32 of 36 people found the following review helpful
on December 10, 2006
Well, Nick Lemann has done it again. As he did in his groundbreaking and award winning book "The Promise Land," Professor Lemann has again burrowed deep beneath the surface of American culture into its undercurrents and subtext to mine more pure gold. Despite the fact that he is a Southerner, few historians of American culture exhibit the exquisite balance and honesty on the sensitive issue of race as does Nick Lemann. You can take his narratives of American history to the bank. He is the genuine article. Amen.
In this little gem, which will inevitably become a classic of American history, Lemann tells the story of what happened after the Civil war, in fact what happened after Reconstruction. He does so at eye level and in vivid color. He tells us of how the south was "redeemed," and how America became "One Racist White Nation Under God." Leaning heavily on WEB DuBois' work, but without the socialist over and undertones, Lemann makes no mistake about the fact that the radioactive fallout, the racist culture we have today, is nothing but the background noise from America's own Cosmic Big Bang, the Civil War.
Mostly through the eyes of Adelbert Ames, the Civil War hero from Maine, who served as the Governor of Mississippi, the author tells about how the 14th and 15th Amendments were declared null and void. Through unremitting murder, brutality and terror by white vigilante groups, the weak kneed Northern occupiers eventually gave in to the southern brand of terror and insurrection, which the author refers to as the "last battle of the Civil War." Neighborhood and regional terror involving the most grotesque and inhuman violence was the motif that was spread across the region and led to a reversal of the Northern victory and a win of the Civil War for the South, a victory that still reverberates through American's race-based culture.
The subtext of the book is at least as important and as potent as are the details of the context. It makes clear that the real birth of the American nation occurred in the aftermath of the Civil War, when the South was Redeemed, in the ineptness and utter lack of commitment on the part of the Northern occupiers to protect what was important about the nation -- its laws and the Constitution against 911-styled terrorism.
For the North, Reconstruction was just an overwhelming "mop-up" operation; for the South, it was existential, a matter of the survival of the white race and the southern way of life.
The north tried to solve the daunting post-Civil War problems by "making it up on the fly" but failed miserably. Their vacillation, ineptness, and lack of commitment as overseers did little more than stoked the fires that gave full expression to the terror underlying the sentiments of DW Griffith movie "Birth of a Nation." That sentiment, basically, was (and to a large extent still is): "Get your guns, the niggers are coming to get our white women."
So, in a real sense, this sentiment underlying DW Griffith's movie is the leitmotif of American culture, and as a result, is a more valid symbol of our nation's birth than is the Constitution, or the Revolutionary War. As Lemann makes clear in the unstated subtext of the book, the South in effect won the Civil War, and today we are still living in the afterglow of the background radiation of the terror that "redeemed" the South.
As an aside to the book, I was fortunate enough to see the C-span interview between Professor Lemann and some University of Maryland Professor, whose name I conveniently forgot. This professor did his best to twist the story in Redemption out of context and into another milquetoast cover story about the meaning of the Civil War and Reconstruction. To his credit, Lemann resisted and in his own diplomatic way, trampled the guy.
24 of 29 people found the following review helpful
on November 8, 2007
In the decade from the end of the Civil War to the fraudulent brokered election of Rutherford Hayes, two of the most shameful crimes of American history occurred in tandem: the murderous re-establishment of White rule in the former Confederacy, initiating a century of racial oppression and apartheid enforced by lynching; and the devolution of the "Free Soil Free Labor" Republican Party into its persistent status as the factotum of the "malefactors of great wealth" as Theodore Roosevelt christened them, with the cynical abandonment of the forner slaves into the bloody hands of their former owners. Nicholas Lemann gives a vivid and believable account of both disasters, focusing his narrative on the figure of Adelbert Ames (senator and governor of Mississippi during Reconstruction) and using Ames's papers as a major source of information.
