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History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard


The South at the Close of the War

A Ruling Class Disfranchised.—As the sovereignty of the planters had been the striking feature of the old régime, so their ruin was the outstanding fact of the new. The situation was extraordinary. The American Revolution was carried out by people experienced in the arts of self-government, and at its close they were free to follow the general course to which they had long been accustomed. The French Revolution witnessed the overthrow of the clergy and the nobility; but middle classes who took their places had been steadily rising in intelligence and wealth.

The Southern Revolution was unlike either of these cataclysms. It was not brought about by a social upheaval, but by an external crisis. It did not enfranchise a class that sought and understood power, but bondmen who had played no part in the struggle. Moreover it struck down a class equipped to rule. The leading planters were almost to a man excluded from state and federal offices, and the fourteenth amendment was a bar to their return. All civil and military places under the authority of the United States and of the states were closed to every man who had taken an oath to support the Constitution as a member of Congress, as a state legislator, or as a state or federal officer, and afterward engaged in “insurrection or rebellion,” or “given aid and comfort to the enemies” of the United States. This sweeping provision, supplemented by the reconstruction acts, laid under the ban most of the talent, energy, and spirit of the South.

The Condition of the State Governments.—The legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the state governments thus passed into the control of former slaves, led principally by Northern adventurers or Southern novices, known as “Scalawags.” The result was a carnival of waste, folly, and corruption. The “reconstruction” assembly of South Carolina bought clocks at $480 apiece and chandeliers at $650. To purchase land for former bondmen the sum of $800,000 was appropriated; and swamps bought at seventy-five cents an acre were sold to the state at five times the cost. In the years between 1868 and 1873, the debt of the state rose from about $5,800,000 to $24,000,000, and millions of the increase could not be accounted for by the authorities responsible for it.

Economic Ruin—Urban and Rural.—No matter where Southern men turned in 1865 they found devastation—in the towns, in the country, and along the highways. Atlanta, the city to which Sherman applied the torch, lay in ashes; Nashville and Chattanooga had been partially wrecked; Richmond and Augusta had suffered severely from fires. Charleston was described by a visitor as “a city of ruins, of desolation, of vacant houses, of rotten wharves, of deserted warehouses, of weed gardens, of miles of grass-grown streets.... How few young men there are, how generally the young women are dressed in black! The flower of their proud aristocracy is buried on scores of battle fields.”

Those who journeyed through the country about the same time reported desolation equally widespread and equally pathetic. An English traveler who made his way along the course of the Tennessee River in 1870 wrote: “The trail of war is visible throughout the valley in burnt-up gin houses, ruined bridges, mills, and factories … and large tracts of once cultivated land are stripped of every vestige of fencing. The roads, long neglected, are in disorder and, having in many places become impassable, new tracks have been made through the woods and fields without much respect to boundaries.” Many a great plantation had been confiscated by the federal authorities while the owner was in Confederate service. Many more lay in waste. In the wake of the armies the homes of rich and poor alike, if spared the torch, had been despoiled of the stock and seeds necessary to renew agriculture.

Railways Dilapidated.—Transportation was still more demoralized. This is revealed in the pages of congressional reports based upon first-hand investigations. One eloquent passage illustrates all the rest. From Pocahontas to Decatur, Alabama, a distance of 114 miles, we are told, the railroad was “almost entirely destroyed, except the road bed and iron rails, and they were in a very bad condition—every bridge and trestle destroyed, cross-ties rotten, buildings burned, water tanks gone, tracks grown up in weeds and bushes, not a saw mill near the line and the labor system of the country gone. About forty miles of the track were burned, the cross-ties entirely destroyed, and the rails bent and twisted in such a manner as to require great labor to straighten and a large portion of them requiring renewal.”

Capital and Credit Destroyed.—The fluid capital of the South, money and credit, was in the same prostrate condition as the material capital. The Confederate currency, inflated to the bursting point, had utterly collapsed and was as worthless as waste paper. The bonds of the Confederate government were equally valueless. Specie had nearly disappeared from circulation. The fourteenth amendment to the federal Constitution had made all “debts, obligations, and claims” incurred in aid of the Confederate cause “illegal and void.” Millions of dollars owed to Northern creditors before the war were overdue and payment was pressed upon the debtors. Where such debts were secured by mortgages on land, executions against the property could be obtained in federal courts.