Never has the introduction to a book so misconstrued a work as President Andrew Johnson’s preface to Carl Schurz‘s Report on the Condition of the South. Writing months after the end of the Civil War, Johnson described the situation in the South as “promising” and said that the “people throughout the entire South evince a laudable desire to renew their allegiance to the government.” He said that white Southerners had embarked on a “cheerful return to peaceful pursuits.”
The “cheerful” South of President Johnson was not the South described in German immigrant leader Carl Schurz’s report. The former Major General would report on a post-war region whose people alternated between depressed prostration at the hands of a conqueror and a desire for vengeance against blacks and Southern Unionists. Schurz wrote that even the shooting of uniformed United States soldiers was not “unfrequently” reported.
Worse was the situation of freedmen and the Northerners working with them. Officials from the Freedman’s Bureau were often mobbed and their contractors assaulted and murdered. Blacks were expected to behave as slaves by 95% of the white Southerners Schurz talked to. One former slaveholder even suggested they should submit willingly to whippings by whites. Those that did not “act like slaves” were sometimes tortured or killed. Blacks who left the plantations where they had been enslaved were “shot or otherwise severely punished”, Schurz wrote. A diligent investigator, Schurz met with former slaves and examined the “bullet and buckshot wounds in their bodies”.
Schurz reported that in rural areas beyond the reach of Union troops terrorist bands were operating against blacks trying to exert even the most basic of rights. Blacks who tried to negotiate better wages with former slave owners were the most common victims of these precursors of the Ku Klux Klan. The report also details the institutionalization of terror with the adoption of the first “Black Codes” which forbade blacks living in a town or rural district unless with the permission of a white man, forcing them into slave-like labor “contracts”.
Schurz’s report is one of our country’s first official human rights reports. It details race problems that would only be “rediscovered” by historians in the 1960s.