Recently a columnist in this newspaper wrote a scathing attack on the post-Civil War period known as Reconstruction. He then made a series of statements justifying his conclusion that "the ugly history of Reconstruction is dawning anew." We supposedly face a different type of Reconstruction: "This time the culprits seething with malice and seeking to once again crush and conquer the old Confederacy are the Radical Revisionists."
I guess I am a radical revisionist. For years I have written about Reconstruction in Arkansas, and now more than ever I see it as a great experiment which offered so much but which, admittedly, fell short in many ways. While it failed in guaranteeing the liberty and rights of the freedmen, Reconstruction was the beginning of the modernization of Arkansas--a process which more or less continues to this day.
Reconstruction began in 1867 when Congress adopted legislation to intervene in the former Confederacy where both freedmen and unionists were besieged by ex-Confederates, resulting in many murders. But it went far beyond violence. Ex-Confederates took control of the state legislature in the 1866 elections, the first held after the War.
Historian Michael B. Dougan described the actions of the supposedly defeated rebels in the new legislature: ". . . a law making only ex-Confederates eligible for artificial limbs greatly upset Union Army veterans. Only after bitter debate did the legislature consent to bestow even minimal civil rights on persons of African descent." Blacks were denied the right to vote, to sit on juries, and to send their children to public schools. The legislature also selected former Confederate leader Augustus H. Garland for the U.S. Senate, a stick in the eye to northern Republicans.
To congressmen from the northern states it seemed that the entire war had been fought for nothing. Thus, on March 2, 1867, Congress adopted the Reconstruction Act. The South was put under military control, with Arkansas and Mississippi comprising the Fourth Military District, Gen. E.O.C. Ord commanding.
The military authorities dismissed the legislature, though they allowed Unionist Governor Isaac Murphy to remain in office. To ensure that ex-Confederates did not control the planned Reconstruction governments, ex-Confederates were excluded from voting or holding office. After much debate in which both ink and vitriol flowed freely, Arkansas adopted a new constitution in 1868 and elected its first Republican governor, Powell Clayton, a former Union Army officer who had settled on a plantation near Pine Bluff and married a Delta belle.
The resolute Gov. Clayton has been vilified through the years, but his record as governor included many achievements. The reconstructionists deserve credit for fixing many of the problems inherited from the old regime. First and foremost was creating the state's first public school system. And, don't forget that we did not get a state university until Reconstruction. Amazingly, Arkansas had outlawed banks in the aftermath of the real estate bank fiasco of the 1840s--a situation the Reconstruction legislature rectified. More than 600 miles of railroad tracks were laid during Reconstruction.
One of the great accomplishments of Gov. Clayton was the destruction of the Ku Klux Klan. Founded in Tennessee in 1865 by ex-Confederates, the Klan showed up in Arkansas in April 1868, just as blacks voted in their first election. Soon, the Klan was terrorizing both blacks and white unionists.
During the summer and autumn of 1868 the governor's office received reports of more than 200 murders, countless beatings, arsons, and general mayhem. One of the most brazen Klan murders was the October 1868 killing of Congressman James M. Hinds in Monroe County, the first assassination of a sitting congressman.
Gov. Clayton acted decisively to destroy the Klan, declaring martial law in 10 (later increased to 14) counties which he said were in "a state of insurrection." The state militia, which included numerous black volunteers, occupied the affected counties, and clashes were fought in several towns. In Marion (Crittenden County), a militia unit composed mostly of black volunteers was besieged and had to be rescued by volunteers from Missouri. A clash at Centre Point, in what would become Howard County, resulted in casualties and the destruction of the Catholic Church building.
Historians now recognize Clayton as the only Reconstruction governor in the nation to effectively defeat the Klan. While he might have won the battle against the Klan, he lost the fight for the hearts and minds of Arkansans. In Arkansas and the South as a whole, the Confederates lost the war but won the peace. Historians portrayed Clayton's administration--and Reconstruction as a whole--as a travesty.
I will take up the story of how Reconstruction was demonized in a later column.
Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at Arktopia.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editorial on 07/26/2015