Robert Cwiklik is an author and former Wall Street Journal editor. He received a master’s degree in nonfiction writing from Johns Hopkins University.
Below, Robert shares five key insights from his new book, Sheridan’s Secret Mission: How the South Won the War After the Civil War. Listen to the audio version—read by Robert himself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Possibly the best American president was succeeded by possibly the worst American president—at the worst possible time.
On April 11, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln addressed a joyous crowd gathered on the North Lawn of the White House to celebrate Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s recent surrender to Union General Ulysses S. Grant. The Civil War appeared to be over; the Union was saved!
About two years earlier, Lincoln, the first Republican president, had freed the slaves behind enemy lines with his Emancipation Proclamation. Now, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which would abolish slavery across the U.S., was on its way to ratification by the states, and as the task of reuniting the war-torn nation loomed, Lincoln announced that he was prepared to push farther, telling the crowd that he favored awarding the right to vote to some Black men: those who were “very intelligent,” and those who served in the military. About 180,000 Black men served in the Union Army, or 10 percent of the total.
At least one person in the crowd on the White House lawn was deeply troubled by the president’s comments. John Wilkes Booth, the handsome young actor, and Confederate sympathizer, took offense at the prospect of Black citizenship suggested by Lincoln’s words. Three days later, Booth entered the Presidential Box at Ford’s Theatre and shot Lincoln in the back of the head.
Lincoln died the next morning and his vice president, Andrew Johnson, was sworn in as president. A former slaveholder who spent most of his career as a Democrat before he became Lincoln’s second-term vice president on a National Union Party ticket, Johnson had proclaimed that leading Confederates were “traitors” who “must be punished.” But after he assumed the presidency, Johnson announced surprisingly lenient amnesty and pardon policies that quickly allowed former Confederates to re-enter the political system as voters and candidates. Meanwhile, the deeply racist Johnson firmly opposed allowing black people to vote. So as state elections approached in 1865, former Confederates who had fought to destroy the Union could vote, while black men who had fought to save the Union could not.
Louisiana’s experience was typical of former Confederate states. Former Rebels there easily won control of the state legislature, where the new doorkeeper wore a Confederate uniform, and lawmakers rushed to enact so-called Black Codes. Such laws were often attempts to push former slaves into agricultural labor by requiring them to be employed but limiting their options for work other than plantation labor. A freed man found without proof of employment could be arrested for “vagrancy,” and while he served a sentence of forced plantation labor, his children could be “apprenticed” to a white planter.
The return of ex-Confederates to Louisiana was accompanied by a wave of violence against former slaves and Union loyalists. Corpses of black men were found floating in the Red River and hanging from trees near Shreveport, some with their throats slashed. Union loyalists began to feel as if they were on the losing side of the war, while ex-Confederates strutted like conquerors.
2. Black Americans were not passive observers during and after the Civil War.
It’s often said that Lincoln, or the Union Army, freed the slaves. But African Americans, both enslaved and free, were actively engaged throughout the Civil War and the Reconstruction periods in the battle to secure their rights.
After Union forces captured New Orleans in April 1862, enslaved African Americans escaped from nearby plantations and swarmed Union Army bivouacs seeking asylum or the chance to take up arms in the righteous war on their so-called masters, enacting a scenario that would be repeated whenever U.S. bluecoats set up camp in slaveholding areas.
Many Black Americans were free before the Civil War. Some were light-skinned descendants of mixed-race parents. Thousands of these so-called free men of color lived in Louisiana, where they constituted perhaps the wealthiest, best-educated “free negroes” in the antebellum United States. When the Civil War began, this privileged group also seized the moment to fight for African American freedom. Members of the Louisiana Native Guard, a free-black militia, offered to help the Union Army fight the Confederates.
“Many Black Americans were free before the Civil War.”
A regiment composed of former slaves and free-black militiamen was mustered into service on September 27, 1862, forming the U.S. Army’s first officially sanctioned all-black unit.
