On January 31, 1865, Congress passed the 13th Amendment, declaring slavery illegal in the United States. Or so it seemed. The second line of the Amendment, and the most oft unknown, states that slavery can still be used as a form of punishment for crimes, and this practice became widely used as a part of southern backlash to Reconstruction Era policies. After the end of the Civil War, many southern states struggled with rebuilding their infrastructures and government systems. In order to avoid falling into more debt, many of these states turned towards the convict lease system, which claimed that the state prison could lease out its convicts to local companies, usually in industries such as mining, lumbering, and railroad building, to not only house prisoners inexpensively but also regain the means of labor they had with slavery before the Civil War. By adopting the convict lease system, southern states were able to earn revenue and control the suddenly free black population of the South, and with the development of black codes, these states were able to legally disenfranchise African Americans up until the 1930s when Alabama became the last state to abolish the convict lease program.
Many historians and history textbooks will say that the 13th Amendment was passed to abolish slavery. While this sentiment is true, there is more behind the reasoning than traditionally taught. Many in Congress believed that slavery was detrimental to white laborers in the South because slaves were seen as a long term investment, and white laborers were unable to make advancements because slavery was less expensive in the long run. Therefore, by abolishing slavery, they would even out the playing field, and whites would have more opportunities. For southern elites, the abolition of slavery meant the loss of a major working force, and because racism had not ended with the end of the Civil War, southern states looked to create a system that would enable them to maintain a steady work force as they began rebuilding and industrializing their states. The states turned to convict leasing, an idea that was not unique to the period after the Civil War but grew exponentially in the Reconstruction Era.
Every generation has plenty to remember about its time spent shaping the human story. But despite this, some generations are better at writing their stories than others. Or perhaps some generations leave more unfinished work for their descendants to sift through. Either way, the legacy of the Civil War still lays heavy on our shoulders. Here at Gettysburg, in particular, the memory of the nation coalesces around a few days in a July long gone. The remembrance began the day after, with letters home, official reports, and raw thoughts scrawled across diary pages. But the years kept coming. New people and new events shaped the nation, while old people and past events faded, their specifics murky, and their significance uncertain. New generations knew the war meant something, but what? That is the question that every generation since has sought to answer in the style and sense of its time. The further time crept from the trial of the Civil War, the more new people with new interests and new agendas could proclaim their answers on old fields with new monuments and new speeches.
Kirk Savage’s article, “The Politics of Memory: Black Emancipation and the Civil War Monument,” examines how this trend shaped the immediate post-war years. By revealing how a template Civil War monument emerged to serve both sides after the war—a very select celebration of unbroken white manhood on both sides—Savage helps illustrate the fundamentally political nature of memorialization. After the war, both North and South began to enshrine the war in the most emotionally and politically efficacious ways possible. While monuments still reflected some level of sectional divide, they almost universally ignored the black perspective on the war and its significance, regarding it as irrelevant, if not outright toxic. Northern and Southern political interests could largely coexist so long as they both ignored this key dimension of the war years and their aftermath. People North and South could still take solace in knowing why their loved ones died by attaching any one of a number of explanations to the same stock pedestal, with the same marble soldier set to stand tall on that explanation for eternity. This tacit agreement left much unresolved baggage for later generations. Continue reading “Making a Statement: The Alabama Memorial at Gettysburg”