Redemption The Last Battle of the Civil War

Nicholas Lemann

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Trade Paperback

272 Pages



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New York Times Notable Book of the Year A Chicago Tribune Best Book of the Year
A Washington Post Book World Best Nonfiction Book of the Year
 In the South, it was almost as though the Civil War had not really ended with the Confederate surrender at Appomattox.  A second war went on for years over the question of rights, especially voting rights, for African Americans. Nicholas Lemann's book tells the story of the climactic events in this war, which brought Reconstruction to an end and laid the groundwork for the long reign of Jim Crow. Lemann's narrative starts with the events of Easter Sunday 1873 in Colfax, Louisiana, where Confederate veterans-turned-vigilantes raised a militia to oust the elected black town government and massacred dozens of people in a killing spree. Then, white Democrats organized a campaign of political terrorism and intimidation that aimed to overturn the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments and challenge President Grant's support of the emerging structures of black political power. Redemption describes this armed campaign of racial violence, which reached its apogee in Mississippi in 1875. In an atmosphere of civic chaos unseen before or since in America, well-financed "White Line" organizations pursued a remorseless strategy that left thousands of black people dead; the goal was to keep hundreds of thousands from voting, out of fear for their lives and livelihoods. Lemann bases his account on military records, congressional investigations, memoirs, press reports, and the invaluable personal and public papers of Adelbert Ames, the young war hero from Maine who was Mississippi's governor at the time. The high-stakes conflict came to a head when Ames pleaded with President Grant to send federal troops to prevent the white terrorists from violently disrupting Republican party activities.  Grant wavered. The result was the bloody, corrupt election of 1875 in which Mississippi was "redeemed"—that is, returned to white control. Redemption makes clear that this is what truly lay behind the death of Reconstruction—and of the rights encoded in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments.


Praise for Redemption

"Written on a dramatic human scale, and leavened by some fresh research and analysis, it is an arresting piece of popular history . . . It offers a vigorous, necessary reminder of how racist reaction bred an American terrorism that suppressed black political activity and crushed Reconstruction in the South. And it illuminates the often bloody fights over black voting rights that would recur for a century to come—and remain, even today, a source of partisan strife, albeit without paramilitary gunfire and with the party labels reversed."—Sean Wilentz, The New York Times Book Review

"Lemann's searing account of how Reconstruction was defeated points to what he calls a campaign of organized terrorism. Thousands of blacks were killed with impunity, as Southern whites gambled that Northerners would be less bothered by atrocities than by the redeployment of federal troops in the South. These Southerners also constructed the myth that they were 'redeemers' and that Reconstruction collapsed of its own accord, and not in what was, as Lemann makes clear, a bloody regional fight over the rights of black citizens."—The New Yorker