Some months ago I wrote a review of the famous DW Griffith movie Birth of a Nation, in which I suggested that the craft and the content of a work of art cannot and should not be disarticulated. I received a blast of comments accusing me of calling for censorship. That ugly movie, however, was more than a bit of cinematographic innovation. It was and still is a centerpiece of the Southern apologetics for "Redemption" (the term invented by Southerners for what Northerners call Reconstruction). Lemann's book is the most vivid refutation available to general readers of that shameful collection of deliberate lies and foolish self-deceptions sometimes called the Myth of the Lost Cause. One could quibble with Lemann's subtitle, however; the butchery and terrorism of the White Liners in Mississippi was sadly NOT the Last Battle of the Civil War. As witnessed by the current events in Louisiana and the spate of noose displays in the South, the last battle of the Civil War has not yet been fought.
Several previous reviewers have pointed out flaws in Mr. Lemann's efforts, including his misstatement concerning the Emancipation Proclamation. Others have challenged his legitimacy as an historian. He is indeed a mere journalist by profession, but I doubt many of his critics (short of Sean Wilentz) could produce a more thoroughly researched or better integrated account of the events and their aftermath. The book is quite well foot-noted, and the concluding "Note on Sources" is ample and useful. I've read two of Lemann's previous books and I'm prepared to congratulate him on making spectacular progress in style and methodology, from the servile popularism of mere journalism to the rarified heavens of elite historiography. Come on, guys! It's a powerful book! And it's good medicine for the recurrent fevers of an America which has never taken Socrates' injunction to Know Thyself seriously!
One ironic sidelight, from the last chapter: When JFK wrote his campaign-oriented "Profiles in Courage", one of the 'courageous' whom he lauded was Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar, a leader of the effort to disenfranchise Black Republicans and one of the most repulsive hypocrites in American history. But Kennedy needed acceptability in the South... Now that the Party of Lincoln has reconfigured itself as the Dixiecrat Party, perhaps Lamar can be heard laughing in his grave.
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on April 10, 2007
Nicholas Lemann's book "Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War," focuses on mostly forgotten and often sanitized versions of specific incidents that marked the end of Reconstruction and the regaining by White Southerns of state and local government institutions leading to Jim Crow and Segregation that continued for another 90 years or so. The book, relatively brief, examines in detail several incidents, one in Lousiana, the others in Mississippi where local vigalante groups seized control from local black officials through intimidation and massacres. It is perhaps not coincidential that the worst offenses took place in Mississippi, and perhaps some sort of rough justice that in exchange Mississippi remained for decades afterwards on the lowest rung of the ladder among the states in nearly every social and economic ranking.
Much of the book is through the eyes of one Adelbert Ames, a Union general, senator and governor of Mississippi, as revealed in the copius correspondence with his wife, Blanche Butler, who most of the time remained at home in the North. Because of weariness of the part of the North, insufficient troops, deliberate foot-dragging by US officials sympathetic to the South, and indecisiveness on the part of President Grant, these events from 1874-76 were allowed to precede with little intervention and protection of Black citizens. In effect, the withdrawal of Northern troops in 1877, the result of a compromise that ended the electoral stalemate in the Hayes/Tilden presidential election of 1876, overturned a major achievement of the Civil War, namely full citizenship and voting privileges for former African slaves. The result was another dark stain on American history and our pretenses of a just and equitable society where everyone has the chance to be president.
Because of its brevity, the book suffers from a lack of context of how overall Reconstruction had proceeded in the South, it's weaknesses and its victories. The book also would have been improved through a map, particularly Mississippi and the various places where the rampages of the vigantes took place. Another improvement would have been photographs of the several colorful characters portrayed. But all in all, for a brief look at an important moment in American history, the book is highly recommended.
