Invasion and Reconstruction: It’s Déjà Vu All Over Again By NEIL COOK, Commentary

Tuesday December 21, 2004

I’ve got to admit it: There were parts of American history back in high school that simply bored me to sleep. So I probably slept through extensive parts of the subject. Recent events have, however, awakened an interest.  

There was just something about the headlines the past few months that seemed remotely familiar; like a hazy dream. I couldn’t focus clearly enough to realize what it was. 

Then, with this weekend’s news of “rebels” pulling election officials from their vehicle and executing them in the street in Baghdad, it hit me. I’d heard that term “rebels” somewhere before. 

Sure, there had been all that gory Civil War stuff with its mildly interesting names—take General Hooker for instance. Or Stonewall Jackson. There were rebels somewhere in those history lessons but that stuff I could almost recall. 

Then I tried to think about what an old history teacher always liked to call “the big picture.” 

The Civil War: (1) The invasion by the United States of a sovereign nation (at least in its own mind) that (2) didn’t have a terribly expansive concept of democracy; (3) had a history of violent oppression of its minority population; and (4) had resources and trade potential the U.S. wanted to control.  

Although it had overwhelming troop numbers, superior technology, much more extensive supplies and had virtual control of communications and of the seas, the Union army had a tough time subduing the locals. As I remember it the “rebels” had the advantages fighting on their home turf; being far more dedicated than the Union’s forces because they perceived their very way of life to be threatened whereas the Union’s soldiers were largely conscripts and mercenaries; and having superior leadership. For some reason Lincoln had a series of inept dullards as generals—his armies were frequently led by fools who probably couldn’t even sign their own names. 

Once they gained the upper hand, however, Union forces cut a swath of destruction through the South. General William T. Sherman’s little “march to the sea” with his armies of the Cumberland was a real effort to win the hearts and souls of the South by stripping the countryside bare as he moved forward. Atlanta was burned to the ground as part of this “scorched earth” policy. Things got so bad for the South that they even authorized the enlistment of slaves into their army!  

But none of this stuff has any particular relevancy to headlines of the past few months. 

It was that whole era of history known vaguely as “reconstruction” that has an eerie ring to it. So I did some reading. 

Once the South had been thoroughly trounced, the U.S. government set about establishing proper democracy. Union troops remained in large numbers to restore order and to protect citizens. For some reason anybody who was seen as cooperating with the North by running for office or by trying to register voters was likely to be killed. 

These rebels were downright brutal. They kidnapped people! They beheaded them! Left their headless bodies lying right in the street as a means of intimidation. They even burned people alive. Strung them up and set them on fire! 

The South wasn’t going to be allowed back into the Union until they went along with the whole “democracy” program. Union troops weren’t going home until this happened. 

Go ahead, I dare you. Crack open a history book and take a look to see just how long those troops were there (OK, I don’t remember either). I do know it was after Lincoln was assassinated, after Andrew Johnson survived impeachment by only one vote and well after Ulysses S. Grant’s term, and not until some time after Hays stole a presidential election from Tildon (the election of 1876). You could look it up. 

So, as a net result of throwing the country into a horrible debt, devastating a generation of its youth and fostering hatred—how did that whole “bringing proper democracy to the South” thing turn out? 

Well, that’s all more recent history. There was that creation of the Ku Klux Klan thing (founded by a Confederate general), then there was basically a century of denying blacks the right to vote, the right to an equal education, the right to ride in the front of the bus, and all that. But heck, if you overlook those small details it all turned out just wonderfully. 

I’m sure Iraq will work out just as well. After all, we’ve got machines now that can sign the names of inept military leaders for them. 


Neil Cook is a Berkeley attorney.