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Because the South Got Away With Murder After the Civil War

In 1978, President Jimmy Carter posthumously restored the full citizenship of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, following a similar pardon extended to Robert E. Lee two years earlier. They were exceptions, however, because after the South surrendered to the North in 1865, most Confederate leaders and all soldiers were pardoned when Andrew Johnson, Vice-President to Lincoln and a Southern sympathizer, assumed the presidency upon Lincoln’s death. Johnson would offer more expansive pardons leading up to his impeachment for leniency with the South.

Almost no Southerners who participated in the Civil War were tried for treason, including Jefferson Davis who was detained for two years but never convicted of sedition.

A Duke University journal, Lawfare, notes:

As for the other Confederates [besides Davis, Lee and a few others] who might have been considered for treason, it was on Christmas Day 1868 that President Andrew Johnson took the final of his several pardon actions:

[He]…extended “unconditionally, and without reservation … a full pardon and amnesty for the offence [sic] of treason against the United States, or of adhering to their enemies during the late Civil War, with restoration of all rights, privileges, and immunities under the Constitution and the laws.”

This ended the possibility of trying Confederates for treason. 

In fact, by 1876 Congress passed a final full amnesty bill for Confederates, with exceptions for only a few notables such as Davis and Lee. White male Southerners were again allowed to run for elective office, not held accountable under the 14th Amendment, Section 3.

1876 was a pivotal year in reviving the “lost cause” of the South. A Democratic candidate for the presidency, Samuel Tilden, had won the popular vote for the presidency to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, but there were competing elector slates sent to Washington from three Southern states. As a result, a backroom deal was struck in which the Southern Democrats (and remember the South was Democratic until Lyndon Johnson championed the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts) let Rutherford B. Hayes become president if all Union troops protecting Blacks were removed from the South and Southern states were restored their full rights to legislate Black suppression without federal interference. Hayes was sworn in in 1876.

As far as former slaves being promised “40 acres and a mule” by Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, Andrew Johnson reversed what was known as “Field Order 15” not long after Lincoln’s Assassination, and the land was returned to its pre-Confederate War oligarchs.

By 1876, the post-Reconstruction restoration of the virulently and violently anti-Black South was complete. Although slavery was now illegal, the suppression of Blacks proceeded at a rapid pace, including voter suppression (to the point that the vast majority of Blacks were disenfranchised), destitute share cropping, forced labor, imprisonment, segregation, terrorism, impoverishment, inferior education and lynching (there is still, in 2021, no law that makes lynching a federal crime, which is why more than 4000 of them went largely unpunished under state laws after Reconstruction ended.)

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For nearly a hundred years, the Southern states were left to pursue a merciless subjugation of Blacks.

The Northern oligarchs were generally not interested in punishing the South because the region still had strong economic ties to Northern mercantile industry and shared in symbiotic economic profiteering. In addition, continued post-war occupation of the South was costly. An April, 2020, BuzzFlash Editor’s Commentary fast-forwarded that outlook to the last year of the Trump administration

As in the Confederacy when slaves and white poor were fodder for the oligarchy reaping in fortunes, today’s [and the post-Reconstruciton Northern] oligarchy is using white grievance … to ensure that disposable lives will return to maximizing profits for the plutocracy….

The relationship between oligarchs of the Confederacy and Trumpian oligarchs of 2020 (…profiting off of a COVID-19 workforce being exposed to, infected and dying from unsafe “essential” work) should not be lost.

For nearly a hundred years, the Southern states were left to pursue a merciless subjugation of Blacks. Then with Nixon’s southern strategy in 1968, the South flipped from being Democratic to being Republican in the wake of Lyndon B. Johnson’s pro-Civil Right’s presidency.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan’s first campaign stop in his successful run for the presidency was Philadelphia, Mississippi. It was a big dog whistle because it was there that three civil rights activists from the North were murdered in 1964 at the height of the Civil Rights movement. Reagan emphasized another code phrase in his speech: “state’s rights.” This was a signal that he would allow the Southern states to continue to suppress blacks without federal intervention.

The master contextualist Boston College US History Professor Heather Cox Richardson recently published a book, “How the South Won the Civil War.” She argues that not only has the Southern “lost cause” culture thrived, it, over the years, extended itself to the West in the form of the myth of the rugged white male cowboy. Western white males (excluding the western halves of the Pacific Coast states) found much more in common with Southern white supremacy rule than with urban pro-national government Northerners. Thus, Reagan who played cowboys in movies was of irresistible appeal to both Southerners and Westerners, who saw him as condoning white patriarchy, anti-federalism (“the government is not the solution to the problem; it is the problem”) and justification for white “Manifest Destiny” in dominating non-whites.

As the January 6 insurrection becomes increasingly normalized by Republicans, Trump, like his Confederate forebears, recedes farther and farther from accountability. He’s survived two impeachments and responsibility for hundreds of thousands of unnecessary COVID deaths, not to mention a trunk full of corruption. Just days ago, Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) said the quiet part aloud when he called the January 6 stormers of the US Capitol “patriots.” However, that is what a very large number of Republican voters and elected officials believe — and that makes Trump a hero of the neo-Confederacy.

The website Futurity succinctly captures the paradox of Trump’s committing treason without repercussions in its comments on how Confederate leaders were treated by the Union:

The lenient approach allowed Robert E. Lee and other Confederate leaders to become heroic figures to later generations of Americans …. Union Gen. George Thomas [wrote] in 1868: “The crime of treason might be covered with a counterfeit varnish of patriotism, so that the precipitators of the rebellion might go down in history hand-in-hand with the defenders of the (US) Government.”


That is the reality we must confront as Trump has gotten away with an attempted overthrow of the government of the United States.

Mark Karlin