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on December 1, 2006
THE BATTLE AGAINST RADICAL RECONSTRUCTION AFTER THE CIVIL WAR
The Reconstruction period after the defeat of the South in the American Civil is a much disputed and misunderstood period, and in earlier times dominated by historians sympathetic to the Southern cause. Moreover, many books on the subject tend to center either on the question of the federal government's `benign neglect' and eventual abandonment of the freed slaves or on the freed slaves (and their white allies, the carpetbaggers and scalawags) incapacity to govern in place of the traditional planter oligarchy of a defeated Southern nation. Mr. Lemann's book, although correctly paying attention to those issues, takes another tact and addresses the less well-known military actions by defeated white Southerners as a key to the failure of Reconstruction. Although this book will not replace Eric Foner's now classic Reconstruction as the definitive text on the period it should have a prominent place in the academic controversy over the failures of the Reconstruction period.
If, as I believe, the American Civil War of 1861-65 was a second American Revolution consolidating the gains of the first bourgeois revolution by taking the slavery question and the question of a unitary continent-wide national government off the agenda then the Reconstruction period takes on more than a tragic or ill-advised attempt to reorder the nature of government in the South. Thus, the role of the Klu Klux Klan, White Camelia and other white militia organizations in destroying the basis for universal suffrage and economic equality by military force can be defined as a political counterrevolution, and a successful one. It is the gruesome and deadly story of this fight that plays a central role in Mr. Lemann's narrative, particularly in the key states of Mississippi and Louisiana.
Without denying the importance of the serious mistakes and ultimate capitulation of the Federal government on the question of black emancipation, without denying the important failure of the Radical Republicans to fight for their program for the South and without denying that the condition of servitude had rendered many blacks not immediately capacity of forming and running local democratic governments one comes away from a reading of this book with the conclusion that the black liberation struggle, and not for the first time, was militarily defeated in this country. What portion this military defeat of the black liberation struggle played in the overall defeat of Reconstruction the reader can decide. But it played a part. Read on.
11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on February 23, 2007
Having lived in the South for the first 21 years of my life, I can attest to the staying power of the myths of Reconstruction and the succeeding era which I was taught to call Redemption.
The central motif of these myths is that of courageous, heroic whites finally standing up to a brutal Northern occupation, but turning to violence only when physically threatened.
Some prominent historians -- Eric Foner in particular -- have been forthright and comprehensive in setting out the true facts. In my readings, there have been two aspects still missing from such large-scale works. First of all, a visceral, detailed accounting of the intensity of white-on-black violence has been needed. Second, we have lacked a nuanced, detailed biography of Adelbert Ames, perhaps the best exemplar of the promise interracial cooperation held for the South.
In "Redemption", journalist Nicholas Lemann makes an attempt to remedy both these insufficiencies in a narrative aimed at the non-specialist reader. Instead of giving us a comprehensive study of how integrated southern state governments were driven from power, Lemann chooses instead to focus primarily on the single example of Mississippi, with some inclusion of parallel events in neighboring Louisiana. And the story of Reconstruction Mississippi cannot successfully be understood without considering the career of New Englander Adelbert Ames, a Union veteran who became first the state's senator and then governor during this period.
Lemann recounts instance upon instance of politically-inspired and deadly violence that steadily drove Republican voters, especially blacks, from the polls. While many leading white Democrats maintained deniability and claimed that such attacks were rare and always provoked by the other side, and while President Grant's commitment to federal protection decisively waned, Governor Ames cast off his naivete and tried to counter with what forces he could muster. But without timely federal intervention, this proved an impossible task. Ames was finally forced to face facts, and he resigned the governorship and left the state for good. The Solid South was born with violence as midwife.
Lemann's choices mean that he needs to do three things well. First, with respect to bringing home the intensity, pervasiveness, and comprehensive effects of the violence, Lemann is especially convincing, at least within Mississippi (and to a less significant extent Louisiana). Second, his incorporation of an Ames biography is in itself valuable and multi-faceted. But it doesn't serve as a full-fledged biography due to the author's chronological boundaries. We do learn of Ames' background and his significant relationships with others, most notably his wife and father-in-law; these are important in understanding Ames' behavior in Mississippi. But for Ames' life after Mississippi, Lemann takes only a cursory wrap-up approach.
Finally, we should expect Lemann to do a convincing job of integrating these two intersecting narratives. In this he is largely successful. But there are moments when his attention to the details of Ames' life, while welcome to this reader, may yet seem only remotely relevant to the larger story of the Redemption era.
