As we stop thinking about sesquicentennials of the Civil War and begin inquiring, quite naturally, about the Reconstruction period that followed, one of the threads which I hope to see more attention focused is the role the military played at that time. As I’ve mentioned before, I think there is a significant (and overlooked) “military history” component to Reconstruction. And I mean that from the perspective of traditional military history – how military forces operated. No matter how triumphant the Federal armies were in 1865, the political goals set forth by those in Washington (be that Lincoln or Johnson) could only be achieved within the reach of the military forces in the south. To implement anything – to include the dismantling of slavery – the military commanders had to operate on the ground.
Following the Confederate surrender, Major-General John Schofield held command of the Department of North Carolina and managed the early stages of Reconstruction there. He issued, as generals are supposed to do, a series of General Orders outlining policies for his subordinates. And, let us stress again these were subordinates who were implementing the nuts and bolts of reconstruction at its earliest stages. Issued on May 15, 1865, General Orders No. 46 set forward the rules for dealing with the freedmen:
The following rules are published for the government of freedmen in North Carolina until the restoration of civil government in the State:
I. The common laws governing the domestic relations, such as those giving parents authority and control over their children and guardians control over their wards, are in force. The parents’ or guardians’ authority and obligations take the place of those of the former master.
II. The former masters are constituted the guardians of minors and of the aged and infirm in the absence of parents or other near relatives capable of supporting them.
III. Young men and women, under twenty-one years of age, remain under the control of their parents or guardians until they become of age, thus aiding to support their parents and younger brothers and sisters.
IV. The former masters of freedmen may not turn away the young or the infirm, nor refuse to give them food and shelter, nor may the able-bodied men or women go away from their homes, or live in idleness, and leave their parents, children, or young brothers and sisters to be supported by others.
V. Persons of age who are free from any of the obligations referred to above are at liberty to find new homes wherever they can obtain proper employment; but they will not be supported by the Government, nor by their former masters, unless they work.
VI. It will be left to the employer and servant to agree upon the wages to be paid; but freedmen are advised that for the present season they ought to expect only moderate wages, and where their employers cannot pay them money, they ought to be contented with a fair share in the crops to be raised. They have gained their personal freedom. By industry and good conduct they may rise to independence and even wealth.
VII. All officers, soldiers, and citizens are requested to give publicity to these rules, and to instruct the freed people as to their new rights and obligations.
VIII. All officers of the army, and of the county police companies, are authorized and required to correct any violation of the above rules within their jurisdiction.
IX. Each district commander will appoint a superintendent of freed-men–a commissioned officer–with such number of assistants–officers and non-commissioned officers–as may be necessary, whose duty it will be to take charge of all the freed people in his district, who are without homes or proper employment. The superintendents will send back to their homes all who have left them in violation of the above rules, and will endeavor to find homes and suitable employment for all others. They will provide suitable camps or quarters for such as cannot be otherwise provided for, and attend to their discipline, police, subsistence, &c.
X. The superintendents will hear all complaints of guardians or wards, and report the facts to their district commanders, who are authorized to dissolve the existing relations of guardian and ward in any case which may seem to require it, and to direct the superintend-eat to otherwise provide for the wards, in accordance with the above rules.
Some of these rules were somewhat “evident” policies to implement. Yes, 21-year-olds were still considered wards of their parents. But beyond those we see rules which to a large degree allow the land owners, mostly former slave owners, to retain control of resources. And that left most of the freedmen in a position to depend upon the land owners with regard to livelihood.
The basis for these rules, and others issued by Schofield during this period, was the opinion of where reconstruction should start. At the time, Schofield applied to Lieutenant-General Ulysses S. Grant in that regard, suggesting to use the pre-war state governments as a starting point, adjusted for the changes wrought by the war. Writing in his later years, Schofield explained his view:
The fundamental principles of my suggestion were:
First. The Constitution and laws as they were before secession, modified to embrace the legitimate results of the war—namely, national integrity and universal freedom.
Second. Intelligent suffrage, to be regulated by the States themselves; and
Third. Military governments, in the absence of popular civil governments, as being the only lawful substitute, under our system, for a government by the people during their temporary inability, from whatever cause, to govern themselves.
We might stand on firm ground to criticize Schofield’s G.O. No. 46 for allowing the establishment of a tenant system which perpetuated some of the ills of slavery. But on the other hand, we also must consider Schofield confronted with a situation and responded within the context of his military profession. His goal was to restore order, first and foremost, so as to setup the next evolution… however authorities in Washington might decide. Above all, the military mind will pursue the shortest path from chaos to order. But more so, we see here the American military professional falling back to his fealty to the Constitution.
Of note, within a week, Schofield’s orders were adopted as policy for the Department of the South. So these rules were applied to many parts across the south.
Schofield would lament, in those later years, that his proposed course was not taken:
But these constitutional methods were rejected. First came the unauthorized system of ‘provisional’ governors, civilians without any shadow of lawful authority for their appointments, and their abortive attempts at ‘reconstruction.’
Next the Fourteenth Amendment, disfranchising nearly all the trusted leaders of the Southern people, and then the ‘iron-clad oath,’ universal enfranchisement of the ignorant blacks, and ‘carpet-bag’ governments, with all their offensive consequences. If wise statesmanship instead of party passion had ruled the hour, how easily could those twelve years of misrule in the South, and consequent disappointment and shame among its authors in the North, have been avoided!
Again, we can stand on firm ground and criticize what Schofield proposed. But we must also consider what his preferred end-state was here. We would slip off that firm ground to say Schofield opposed enfranchisement of freedmen. The truth lay somewhere between. Was there a better alternative for Schofield to pursue? Indeed. But if we chose to run with such counter-factuals, then we must offer explanations to deal with the realities Schofield confronted at that time. Indeed, let me circle back to the “traditional military history” aspect here – did Schofield have the resources to implement a complete reorganization of society in North Carolina, as things stood in May 1865?
History often plays out as the application of lofty ideas by way of direct implementation. Thus history becomes a study of dirty, and complex, little details. None no more than Reconstruction.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part III, Serial 100, page 503; John M. Schofield, Forty-six Years in the Army, New York: The Century Company, 1897, page 376.)