Philip Dray begins Capitol Men, his study of Reconstruction, with an adventure in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. It occurred one year after a more famous incident that happened nearby: the surrender of Fort Sumter to Southern secessionist forces. The mulatto pilot of a Confederate transfer ship, the Planter, stole the vessel and delivered his own family and a small group of runaways and slave crewmen to the Onward, a Union ship blockading the harbor. This daring accomplishment was a demonstrationone of many in Dray’s bookof the courage, initiative, and resourcefulness often displayed by slaves that generations of slavemasters had not been able to acknowledge. The leader of this group was Robert Smalls, the son of a slave woman who lived at Beaufort on one of the Sea Islands off the South Carolina coast and a white man who was either her white master or a Charleston merchant.
Union naval forces had attacked the Sea Islands the preceding November, but the Confederates had not tried to defend them, and plantation owners quickly vacated, leaving behind their homes and their slaves. During the spring of 1862, when Smalls performed his naval theft, Northern abolitionists, sensing a gold opportunity to demonstrate that slaves could be their own masters, descended on the islands, and a new era began for these people. The Port Royal experiment, as it was called, was not an easy adjustment, but it raised the question of possibilities for further confiscation of land formerly owned by whites. These possibilities turned out to be minimal.
Even observers sympathetic to African Americans wondered whether former slaves, free after the war, had the capacity to function as the citizens they became by virtue of Article 14 of the Constitution in 1868. To the surprise of many, and to the horror of many white Southerners, the new citizens showed that, given the chance, they could. Consequently, the promises of Article 14 and Article 15, passed two years later, were successfully undermined, and black Americans generally, and in the South particularly, had to face another century of cursorily limited citizenship.
In this book, Dray shows the accomplishments of black men who, in the process of serving the Union, unleashed a retaliation by the South and the resignation of the North to that retaliation. He explains why, despite the efforts of black Americans and those of their supporters, Reconstruction failed. Plantation owners, committed to their ingrained notion of the basic inferiority of blacks, had no desire to see their former slaves become their congressmen. In states with large black populations, whites began to learn, if not to admit, that blacks were far abler than their former masters supposed. The whites also feared retaliation in states with proportionately large black populations such as South Carolina, Louisiana, and Mississippi, although credible evidence of such a desire or goal is lacking. The movement was sabotaged in the South, federal support declined, and blacks saw their hopes dashed. From 1901, when Robert H. White, who had long outlasted the other black congressmen, finished his term, until 1973, when Andrew Young and Barbara Jordan took office, no African American held a seat in Congress.
Dray’s contribution to the study of Reconstruction focuses on the achievements of black legislators, but for the most part he has organized his material topically. To assess several of these men, the reader must dip into the various chapters. Two early chapters, however, are named for two of the most colorful of the “capitol men,” “Daddy” Cain of South Carolina and P. B. S. Pinchback of Louisiana. Cain, a freeborn man originally from Virginia, pursued the goal of devising a mechanism by which blacks might obtain land in South Carolina; the measure of his qualified success, however, is found only in the book’s final chapter.
Pinchback, another Virginian and the child of a slave woman and her white master, pops up in Dray’s...
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