In 1933 Adelbert Ames became the last Civil War officer to die. The myths of Redemption have lived on long after, and Lemann's book is a significant contribution to puncturing those myths and establishing the truth.
43 of 59 people found the following review helpful
on October 26, 2006
'Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War' is a short (207 pages) non-academic history aimed at the 'general reader' or 'popular audience'. The author is not an historian, but rather is Dean of the Columbia School of Journalism. I write these things not to denigrate the book in any way, but rather to alert the prospective reader to the nature of the book.
The book is well written and focuses on the collapse of reconstruction under the open violent assault of 'White Liners' in Mississippi. This tale is well known and nothing particularly new is added here, but the failure of reconstruction is a hugely important story in American history. You really can not understand 20th century America without understanding what happened in the South after the Civil War.
Ironically one of the better parts of the book comes near the end when Lemann reviews the way the story of Reconstruction was revised beyond all recognition beginning especially in the early 1900's.
Lemann's telling still lends too much credence to the role of so-called Northern carpetbaggers in Reconstruction. The Republican leaders of Reconstruction were not all cut from the same clothe.
Lemann gets off to an extraordinarily bad start with a real howler on the first page when he asserts that the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in the areas that the Union Army controlled. Of course, that is exactly incorrect. In fact, perhaps the biggest criticism of the Proclamation was that it freed no slaves because it did not apply in the areas then under Union control.
If you do not know about this crucial piece of history Redemption will give you a reasonably good examination, albeit focused on one state. However, there are far better accounts available, such as Eric Foner's 'A Short History of Reconstruction' (about 300 pages) and the much longer James M. McPherson's 'Ordeal By Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction' or Foner's full scale treatment 'Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877'.
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on October 3, 2006
Nicholas Lemann's book, "Redemption", which chronicles the turning points of Reconstruction, centers around the race struggles that occurred in Mississippi in 1874 and 1875 and his central character, a decorated Civil War hero cum governor of Mississippi, Adelbert Ames. It's a good book and a quick read.
Lemann starts off with a curious prologue which doesn't quite lead into the remaining body of the work, however. The growing battles that engulfed Colfax, Louisiana in 1873 set the stage somewhat for "Redemption" but are referred to only casually in later chapters. Most of the book deals with the larger skirmishes that took place across the border in Mississippi that, in the end, sank the blossoming career of Governor Ames. Lemann is sympathetic to Ames to a large degree as he paints portraits of Ames's enemies (and some allies) as not grasping the developing threats to blacks in Mississippi and Ames, himself. Far down the sympathetic ladder is President Ulysses S. Grant... a weak waffler for the most part in the author's eyes.
Much of the narration in "Redemption" is graphic... there are many individual attacks and deaths reported... but Lemann strikes the finest chord in the closing pages of the book. He reveals that the word "redemption" is a word that Southerners far preferred to "reconstruction" as so many of them came to believe it was their God-bound duty to keep the races separate (but hardly equal). Lemann finishes out with accounts from years later about the public's views on Reconstruction, largely supported by the fact that Adelbert Ames lived to the ripe age of ninety-seven, keeping up correspondences with many. When he died in 1933 he was the last surviving Civil War general. Lemann is also good at explaining the politics of the times, especially the "hows" and "whys" of the turn around of blacks supporting Republicans after the war to finding their eventual home base in the Democratic party.
"Redemption" is a helpful re-visit to those peculiar times in our nation's history after the Civil War. It's informative, sometimes necessarily disturbing, but also well-written.
10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on November 12, 2006
Important book, with candor and openminded analysis from an unexpected source. LeMann chronicles an ugly period in american history and reveals the barbaric nature of american racism against blacks as reconstruction came to a close in the south.