"Lemann—a native Southerner, author of several highly regarded books and dean of the Columbia School of Journalism—has told this sad, heartbreaking story with passion and authority. He does not tar all whites with the brush of racism and violence, and he does not excuse Reconstruction its excesses and mistakes. His book is an important contribution to the rewriting of Southern history that began half a century ago with C. Vann Woodward's The Strange Career of Jim Crow, and it may well have comparable influence on our understanding of one of the most shameful periods in our past."—Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post
"Compact and compelling . . . Redemption is revelatory in its focus, filling in a black hole, as it were, in America’s consciousness of its racial history, the missing link in a continuous record of violent repression that persisted until very close to the present day . . . Lemann has clearly mastered his extensive archive, and he writes with precision, depth and gathering power . . . Redemption succeeds as only history can in challenging our comfortable notions of who we are and how we got that way.”—Charles Rappleye, The Los Angeles Times
"With the arrival of Nicholas Lemann's brilliant new book . . . both the year [1875] and its larger meaning stand a fine chance of receiving the notice and study they deserve. Lemann tells the riveting and largely unknown story of how the white South mounted a successful insurgency in the wake of Lee’s surrender, winning by terror and murder in the shadows what could not be won on the field . . . At a brisk 212 pages, Redemption is accessible and important, and we cannot really understand race or political power in modern America without understanding what happened in the South a decade after Appomattox . . . One large lesson of Lemann's book, a lesson with deep resonance today, is that wars can be won or lost in the aftermath almost as completely as they can be in the pitch of organized battle . . . Lemann brilliantly describes how the traditional story of Reconstruction—that the South was treated brutally by politically corrupt carpetbaggers who forced the enfranchisement of supposedly inferior blacks—took shape in the racist ethos of the late nineteenth century. This skewed version of history endured [and] even now remains prevalent in the popular imagination. Lemann has corrected the record, and we owe him a great debt."—Jon Meacham, Washington Monthly
"Lemann has immersed himself in rich primary sources . . . In truth, the failure of Reconstruction to achieve its goals of racial justice and progress was a tragedy of classical proportions; Lemann’s eloquent narrative is equal to the significance of his subject."—James M. McPherson, The New York Review of Books
"The African Americans who organized the Republican Party in Grant Parish, Louisiana, who elected officials who represented their views, and who then faced the murderous assault of white vigilantes in Colfax on Easter Sunday 1873 did not have to be told that American politics encompassed an explosive mix of democracy and terror.  They had learned this long before, as slaves.  Yet we would do well to heed the lessons of their experiences.  Nicholas Lemann’s book will help us to do so."—Steven Hahn, The New Republic
"[Lemann] is a gifted and respected writer. Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War tells a story we keep trying to forget . . . May it be widely read . . . Historians need fellow writers such as Nicholas Lemann . . . For the tortured subject that Lemann explores, the politics of race in this country, we need all the help we can get."—Edward L. Ayers, Slate
"An accessible and important new book . . . On the broadest level, Lemann tells a story with great resonance today, as the United States considers whether it can establish democracy in nations torn by ethnic and sectarian violence. Lemann shows us how even in a country already held together by an established constitution and history, a tradition of racial inequality and hatred prevented even a 'successful' civil war from producing this result. As Lemann aptly and tragically depicts, as long as a dominant race or sect can recast its struggle as one to redeem its homeland against unlawful occupiers or undeserving minorities—the answer is no."—Stephen R. Reily, The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky)
"Lemann performs a sterling service in excavating these hidden ruins, and Redemption is a superb, supple work of popular narrative history backed up by sound archival evidence."—Alexander Rose, The New York Observer

“Lemann’s quick trip through the story of how the white South reclaimed its supremacy is a perverse pleasure, if you have the stomach for some harsh truths and a brisk wallow in a disgraceful part of our heritage.”—Eric Rauchway, American Prospect

"[Lemann] applies his considerable talents as a storyteller to helping general readers catch up with the last 30 or so years of historians' rethinkings . . . [Redemption] will help general readers wade through the thicket of Reconstruction-era myth, which lingers even in the best popular history."—Joshua Zeitz, American Heritage
"It is no secret that emancipation did not mark an end to the suffering of African Americans in the South. Building on the major historical studies of Reconstruction by scholars such as John Hope Franklin and Eric Foner, Nicholas Lemann's . . . account of anti-black hatred and violence in Reconstruction-era Mississippi dramatizes these struggles and brings the history of this roiling period front and center, where it belongs."—Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Harvard University

"Short and concise, Nicholas Lemann's Redemption is one of the very best accounts of Reconstruction I've ever read. Focusing on the Southern 'Redeemers' slaughter of innocent blacks as well as the hopes and trials of Adelbert Ames, the heroic Civil War general who became governor of Mississippi, Lemann succeeds in showing that the defeat of Reconstruction was in many ways 'the last battle of the Civil War,' a battle won of course by the South."—David Brion Davis, Yale University

"Nicholas Lemann has written a book that is essential to any full understanding of how racial hatred, terrorism, and lies have shaped our history, our culture, and our deepest national neuroses."—Roger Wilkins, George Mason University

