top of page

DuBois's "Black Reconstruction"

W. E. B. DuBois
W. E. B. DuBois

W. E. B. DuBois’s great work Black Reconstruction in America: 1860-1880, published in 1935, isn’t a very easy read. But it’s important as a precursor of the backlash that eventually ensued against racist historiography on the Civil War and Reconstruction period. I thought I’d copy here some notes I took on it recently, so people who haven’t read it are at least aware of its arguments. DuBois was basically a Marxist, and this is reflected in his scholarship, e.g. in its emphasis on economic interest and resources as being what matter most in politics.

Here are notes I took on another classic scholarly work on Reconstruction, the one by Eric Foner, published about fifty years after DuBois’s book. Foner's is the definitive study, but DuBois’s is written with a moral fervor that had gone out of fashion by the 1980s. Below, the italicized sentences are ones I inserted to summarize and clarify. Everything else is quoted from DuBois.


Why did the Border States (Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri) remain in the Union after the other slave states had seceded? Indeed, why did the Northern population agree to fight to keep the South in the country? Certainly not to free the slaves. Nor was the abstract idea of keeping the country united powerful enough to motivate hundreds of thousands of men to risk death in a terrible war.

Free soil was a much stronger motive [for Northerners to fight than freeing the slaves], but it had no cogency in this contest because the Free Soilers did not dream of asking free soil in the South, since that involved the competition of slaves, or what seemed worse than that, of free Negroes. On the other hand, the tremendous economic ideal of keeping this great market for goods, the United States, together with all its possibilities of agriculture, manufacture, trade and profit, appealed to both the West and the North; and what was then much more significant, it appealed to the Border States.

The Border States wanted the cotton belt [to remain] in the Union so that they could sell it their surplus slaves; but they also wanted to be in the same union with the North and West, where the profit of trade was large and increasing. The duty then of saving the Union became the great rallying cry of a war which for a long time made the Border States hesitate and confine secession to the far South…

Thus, it was in the economic interest of both Northerners and Border States to fight to keep the country unified. As always, economic interest was what mattered most.

One of DuBois’s great historiographic contributions was his emphasis on the “general strike” of slaves during the war. Here he states his argument concisely:

As soon as it became clear that the Union armies would not or could not return fugitive slaves [who escaped to the north], and that the slaveowners with all their fume and fury were uncertain of victory, the slave entered upon a general strike against slavery by the same methods that he had used during the period of the fugitive slave. He ran away to the first place of safety and offered his services to the Federal Army. So that in this way it was really true that he served his former master and served the emancipating army; and it was also true that this withdrawal and bestowal of his labor decided the war.

...So long as the Union stood still and talked [in the early phases of the war], the Negro kept quiet and worked. The moment the Union army moved into slave territory, the Negro joined it. Despite all argument and calculation and in the face of refusals and commands, wherever the Union armies marched, appeared the fugitive slaves. It made no difference what the obstacles were, or the attitudes of the commanders. It was “like thrusting a walking stick into an ant-hill,” says one writer. And yet the army chiefs at first tried to regard it as an exceptional and temporary matter, a thing which they could control, when as a matter of fact it was the meat and kernel of the war.

...Every step the Northern armies took then meant fugitive slaves. They crossed the Potomac, and the slaves of northern Virginia began to pour into the army and into Washington. They captured Fortress Monroe, and slaves from Virginia and even North Carolina poured into the army. They captured Port Royal, and the masters ran away, leaving droves of black fugitives in the hands of the Northern army. They moved down the Mississippi Valley, and if the slaves did not rush to the army, the army marched to the slaves. They captured New Orleans, and captured a great black city and a state full of slaves.

What was to be done? They tried to send the slaves back, and even used the soldiers for recapturing them. This was all well enough as long as the war was a dress parade. But when it became real war, and slaves were captured or received, they could be used as much-needed laborers and servants by the Northern army.

This but emphasized and made clearer a truth which ought to have been recognized from the very beginning: The Southern worker, black and white, held the key to the war; and of the two groups, the black worker raising food and raw materials held an even more strategic place than the white. This was so clear a fact that both sides should have known it... ...Transforming itself suddenly from a problem of abandoned plantations and slaves captured while being used by the enemy for military purposes, the movement became a general strike against the slave system on the part of all who could find opportunity. The trickling streams of fugitives swelled to a flood. Once begun, the general strike of black and white went madly and relentlessly on like some great saga. [The numbers eventually reached hundreds of thousands, perhaps a million or more.]

