014 at 11:07 pm

          Exactly. The post-WWII occupation of Germany and Japan never had to deal with the kind of sectarian divide we faced in Iraq. I think a better analogy would be Northern Ireland. If, say, some third power aligned with the Catholic Republic of Ireland bombed the beejeezus out of Belfast , then occupied Northern Ireland and turned out all the Protestants from positions of power. And then proceeded to make itself thoroughly hated by Protestants and Catholics alike.

          Just how many 100s of years were the Brits in N. I.?

          And people who compare West Germany and Japan to Iraq not only ignore the sectarian angle but also seem to forget what the major reason waś for keeping troops there in the years after the war ended, and it wasn’t to ride herd on a restive populace.

  4. jarretr said, on June 18, 2014 at 2:49 pm

    Thanks for the cross-post, Andy, True, there are some limitations to my point, but I’d argue that South Korea was, at best, a bittersweet success given that the nation-building goal was to contain communism. Moreover, my point is that the locals must, as Andy notes, “buy into it” for nation-building to work, and in most historical cases, that just doesn’t happen. Imperialism, however benignly presented, tends to not go down smooth.

    • Craig Swain said, on June 18, 2014 at 9:40 pm

      Yes, locals must “buy into it.” But there’s a lot more to that. I’m sort of a “practitioner” of nation building, though at the lower echelons of those endeavors – having participated in several such adventures through the 1990s and 2000s. Nation building seems to work really well when the “builder” offers the “buildee” a deal they really can’t refuse. So yes, coerced… bought into.. how ever you wish to describe it. Then again, wars don’t really end until one side achieves the ability to impose its will on the other. So a “builder” without the ability to coerce might be considered as simply a victor who hasn’t closed the deal (and may well be what we are seeing in Iraq).

      In short, if you want to build a democracy where one didn’t exist at the start, you probably want a MacAurthur to impose it… or maybe a Syngman Rhee under whom it might grow in the shadows. (And, in that sense, broadening the survey period, South Korea’s rebuild is a lot less bittersweet.)

      Considering the American Civil War/post-war, this all depends on what measure you chose to use. Did a proper democracy emerge after reconstruction? Nope. Was there a proper democracy in America – in any region – after reconstruction? There are some amendments which argue against a positive response. As enlightened as the leaders of 1865 were, they didn’t have civil rights (as we would define them today) very high on the list of objectives. In that light, the return of the planter class to dominance might have be called an acceptable “build” at that time by those responsible…. their will imposed.

      • jarretr said, on June 20, 2014 at 8:34 am

        All of those are good points. Certainly, nation-building can work in some capacities, sometimes. But I’d argue that the cases of post-war Germany and Japan were rather extreme. In other words, there was no choice but to rebuild those countries given all the hell they raised on a global scale, and Germany wasn’t utterly unfamiliar with democracy on some level, given the background of the Weimar Republic. But those were very different situations compared to recent catastrophes in the Middle-East, as well as past catastrophes after the Civil War and in Latin America. In countries like Iraq, El Salvador, Nicaragua, etc., those wars did not have to be fought. They were wars/conflicts of choice justified on very dubious grounds.

        Now, as far as the post-war South goes, it’s true that equality and civil rights weren’t a huge priority in nineteenth century America, but the thing is, real representative democracy was hardly unheard of and it was actually tried. Radical Reconstruction as attempted by the post-war Congressional Republican faction was deeply committed to racial equality and the integrity of full suffrage, but these efforts were squelched by terrorism in the South. So the planter class’s return might have been inevitable in the sense that the costs and commitment to rebuilding the South were so massive that even some of the most committed northern Republicans weren’t willing to go the full distance. But that brings me back to my original point: nation-building is extremely costly, borne of coercion, and often fiercely rejected by those over whom it’s being imposed. So while it has worked sometimes, overall, nation-building is something the U.S. should try and avoid at all costs.

        • Craig Swain said, on July 3, 2014 at 11:36 am

          Success with nation building depends on the level of coercion the “builder” can impose. Yes, coercion is expensive. But it is by nature of war a by-product of war-making. No matter what the outcome, something has to be rebuilt.

          You mention a lot of instances from the Mid-East and Latin America, in passing, as if the US was involved as part of the follow up from wars the US started – “justified on very dubious ground” as you said. Might as well throw in the Balkans too. All situations were the US aim was to pick up the pieces and right things ( our version of right things, of course) after the dishes were being thrown. Where success was seen, again, were instances were the builder could offer a “a deal that could not be refused” be that “very sweet” or “fist smacking.”

          There is also a common mistake made on this topic: Nation building = democracy building. Not so. To the example of the US South, those “building” were not concerned with little D democracy, but rather in restoring the cotton market. Yea, thank you Boll Weevil!

          You agree that Germany, post WW 2, was a particular “must do” case. Same can be said for many such instances. As mentioned above, “nation building” is part of the end state of a war. Who else has done nation building? Look to the decade after WW2 and Eastern Europe.

          And, I cannot resist pointing out “There isn’t a more profitable undertaking than to declare war on the United States and to be defeated.”

  5. H. E. Parmer said, on June 19, 2014 at 1:46 am

    Imagine a Reconstruction in which the former slaves controlled the government, including the military and police, having systematically driven their onetime oppressors from positions of power. And used that power to exact some brutal, bloody payback. Then you’d have something closer to the reality of Iraq.

    And let’s review a little history: the many years we turned a blind eye to Saddam, even supported him in a proxy war against Iran — one which he started – and then eight years of sanctions imposed with the deliberate intent of immiserating the Iraqis to the point where they’d overthrow him. Sanctions which killed an estimated half a million people, most of them children and the elderly. Then ‘Shock and Awe’, and the occupation, which have been credited with anywhere from a few hundred thousand to millions of deaths, plus having created several million refugees. Both sides hated us, and both sides wanted us gone.

    Two trillion dollars thrown down this rathole, for a war of choice, sold with lies, while our infrastructure crumbles, the poor get poorer and the middle class is getting ground to oblivion. And all we did was create a government of Islamic fundamentalists sympathetic to Iran, and destabilize the entire region.

    Gen. Shinseki warned us at the time that it would take several hundred thousand troops on the ground, for an indefinite period of time. That’s irrespective of aid workers, etc. That kind of commitment was simply never going to be made. The fact is, we never controlled Iraq.

  6. John Betts said, on June 19, 2014 at 9:36 pm

    Interesting, I hadn’t considered this before about the Reconstruction Era. Can’t say I agree with everything else the author wrote but this section was very thought-provoking…

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