I'm so weary of southern secessionists and Jim Crow apologists of the likes of Shelby Foote and Herman Belz (check out the LeMann's CSPAN BookTV interview). Thank you, Mr. LeMann, for a fresher, less self-serving version of US history.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on March 16, 2012
Lemann's Redemption is simultaneously a study in the breakdown of Reconstruction in Mississippi in the 1870s and a reinterpretation of Adelbert Ames' governorship of Mississippi from 1874-1876. Although Lemann starts with a chapter on the Colfax massacre in Grant County , Louisiana, in 1873, the book is carefully focused on Ames' inability to respond to the violence of the Democrats and former Confederates as they used terrorist tactics and murder to prevent free elections. Although there was violence throughout Mississippi with high death tolls, Grant failed to respond with federal troops. The book is carefully and thoroughly researched because Lemann is aware that he is presenting an interpretation contrary to the "Lost Cause" mythology of the south. A mythology of oppression by Reconstruction governments, like Ames', and riots by blacks was used to justify Jim Crow laws and subsequent virtual re-enslavement of black people. Although the failure of Reconstruction due to lack of vigorous federal support of the 14th (1868) and 15th (1870) Amendments was evident throughout the south, Lemann keeps his discussion tightly focused on the two year period of Ames' governorship with only sufficient background to give it context. The last chapter, "The Mississippi Plan," talks about the inadequacies of some of the early histories of the period, histories which helped cement a heroic mythology into the minds of southerners, a mythology which still exists despite more accurate recent histories.
6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on January 24, 2008
Ten years after the end of the Civil War, an organized group of terrorists successfully overthrew legitimate governments in the American South. Using techniques as varied as economic threats, political intimidation and outright murder, these white terrorists "redeemed" their states from the wrongs they thought had been committed against them by the federal government. The "wrongs" in question stem from the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, guaranteeing African-Americans full and equal participation in politics and opening the door to the possibilities of racial amity after centuries of the degradations and horrors of slavery.
Nicholas Lemann interprets this dismal subjugation of African-Americans and their white allies in his fast-paced, richly anecdotal "Redeemed." Lemann describes, analyzes and punctures the myth propagated by racist white Southerners (and sadly embraced by war-weary, disillusioned Northerners) that Reconstruction was evil incarnate -- a decade that encouraged Black vengeance, abetted by nefarious, self-serving white "carpetbaggers." Indeed, the author turns the white argument on its head; ridiculing this "white fantasy of courage and self-protection against an unimaginably horrible Negro threat," Lemann rails against the very term "Redemption," a term white Southerners used to imply "a divine sanction" for their "campaign of political violence, defiance of national government and local repeal of part of the Constitution."
Against this backdrop of denial of constitutional rights, Lemann focuses on Adelbert Ames, a white Civil War hero who assumes responsibility as the governor of Mississippi, a state seething with white resentment. Initially opportunistic and cavalier about African-American rights, Ames evolves -- politically and personally -- into a passionate advocate of the civil and political rights of the newly enfranchised African-American. Through the prism of Ames' governorship, Lemann details the ferocity of racist resistance and the discouraging lack of commitment from the national government, once the champion of the former slave. Ames fall from political power parallels the ascension of neo-slavery in the South.
Included in "Redeemed" is a powerful concluding chapter that summarizes how historians and molders of public opinion warped Americans perception of the immediate post-Civil War period. A blatantly racist interpretation of Reconstruction (one historian labeled enforcement of the 14th and 15th Amendments "the most soul-sickening spectacle that Americans have ever been called upon to behold") justified Jim Crow laws. President Wilson lauded the disgusting portrayal of African-Americans in D. W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation;" he stated that "it is like writing history with lightening." The United States has struggled with the costs of forsaking racial justice since, and only until the Civil Rights era of the mid-twentieth century did the nation's attention once again return to the unfinished promise of the Civil War.
Written for a large audience, "Redemption" is not without flaws. On the very first page, Nicholas Lemann inexplicably misinterprets the legal impact of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. The author may be guilty of overestimating Ames' idealism and understating his otherwise understandable ambition. Notwithstanding, "Redemption" is an important book, a healthy antidote to the millions of words spent justifying racist terrorism.