[Quoting a Union general:] Imagine, if you will, a slave population, springing from antecedent barbarism, rising up and leaving its ancient bondage, forsaking its local traditions and all the associations and attractions of the old plantation life, coming garbed in rags or in silks, with feet shod or bleeding, individually or in families and larger groups,—an army of slaves and fugitives, pushing its way irresistibly toward an army of fighting men, perpetually on the defensive and perpetually ready to attack. The arrival among us of these hordes was like the oncoming of cities. There was no plan in this exodus, no Moses to lead it. Unlettered reason or the mere inarticulate decision of instinct brought them to us. Often the slaves met prejudices against their color more bitter than any they had left behind. But their own interests were identical, they felt, with the objects of our armies; a blind terror stung them, an equally blind hope allured them, and to us they come.

This was already happening before the end of 1862. Soon enough, many tens of thousands were working with and for the Union armies, including in productive economic activity on plantations. For the first time ever, they received wages as free laborers. Two hundred thousand freedmen served as soldiers, which made possible Northern victory. Lincoln himself said, “Without the military help of black freedmen, the war against the South could not have been won.”

This [general strike] action of the slaves was followed by the disaffection of the poor whites. So long as the planters’ war seemed successful, “there was little active opposition by the poorer whites; but the conscription and other burdens to support a slaveowners’ war became very severe; the whites not interested in that cause became recalcitrant, some went into active opposition; and at last it was more desertion and disunion than anything else that brought about the final overthrow.”

...Negro military labor had been indispensable to the Union armies.

Negroes built most of the fortifications and earth-works for General Grant in front of Vicksburg. The works in and about Nashville were cast up by the strong arm and willing hand of the loyal Blacks. Dutch Gap was dug by Negroes, and miles of earth-works, fortifications, and corduroy-roads were made by Negroes. They did fatigue duty in every department of the Union army. Wherever a Negro appeared with a shovel in his hand, a white soldier took his gun and returned to the ranks. There were 200,000 Negroes [not including soldiers] in the camps and employ of the Union armies, as servants, teamsters, cooks, and laborers.

Of the actual fighting of Negroes, a Union general, Morgan, afterward interested in Negro education, says:

History has not yet done justice to the share borne by colored soldiers in the war for the Union. Their conduct during that eventful period, has been a silent, but most potent factor in influencing public sentiment, shaping legislation, and fixing the status of colored people in America. If the records of their achievements could be put into shape that they could be accessible to the thousands of colored youth in the South, they would kindle in their young minds an enthusiastic devotion to manhood and liberty.

Here's a perceptive observation, which notes the contradiction between democracy and industrial capitalism: Two quite distinct but persistently undifferentiated visions of the future dominated the triumphant North after the war. One was the prolongation of Puritan idealism, transformed by the frontier into a theory of universal democracy, and now expressed by Abolitionists like Wendell Phillips, students of civilization like Charles Sumner, and leaders of the common people like Thaddeus Stephens, together with some of the leaders of the new labor movement. The other trend was entirely different and is confused with the democratic ideal because the two ideals lay confused in so many individual minds. This was the development of industry in America and of a new industrial philosophy.

The new industry had a vision not of work but of wealth; not of planned accomplishment, but of power. It became the most conscienceless, unmoral system of industry which the world has experienced. It went with ruthless indifference towards waste, death, ugliness and disaster, and yet reared the most stupendous machine for the efficient organization of work which the world has ever seen.

Abolitionists and democrats wanted expansive freedoms and political power for Blacks, but Northern industry had no interest in that. And yet industry, for a while, went along with Radical Republican dreams. Why? : When the South went beyond reason and truculently demanded not simply its old political power but increased political power based on disfranchised Negroes, which it openly threatened to use for the revision of the tariff, for the repudiation of the national debt, for disestablishing the national banks, and for putting the new corporate form of industry under strict state regulation and rule, Northern industry was frightened and began to move towards the stand which abolition-democracy had already taken; namely, temporary dictatorship [of labor], endowed Negro education, legal civil rights, and eventually even votes for Negroes to offset the Southern threat of economic attack.

The South, in short, had to be put in its place, even morally, for the sake of protecting Northern capital.

This point of view of industry began to be expressed frankly. Brewer of Newport wrote to Sumner:

In a selfish point of view free suffrage to the blacks is desirable. Without their support, Southerners will certainly again unite, and there is too much reason to fear successfully, with the Democrats of the North, and the long train of evils sure to follow their rule is fearful to contemplate... a great reduction of the tariff doing away with its protective feature—perhaps free trade to culminate with repudiation... and how sweet and complete will be the revenge of the former if they can ruin the North by free trade and repudiation.

The first fruit of the growing understanding between industrial expansion and abolition-democracy was the Freedmen’s Bureau... The Freedmen’s Bureau was the most extraordinary and far-reaching institution of social uplift that America has ever attempted [at least until the New Deal]. It had to do, not simply with emancipated slaves and poor whites, but also with the property of Southern planters. It was a government guardianship for the relief and guidance of white and black labor from a feudal agrarianism to modern farming and industry. For this work there was and had to be a full-fledged government of men.

