By Philip Leigh
Hardcover: 229 pages, $29.95
Publisher: Westholme Publishing; 1st edition (June 7, 2017)
6 x 1.5 x 9 inches
Reconstruction in the South has become a subject dominated these days mostly by academics writing about race and America’s “unfinished revolution,” as viewed through the lens of the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s. However, there is much more to it than that. New England and the South had been rivals since Revolutionary times, and when the shooting stopped in 1865 the Yankees had a glittering prize—control, perhaps permanent, of their old rival. It was simple—the former Confederates (which included pretty much all the male population) would be disenfranchised, and their former slaves enfranchised. They, along with the much smaller number of Union loyalists (who would never be enough by themselves) would provide a permanent majority in the troublesome South. However, it didn’t work out quite that way, and it led to an era just as divisive, in many ways, as the war that proceeded it.
President Lincoln, unfortunately, had little to say about his plans for reconstructing the South or about Negro voting, which left the field open to the Radical Republicans after his death. Although we consider black citizenship and voting rights a given today, it was certainly not seen that way after the war, and was one of the many issues that led to a struggle between the president and congress. On the one hand was the need for national reconciliation, on the other the rights of freedmen, including the franchise.
Philip Leigh, two of whose books I have reviewed previously, approaches the subject with a different perspective. Leigh has worked as a computer industry stock analyst, and in addition to a degree in Electrical Engineering has a Masters in Business Administration. This gives him tools that most historians do not have, or indeed may not even be aware exist. In his earlier book Trading With The Enemy, which examined the informal and illegal trade between North and South during the war, he gave a solid economic analysis of the situation and does so here as well, utilizing facts and figures instead of the generalizations so common these days. There have been recent attempts, for instance, to rehabilitate the Carpetbagger governments of Reconstruction, but Leigh is having none of it, showing how corrupt they really were, and how budgets soared during their tenure regardless of the impoverished postwar condition of the states.
A good example here in North Carolina would be in the machinations of former Union general Milton Littlefield, dubbed “The Prince of the Carpetbaggers,” who defrauded the state out of millions in bond money intended to build a railroad into Western NC, then proceeded to do the same thing in Florida. Although the governor, William Holden, was not directly involved, it was still a major factor in his subsequent impeachment.
One of the more interesting chapters is “Southern Reparations Have Already Been Paid.” Leigh points out that the impoverished South had to pay both its share of the national debt incurred by the war as well as taxes that among other things provided pensions for Union soldiers. If the South had been a defeated sovereign state these measures would have been classified as war reparations.
Using his financial tools, Leigh goes beyond 1877 (the year Reconstruction formally ended) to examine the social and economic systems of the time. Even after the turn of the century, the South was forced to pay discriminatory interest rates by Northern banks (there were few banks in Dixie), which helped to reinforce the sharecropping system (which exploited black and white alike) that impoverished both the people and the land. In many ways the South became America’s Third World, exploited for its resources and although it had regained its political autonomy, held in a semi-colonial economic status. Only in the 50s and 60s, with final conquest of tropical diseases, the introduction of air conditioning, and the postwar economic boom did this begin to change. Now it’s one of the most industrialized and prosperous areas of the country. Alabama, for example, has become a center of automobile manufacture, and Charlotte, NC, is a major banking center.
While not as detailed look like Eric Foner’s massive Reconstruction, Southern Reconstruction is a more accessible and understandable treatment for general reader. In all, it’s a refreshing look at many of the ignored aspects of the period. Well written and argued, and very much worth reading as a necessary corrective to much of recent history.