One of my favorite history topics is the American Civil War. I was born in a hospital named after a Confederate general, my father taught at the same military school that sacrificed students at the Battle of New Market, and my mom’s aging mutt is named after General Beauregard.
I grew up in the lush Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, the site of many bloody battles during the Civil War. Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign is still studied by military strategists to this day, and monuments to Confederate generals still dot the small towns along both forks of the Shenandoah River which slowly flows north to meet the Potomac at Harper’s Ferry where John Brown’s raid on a federal armory ignited the powder keg of our nation’s bloodiest conflict.
If you pull off to the side of the road and close your eyes as the wind rustles through the maple trees in June, you can almost hear the bugles, the canister blasts, and the screams of dying men from 1863. The river slowly flows over the rocks and into deep holes where I used to pull chunky smallmouth bass out on warm summer days as a teenager, the same languid pools that once rolled bright red with the blood of dying young men and their flailing horses from both the North and the South.
In 1865, Robert E. Lee formally surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, and the Civil War was over. But the South would fight on not on the battlefield, but at the ballot box, at the Battle of Liberty Place in New Orleans, and through angry white supremacists who passed down their hatred to people like Dylann Roof who live today.
A story that I heard over and over again as a young man is that the federal government didn’t do enough to revitalize the South after the Civil War. Personally, I think that General William T. Sherman should have hooked a left at Savannah and burned the KATC comments section to the ground, but that’s another story.
That narrative does hold true, the federal government did end Reconstruction as part of a compromise, and the South continues to suffer for it to this day.
In the Compromise of 1877, Republican Congressman James Garfield met with powerful southern Democrats at the Wormley Hotel in Washington. The Republicans promised that if Hayes was elected he would withdraw the last of the federal troops from the south, allowing the only remaining Republican Reconstruction governments to collapse. Another concession the Republicans made was to promise support for a bill that would subsidize construction of the southern transcontinental railroad line. Finally, the Republicans also consented to giving the position of Postmaster-General to a southern white.
The Compromise came at a price: It gave the Democrats justification to desert Tilden, since it would allow them to regain political rule in the south. With the compromise, the Republicans had quietly given up their fight for racial equality and blacks’ rights in the south. In 1877, Hayes withdrew the last federal troops from the south, and the bayonet-backed Republican governments collapsed, thereby ending Reconstruction. (Source)
Even though the Confederacy was brought to its knees on the battlefield at the end of the Civil War in 1865, their economy built on cheap labor lives on to this day. For-profit prisons flourish, and young black men are often given longer prison sentences than their white peers for equal offenses.
On the banks of the mighty and muddy Mississippi River, Angola State Prison has seen thousands of prisoners laboring and dying far away from their families. Non-violent offenders have spent their lives toiling in the hot sun next to murderers and rapists while wardens like Burl Cain personally profited from the misery of the inmates they were appointed to oversee.
There are two justice systems and two political systems in this country all of these years later. One is for the affluent, the sons and daughters of the new corporate plantation owners. The other one for the poor, both white and black, but mostly black – a cattle chute into a life of poverty or imprisonment that is nearly impossible to escape.
After decades of progress and the Civil Rights Era, the angry descendants of the Confederacy and struggling workers turned out in 2016 to elect Donald Trump as their next president. They aimed their muskets of anger at everyone but the real culprits, shot themselves in the foot, and the racist ghosts of the Old South rose again.