According to W.E.B Du Bois, the Civil War was a moment of reckoning of the central problem facing the union, the issue of color. Du Bois writes that the war provided an opportunity for the expression of agency by African Americans held as enslaved people. In his description of the war, Du Bois notes that the enslaved people did not spontaneously join either side of the conflict because they were weighing the options and the tide of the war (Kelly). In the popular retelling of history that took root in the aftermath of the war, scholars painted the enslaved people as a monolith that either joined the fight in favor of freedom or stayed out of it and waited to be handed freedom by the liberators and abolitionists. Du Bois’ account of the war tells a different story. It highlights an unevenness in the response of African Americans to the conflict. Some were quick to join, while it took longer for others. The enslaved people were acutely aware of the predilection for violence among their owners (Kelly). They quelled rebellions with barbaric brutality and displayed slave bodies as a warning to the rest to toe the line. Du Bois notes that it is inaccurate to claim that the enslaved people were passive while at the same time telling stories of these quashed rebellions. Du Bois proposed a general strike thesis to explain widespread defiance among the enslaved population that swung the war effort in favor of the North (Emerson). The core point of this argument is that the enslaved people freed themselves.
As implied above, In Du Bois’ mind, slavery was the primary cause of the war and was also a vital determinant of the outcome. The politicians and bureaucrats in government, such as Lincoln, held a different view long after the war started. In his open letter to Horace Greeley, editor of The New York Britain, Lincoln reiterated that his primary and sole concern was saving the union (Lincoln). He was open to saving the union by any means necessary, even if it meant keeping the institution of slavery in place. If the Southern states had given up their rebellion, he would have let them keep their slaves (Lincoln). However, as the war went on, it quickly became apparent that slavery was at the heart of it all. As the war held the promise of freedom, the swelling numbers of runaway slaves forced the North to decide on the issue. Lincoln could not bury his head in the sand any longer and issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
Du Bois describes the Freedmen’s Bureau as well-intentioned but overwhelmed (Du Bois). The responsibility handed to the Bureau was greater than the resources and political goodwill backing it. In his writings, one gets the impression that Du Bois was sympathetic toward the difficult position in which the Bureau had to operate and the challenging conditions under which it was established (Du Bois). It is essential to note that Du Bois’ retelling of the history of the war and Reconstruction was intended to correct the misrepresentation of black people by famous scholars at the time. Du Bois used data and historical records to back his assertions. His approach toward the Bureau is no different. He acknowledged their successes and their failures in equal measure. He gave the Bureau credit for setting up a system that allowed African Americans to provide paid labor, ensuring black people got recognition in the courts, providing capital for African American proprietors, and setting up schools for the children of formerly enslaved people (Du Bois). The Bureau was responsible for more than 4 million people, and its resources were limited. Nonetheless, Du Bois notes that the Bureau tried its best and left a lasting impact in the short period of its existence.
The Bureau failed in reintegrating the formerly enslaved people into the American fabric. Its courts favored black people, whereas the state courts favored the enslavers (Du Bois). As a result, the divide and animosity between the two groups widened during the Bureau’s tenure. Furthermore, it continued the culture of dependency by African Americans on the benevolence of the white population. Its establishment was rushed to answer the freed slave question. Hence, its structure was not equipped to deal with the large-scale bureaucracy of an organization of its size. Du Bois argues that its failure was due to the inability of the local agents to fulfill its mandate, the task’s difficulty, and the national climate (Du Bois). Du Bois acknowledges that the Bureau had real potential for transformative change, which was never realized. If it had been the product of political goodwill in times of peace rather than war, the lives of African Americans in the following century would have taken a different, much better trajectory.
In Du Bois’ opinion, the Reconstruction promises were not realistic. The government waited too long before realizing and accepting that the slave question was central to the war (Du Bois). Even after the Emancipation Proclamation, no one was ready with an answer to the freed slave dilemma. The Reconstruction did not have a concrete plan. The landowners were not going to give up their land and coexist with the same enslaved people who had tilled it only a few years earlier. There were 4 million enslaved people. The government did not have the capacity to fulfill the promise at once (Du Bois). These were feverish promises made in the heat of the war to drum up support for the cause. They were bound to fail. Du Bois’s retelling of the Reconstruction demonstrates this gap between expectations and reality for the African American community that still found itself oppressed by new laws intended to get around emancipation.
Du Bois’ opinions on the Reconstruction are fair and nuanced. He is able to give credit where it is due and direct criticism where warranted. He also uses data to support his assertions and correct the misrepresentations of the African American population by the Dunning scholars. Du Bois’ revisionism of the reconstruction period is necessary reading for anyone looking for a more accurate depiction of American history in the aftermath of the Civil War.
Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt, and Eugene F. Provenzo. Illustrated souls of black folk. Routledge, 2015.
Emerson, Mount Guy. “When Slaves Go on Strike: WEB Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction 80 Years Later.” Black Perspectives 28 (2015).
Kelly, B. (2016). WEB Du Bois, Black agency and the slaves’ Civil War. International Socialist Review, 100, 47-68.
Lincoln, Abraham. “Letter to Horace Greeley.” August 22 (1862): 1863.