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The uncivil war

Redemption The Last Battle of the Civil War Nicholas Lemann Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 209 pp., $24

September 17, 2006|Charles Rappleye | Charles Rappleye is the author of "Sons of Providence: The Brown Brothers, the Slave Trade, and the American Revolution."

YOU have to ask yourself, in surveying the social landscape of modern-day America, what is it about African Americans? Why do they continue in dismal disproportion to subsist in poverty, lacking in education and destitute of economic or physical security, stuck at the bottom of the social ladder as yet another wave of immigrants passes them by?

As you ponder, you might wonder further: Maybe there's something wrong with black people; maybe they bring their unhappy condition upon themselves. Slavery is such an old story. Why can't they just get over it?

Such rumination would be only human. But it would be an exercise in ignorance, rebuked with startling clarity in Nicholas Lemann's "Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War." Compact and compelling, "Redemption" depicts the three-year period beginning in 1873 that witnessed the demise of Reconstruction in the post-Civil War South. Its scope is limited, but "Redemption" is revelatory in its focus, filling in a black hole, as it were, in America's consciousness of its racial history, the missing link in a continuous record of violent repression that persisted until very close to the present day.

Reconstruction is popularly recalled as a failed experiment in handing the reins of political power to freed slaves in the states of the former Confederacy after the South's surrender at Appomattox. The defeat of that experiment, idealized as courageous whites facing down black hordes, is enshrined in Southern memory as the time of "redemption." Lemann uses the term with intentional irony for his title; his book offers a very contrary view, showing the initial experiment with black suffrage as a promising venture in democracy that was overthrown through a systematic and unconscionable campaign of terror that swept much of Louisiana, Alabama, South Carolina and especially Mississippi in the decade after the end of the Civil War.

"Redemption" is a work of history, but Lemann strives to tell it as a story, building a narrative around Adelbert Ames, a Union Army general who made his name on the battlefields of Chancellorsville, Fredericksburg and Antietam and then became governor of Mississippi. The strategy is not wholly successful; Ames and wife Blanche, as revealed in their heartfelt correspondence, come across as vital and sympathetic, but the events range across the South, often leaving them out of the picture.

No matter. The grist of "Redemption" lies in the fast-paced drama as Mississippi and her neighboring states approached crucial local and federal elections in 1875. Lemann opens two years before, in the Deep South hamlet of Colfax, La., the seat of a black-majority parish drawn by a reform-minded state Legislature. A year after the first election resulted in a contested outcome and a black sheriff for Colfax, the ousted whites mounted a lethal campaign of revenge. By April, hundreds of blacks from around the countryside were encamped in the tiny town, most huddled near the courthouse, seeking the new sheriff's protection from bands of white men marauding the byways of the parish, shooting, maiming or intimidating any blacks they encountered.

During the few weeks that the former slaves gathered in Colfax, a growing contingent of Confederate veterans and white supremacists drifted into its own encampment a couple of miles out of town. The group's aim was to retake the hamlet in the name of the white race: "Drive the mob from their stronghold," as one of the leaders exhorted. "[I]t was plain that something terrible was going to happen," Lemann writes, and on Easter Sunday morning it did. A white militia, several hundred strong, marched on the town and ordered blacks there to disarm and disband. They declined and a siege commenced. For a time it was a contest, but by midafternoon the courthouse had been put to the torch, and its black defenders surrendered. Vanquished and unarmed, the blacks fled the burning building into the teeth of a killing frenzy.

"[T]he ground was thickly strewn with dead," reported a U.S. Army colonel dispatched to survey the carnage a few days later. "Many were shot in the back at the head and neck." Another soldier observed of the hacked and rotting corpses that "there were unusual marks of violence on the bodies; the wounds numbered as high as six." Lemann keeps his narrative within its time frame, yet a reader can't help but recognize parallels to such latter-day killing fields as Bosnia, Rwanda and sectarian Iraq. This was an ethnic cleansing, with all the familiar trappings of blood lust and contempt for the dead.

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