On the same day, a group of prosperous free men of color led by Louis R. Roudanez launched the South’s first Black-owned newspaper, a French-language publication called The Union (L’Union), cultivating a readership among French-speaking free men of color like themselves. Printed three times a week, The Union/L’Union called for the abolition of slavery and beseeched readers to enlist in the war against the Confederacy.
At first, L’Union only called for voting rights to be extended to privileged free men of color like themselves. But after consulting with political allies in Washington, they also sought voting rights for black men born into slavery.
Around that time, Roudanez decided to shut down The Union/L’Union and start a new publication, the New Orleans Tribune, to be published in English and French to forge a closer engagement with the broader black population. The Tribune appeared three times a week when it launched in July 1864 but soon became the first black-owned U.S. daily newspaper.
While voting rights for black men was the Tribune’s signature cause, the paper also crusaded for the desegregation of schools and streetcars, and equal access to restaurants, theaters, and other public places. Tribune editors sent copies of their newspaper to every member of Congress so national policies would be informed by the experiences of embattled black Southerners.
3. Congressional Republicans made ratifying the 14th Amendment the price for ex-Confederate states to rejoin the Union.
In 1866, Louisiana’s Unionist governor, who had long opposed voting rights for Black men, was nevertheless unnerved by the state’s newly ascendant rebel element. He joined with Republicans to sponsor a constitutional convention that would add voting rights for Black men to the state’s fundamental law. But officers of the all-white New Orleans police force broke up the convention, brutally attacking Black delegates and demonstrators. Some victims were shot as they fled through the streets or leapt from the convention hall’s windows to escape. An estimated 44 black men were killed and an additional 60 were severely wounded in the assault, which would soon be known as the New Orleans Massacre.
The New Orleans Tribune covered the incident from every angle. Its reports were reprinted in Northern newspapers, fueling the anger of a Northern public already losing patience with Johnson’s lenient treatment of former Confederates. Meanwhile, a squad of U.S. Colored Troops guarded the Tribune’s newsroom amid threats of violence to the paper’s staff.
Northern voters decided more had to be done to protect Black Southerners. In the elections of 1866, Northerners gave Republicans big, veto-proof majorities in both houses of Congress.
Congress had previously passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, overriding President Johnson’s veto, to protect the basic rights of the formerly enslaved. But when congressional Republicans sought to put such protections on firmer footing by inscribing them into the Constitution with a proposed 14th Amendment, most Southern states had refused to ratify it.
“Northern voters decided more had to be done to protect Black Southerners.”
In March 1867, following the previous autumn’s blowout elections, the Republican-controlled Congress passed a series of Reconstruction acts, placing most former Confederate states under military occupation. Each of the occupied Southern states would be required to write a new constitution awarding voting rights to Black men, and some officials who had served the Confederacy would be disqualified from voting or holding office. Also, before the occupied states could resume normal relations with the Union, they were required to ratify the 14th Amendment, which forbade them from abridging the “privileges or immunities” of U.S. citizens, including the formerly enslaved, or denying to anyone the “equal protection of the laws.”
4. The Supreme Court defanged the 14th Amendment, delivering enormous consequences for Reconstruction.
The advent of Black voting rights in Southern states, a few of which now had majority Black electorates, greatly benefited Republican candidates, Black and white, and the party of Lincoln and emancipation took power in states across the former Confederacy.
This realignment was met by a white backlash. Ku Klux Klan vigilantes unleashed a campaign of terror against freedmen to neutralize their political power. To deal with the crisis, Congress used its new authority to enforce the 14th Amendment and passed the Enforcement Act of 1871, which temporarily gave the president the power to suspend the writ of habeas corpus. That enabled the arrest and detention of suspects without warrants or arraignments, thereby empowering federal raids and prosecutions that smashed the Klan.
