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2016 Symposium Preview Q&A- Mark Grimsley


In the lead-up to our 2016 Symposium- The Road from Appomattox: Political Violence, Military Conflict, and National Reunion, we’re asking the Symposium’s lecturers to share how they first became interested in the Civil War and why we shouldn’t stop our study of the era at Appomattox. Mark Grimsley is an Associate Professor of History at Ohio State University and the author of “The Hard Hand of War.” He also maintains WarHistorian.org, a web site focusing on military history and national security affairs.

Question 1- Why should people care about the post-Civil War period?

Grimsley- I could point to the ways in which the political, social, and economic events of Reconstruction re-shaped the South—and to some extent the nation—in ways that strongly affected the next hundred years.  But since many people’s interest in the Civil War centers on its military events, they should recognize that the Reconstruction period can be seen not as a cessation of armed conflict but a shift from conventional struggle to insurgency.

In an important sense, the war did end in 1865, because the federal government’s two goals—the restoration of the Union and the destruction of slavery—had both been achieved.  White southerners gave up the idea of an independent Confederacy, and they showed every sign of accepting the lenient terms for return to the Union offered by the administration of Andrew Johnson.

But when the Republican-controlled Congress imposed new, Republican-controlled state governments in the former Confederacy, built around the imposition of universal male suffrage for African Americans, white conservatives revolted, sometimes just politically but in many states through extensive violence.  (An estimated 2,500 people died in Louisiana alone.) Essentially, they created an insurgency that destroyed the Republican state governments and restored what Southern conservatives termed “Home Rule.”

Southern whites never created an insurgency in the Maoist sense of a centrally directed people’s war.  The Invisible Empire of the Ku Klux Klan was a myth.  What you had instead was a complex insurgency of local groups who conducted terrorist campaigns of intimidation and assassination.  These efforts were uncoordinated but had the collective effect of undermining the Republican state governments.

Some of these groups operated under the guise of the Ku Klux Klan, but in most instances the Klansmen were effective only in curtailing attempts by African American families to assert some degree of economic independence.  Only in South Carolina did the Klan become a major threat to the state government.  The largest and best organized of these groups were the White Leagues in Louisiana, the Rifle Clubs in Mississippi, and the Redshirts in South Carolina.  The latter two succeeded in “redeeming” their respective states.  The first came close to doing so, and would have succeeded had the U.S. government rendered their efforts unnecessary by abandoning Reconstruction and simply handing them Home Rule.  In short, Southern conservatives mounted a successful insurgency that restored white supremacy in the South for the next century.

Question 2- When did you first become interested in the Civil War?

Grimsley– My interest in the Civil War began when I read Bruce Catton’s A Stillness at Appomattox when I was twelve years old.  I began devouring everything I could find on the subject, and learned the basic facts of the war from a careful reading of Earl Schenck Miers’ Billy Yank and Johnny Reb:  How They Fought and Made Up.  Two years later I found myself in a ninth grade English class taught by Billie Cranford, who thought the class’s regular assignments were not challenging me enough.  She excused me from them and told me to write a manuscript on any subject I wanted.  I began a book on the Antietam Campaign and finished four chapters before the school year ended.  At her insistence, the manuscript used proper citation methods.  I never finished the book but I began to write articles that derived from it, and published the first of these when I was twenty-one.  Many years later, when my first book, The Hard Hand of War, came out, I dedicated it to Billie.  Without her early intervention I do not think I would ever have become a professional historian.  The debt I owe to her is incalculable.