Sequel to the Civil War, With Resonance Today

O.K., here’s a quick Choose Your Own Adventure to test your political savvy.

You’re the President of the United States, it’s September, and over in Iraq, various gangs of thugs are driving around murdering and terrorizing a certain community, which has, naturally, created some militia outfits to defend itself. Bear in mind that after your martial victory several years before, the new government legislated that all Iraqis, whatever their ethnic background, enjoy equal voting rights, and there’s an election looming in November.

That election is a crucial stage in your planned reconstruction of Iraqi civil society, but owing to the intractable blood feuds, there’s a systematic terrorist campaign to keep the voters away from the polls. Your people out there have urgently requested that you deploy the Army right now to restore order so the election can take place. Now here’s where it gets tricky: In October, there’s an important election in Ohio, and your Republican candidate will lose if the Army gets involved in this increasingly unpopular foreign conflict. So, what do you do?

If, because you believe that this is no time to play dice with people’s lives, you gave the morally obvious answer—order out the troops, crack some skulls and hang the consequences in Ohio—then you’re hereby disqualified from high political office and should stick to reading book reviews at your local Starbucks.

But if your reasoning went something like this: Well, I feel badly for the Iraqis, but these Johnny Foreigners will always find a way to kill each other anyway, and if we lose Ohio my party will collapse, so I’m going to ignore the trouble and hope no one gets too worked up over it, then you should consider a career in Washington, D.C.

Ignore the trouble is precisely what President Ulysses S. Grant chose to do in September 1875 when the beleaguered governor of Mississippi pleaded with him to dispatch federal troops to ensure peaceful state elections. At the time, well-organized hordes of Democratic “White Liners,” mostly recalcitrant Confederates implacably opposed to the extension of the franchise to blacks, were terrorizing the black community to suppress the vote.

The governor, Adelbert Ames, had organized a few companies of black militia to counterbalance the White Liners in an act of brave defiance that raised the horrific (or enticing) possibility of reigniting the Civil War and overthrowing Reconstruction using the specter of an “armed Negro uprising” as a dubious pretext. And what happened? In the election, the Republicans were demolished, and Mississippi returned to white control, soon followed by several other states where the same tactics were employed. Up north, Grant’s man, Rutherford B. Hayes, won re-election as the governor of Ohio. (He succeeded Grant as President and ended Reconstruction, thereby helping to hand the South over to segregationist Democrats.)

Nicholas Lemann, the dean of Columbia’s School of Journalism and a staff writer at The New Yorker, tells the story of what soon became known as “the Mississippi Plan,” its background and its baleful aftermath in Redemption. The undoubted hero of the piece is the remarkable Adelbert Ames, a former Union general from Maine who first traveled to Mississippi under the assumption that he was a savior of the defeated South, only to find himself crucified by an unforgiving enemy. Along the way, this flawed messiah was himself redeemed: From being a political hack hoping to launch a Presidential career and larded down with the usual well-meaning but hopelessly patronizing attitude toward the “simple Negroes,” Ames transformed into a fiery crusader determined to see justice done toward the huddled black masses now set free but still suborned by their appalling former owners.

Mr. Lemann performs a sterling service in excavating these hidden ruins, and Redemption is a superb, supple work of popular narrative history backed up by sound archival evidence. Still, there’s one aspect that troubles me, though maybe I’m just being oversensitive: Mr. Lemann very properly gives both sides of any given clash, yet almost invariably exculpates blacks from any hint of impropriety. By portraying Mississippi’s blacks as universally forbearing and heroic innocents, he inadvertently turns them into caricatures.

Mr. Lemann spends a great deal of time carefully delineating the complex facets and motivations of the whites, but relatively little on their black allies. Were none of them corrupt, did none commit murder, had none ever helped to incite a riot? What about the internal politics of the black community and the inevitable class tensions between newly freed landless and land-owning blacks, or the literate and the illiterate?

In his reluctance to portray blacks as subject to the same vices and temptations as anybody, Mr. Lemann may have feared somehow giving succor to the self-pitying Southern historiography of Reconstruction as a “crime” perpetrated by corrupt blacks and their carpet-bagging pals. By this logic, a hint of anything less than untainted grace and innocence would presumably strengthen the cracker view that these uppity blacks had it coming and that whites were merely protecting themselves.

This is an understandable worry on Mr. Lemann’s part, though I think he should be less fearful. There’s no danger of moral equivalence here: Notwithstanding a few individual acts of violence, Republicans of all races were enforcing the law, a moral law that was the product of a war in which about 600,000 men had recently died. One side was right, the other wrong.

Nevertheless, much to his credit, Mr. Lemann never bashes you over the head with an obvious modern analogy—that was me, I’m afraid—but leaves the reader to read between his lines. Every writer is shaped by the present and thus brings biases to his text, and while the old Southern magnolia-and-moonlight historians who reigned until the 1940’s certainly had theirs, it would be surprising if Mr. Lemann—who’s written several perceptive pieces for The New Yorker about Iraq—had not had the failing reconstruction effort and the all-too-successful terrorist activity there lurking in the back of his mind.

The lesson here is that civil wars are messy affairs that rarely end when the official hostilities do; they linger instead for decades as the aggrieved losers settle old scores. The American Civil War is still, to an extent, being fought. When will the Iraqi one end?

Alexander Rose’s Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring (Bantam) was published in April.