Federal officials were growing confident that the constitutional and statutory arsenal they had built after the war to protect Black rights could deal with any new episodes of violence that emerged. But that outlook seemed to shift after the U.S. Supreme Court grappled with a big part of that arsenal, the 14th Amendment, for the first time in an 1873 case involving New Orleans butchers. The butchers’ lawyer argued that the Louisiana legislature, by passing a law requiring them to ply their trade in a state-licensed slaughterhouse, abridged their “privileges or immunities” as U.S. citizens, in violation of the 14th Amendment.
In the Slaughterhouse Cases, the Supreme Court rejected this argument but, in the process, severely circumscribed federal powers to secure the civil rights of freedmen under the 14th Amendment. The court ruled that the butchers’ rights were not protected by the amendment’s privileges or immunities clause because that clause only shielded rights of national citizenship, such as access to ports and navigable waterways. The court said that the privileges or immunities clause had not transferred the “protection of all the civil rights” from the states to the federal government.
Many critics have argued that the court’s majority simply got this wrong, that the 14th Amendment’s framers clearly intended to endow the federal government with the power to protect freedmen’s civil rights under the privileges or immunities clause. By leaving such protection largely to Southern state governments, the high court had arguably left the formerly enslaved at the mercy of their former masters.
In June 1874, Justice Bradley applied the Slaughterhouse majority’s reading of the 14th Amendment in a circuit court opinion, invalidating parts of the 1871 Enforcement Act and freeing three men convicted in a massacre of Black Republicans at Colfax, Louisiana. Although the result was provisional, many Southerners correctly believed that it foretold what the full Supreme Court would ultimately decide. After Bradley issued his opinion, the belief was widespread among Democrats that “any man may murder a Republican, for political reasons without the slightest reason to fear that he will be punished,” a prominent Alabama Republican attested.
5. Sheridan headed South to rescue Reconstruction, but his mission likely quickened its demise.
In the months following the issuance of Justice Bradley’s circuit court opinion, white vigilante violence surged against Republicans of both races in Louisiana and elsewhere in the South.
President Grant, in his December annual message to Congress, vowed to enforce the rights of the formerly enslaved “with rigor,” even as he acknowledged that troop deployments for such purposes had become “repugnant to public opinion.” Grant told lawmakers that failure to intervene in the face of insurgent violence would make the entire project of enfranchising freedmen “worse than mockery and little better than crime.”
“Something had to be done to defeat the vigilantes or freedmen’s newly won voting rights and other gains could be lost.”
Grant soon sent Sheridan to New Orleans and other points South to devise a plan for dealing with the crisis of vigilante violence. He instructed the general to bring family and friends along on the trip and pretend to be on vacation. The secrecy didn’t last long. A few days after his arrival in New Orleans, Democrats, apparently assisted by White League operatives, used trickery and force to seize control of the state House of Representatives, which included 29 elected Black Republicans. Federal soldiers stationed nearby rushed to the scene, ushering several unelected Democrats out of the House chamber. Then Sheridan wired Washington about his plan to round up White League “banditti” for trial before military tribunals and leaked his telegrams to the press to keep the vigilantes off balance.
Many Northerners deplored the appearance of federal bayonets in a sovereign state legislature and condemned Sheridan’s “banditti” plan. This angry public outcry likely prevented Grant from offering a robust defense of the general’s efforts. But something had to be done to defeat the vigilantes or freedmen’s newly won voting rights and other gains could be lost. Grant supported legislation to enable some of Sheridan’s plan, which was similar to the one employed to smash the Klan a few years earlier. But Republicans didn’t have the votes to pass it and wouldn’t any time soon, as they were about to relinquish control of the House following defeats in the recent national election.
Grant would recall the explosion of public anger over the Louisiana incident in months to come as his options for protecting freedmen steadily narrowed. Finally, just weeks after Grant left office, his successor, President Rutherford B. Hayes, withdrew U.S. troops from Southern hot spots, effectively ending Reconstruction.
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