It made laws, executed them and interpreted them; it laid and collected taxes, defined and punished crimes, maintained and used military force, and dictated such measures as it thought necessary and proper for the accomplishment of its varied ends. Naturally, all these powers were not exercised continuously nor to their fullest extent; and yet, as General Howard has said, “scarcely any subject that has to be legislated upon in civil society failed, at one time or another, to demand the action of this singular Bureau.”

...Twelve labors of Hercules faced the Freedmen’s Bureau: to make as rapidly as possible a general survey of conditions and needs in every state and locality; to relieve immediate hunger and distress; to appoint state commissioners and upwards of 900 bureau officials; to put the laborers to work at regular wage; to transport laborers, teachers and officials; to furnish land for the peasant; to open schools; to pay bounties to black soldiers and their families; to establish hospitals and guard health; to administer justice between man and former master; to answer continuous and persistent criticism, North and South, black and white; to find funds to pay for all this... The details of what the Bureau accomplished, which I won't reproduce here, beggar belief. Faced with unrelenting hostility from Southern planters, it was nevertheless a remarkable institution.

Here's an eloquent statement of the meaning of Reconstruction:

Reconstruction was an economic revolution on a mighty scale and with world-wide reverberation. Reconstruction was not simply a fight between the white and black races in the South or between master and ex-slave. It was much more subtle; it involved more than this. There have been repeated and continued attempts to paint this era as an interlude of petty politics or nightmare of race hate instead of viewing it slowly and broadly as a tremendous series of efforts to earn a living in new and untried ways, to achieve economic security and to restore fatal losses of capital and investment. It was a vast labor movement of ignorant, earnest, and bewildered black men whose faces had been ground in the mud by their three awful centuries of degradation and who now staggered forward blindly in blood and tears amid petty division, hate and hurt, and surrounded by every disaster of war and industrial upheaval. Reconstruction was a vast labor movement of ignorant, muddled and bewildered white men who had been disinherited of land and labor and fought a long battle with sheer subsistence, hanging on the edge of poverty, eating clay and chasing slaves and now lurching up to manhood. Reconstruction was the turn of white Northern migration southward to new and sudden economic opportunity which followed the disaster and dislocation of war, and an attempt to organize capital and labor on a new pattern and build a new economy. Finally Reconstruction was a desperate effort of a dislodged, maimed, impoverished and ruined oligarchy and monopoly to restore an anachronism in economic organization by force, fraud and slander, in defiance of law and order, and in the face of a great labor movement of white and black, and in bitter strife with a new capitalism and a new political framework.

Reconstruction would last only as long as the ruling class of the South remained perversely obstinate in its policy of rejectionism—its rejection of the interests of Northern finance and industry. As soon as an understanding between the two ruling classes was possible, it would end, and did end (in 1876/77).

[Reconstruction] was a battle between [a Southern] oligarchy whose wealth and power had been based on land and slaves on the one hand; and on the other, [a Northern] oligarchy built on machines and hired labor. The newly organized industry of the North was not only triumphant in the North but began pressing in upon the South...

...The final move which rearranged all these combinations [between various conflicting social groups in the South] and led to the catastrophe of 1876 [i.e., the Compromise of 1877], was a combination of planters and poor whites in defiance of their economic interests; and with the use of lawless murder and open intimidation [against Blacks]. It was a combination that could only have been stopped by government force; and the army which was the agent of the Federal Government was sustained in the South by the organized capital of the North. All that was necessary, then, was to satisfy Northern industry that the new combination in the South was essentially a combination which aimed at capitalistic exploitation on conventional terms. The result was the withdrawal of military support and the revolutionary suppression not only of Negro suffrage but of the economic development of Negro and white labor.

...Northern industry watched the beginnings of democratic government in the South with distrust. They did not expect Negro suffrage to succeed, but they did expect that it would soon compel the Southern oligarchy to capitulate to the dictatorship of industry. Their hopes were fulfilled in 1876.

The accomplishments of Reconstruction, in awful conditions, were impressive. One white carpetbagger has this to say about Black voters in the South:

They instituted a public school system in a realm where public schools had been unknown. They opened the ballot-box and jury box to thousands of white men who had been debarred from them by a lack of earthly possessions. They introduced home rule in the South. They abolished the whipping post, and branding iron, the stocks and other barbarous forms of punishment which had up to that time prevailed. They reduced capital felonies from about twenty to two or three. In an age of extravagance they were extravagant in the sums appropriated for public works. In all that time no man’s rights of person were invaded under the forms of laws...

Anyway, by 1876: the South sensed the willingness of [Northern] Big Business, threatened by liberal revolt, labor upheaval and state interference, to make new alliance with organized Southern capital if assured that the tariff, banks and national debt, and above all, the new freedom of corporations, would not be subjected to mass attack. Such a double bargain was more than agreeable to Southern leaders. So Reconstruction came to an end.


Recent Posts

See All


Thanks for submitting!

bottom of page