"It is no surprise that Nick Lemann, with his enormous skills as a writer, has taken one of the least understood and most manipulated moments in our history and redeemed it—and the truth—for the rest of us. Now, thanks to his superb storytelling, some of the fog around this dark chapter has lifted."—Ken Burns

"Redemption is as brilliantly written as the white South's bloody reversal of the Civil War's verdict was grimly effective. In this enraging, absorbing account of the post-war rebirth of white supremacy and black enslavement, Nicholas Lemann proves that Faulkner was right: the past's dark shadows haunt us yet."—Hodding Carter III
"Lemann's superb telling of the redemption of Mississippi will almost certainly reach a larger audience than any other teller of the story has."—William S. McFeely, BookForum

"The Civil War ended not with Lee's surrender in 1865, but ten years later, with the triumph of white supremacy throughout the unrepentant South. After an opening chapter on anti-black violence in Colfax, Louisiana in 1871, Lemann turns to Adelbert Ames, a West Point graduate who fought in 16 Civil War battles and who rose to the rank of brigadier general, won a Medal of Honor, then commanded federal troops overseeing Reconstruction in the South. Under his supervision, Mississippi enacted a constitution granting former slaves the vote, and elected a largely Republican legislature . . . But with Ames's 1873 election as governor of Mississippi, the tide began to turn. Eager to recapture power, white Mississippians began a campaign of ruthless intimidation. Republican rallies were broken up by Democratic gunmen who blamed the violence on blacks. In Vicksburg, armed whites ousted the Republican sheriff and murdered anyone who dared resist their rule. Ames asked for federal troops to restore order. But the president, more concerned with courting Northern businessmen, vacillated . . . The 1876 election saw Mississippi blacks staying away from the polls . . . those who attempted to vote were driven away at gunpoint. In the end, Ames resigned his governorship to avoid impeachment, and Reconstruction came to an end. Southern blacks would not receive full citizenship for nearly another century. A sobering account of the true end of Reconstruction, long suppressed in favor of the self-serving fairy tale peddled by the victors."—Kirkus Reviews
"Focusing on the 1873-75 race war that ex-Confederate vigilante White Leaguers waged in Louisiana and Mississippi, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Lemann illustrates the Civil War's meaning as a black-and-white lived experience in the postwar South. Collapsing history into crystalline moments filled not simply with facts but with historic truths, Lemann details the white supremacists' solution to the obvious postwar problem of establishing a place for ex-slaves. With unrestrained antiblack, political violence, Lemann explains, Southern whites rejected the postwar U.S. theory of freedom and sought to 'redeem' their vision of America as a land of white supremacy. Using public and private papers, especially those of war hero and carpetbag Mississippi governor Adelbert Ames and his wife, Blanche Butler, Lemann personalizes the gruesome racial politics from which U.S. apartheid and its legacies emerged with the nation's acquiescence. Historians and general readers will find his work scandalously engrossing. Highly recommended for collections on Southern history, United States race relations, and the Civil War era."—Thomas J. Davis, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona, Library Journal
"Historians agree that Reconstruction was a conflict in which the good guys lost. Lemann hammers the point home with a grim account of post–Civil War Mississippi. His central figure is Adelbert Ames, a Union general and war hero who fought to preserve the Union, despised abolitionists and considered African-Americans an inferior race. Appointed provisional governor of postwar Mississippi, he was horrified at the violence that whites, a minority, used against blacks trying to vote. As military commander, he provided enough security to ensure a Republican victory in 1869 state elections (blacks voted Republican until the 1930s), became an advocate of civil rights and was elected senator in 1870 and governor in 1873. He worked hard to protect the freedmen but failed, and Lemann's description of the terror campaign against Mississippi blacks makes depressing reading. The book's title refers to the popular version of Reconstruction in which valiant Southern whites 'redeemed' their states from corrupt carpetbaggers and ignorant freedmen. Agreeing with recent scholars who consider this another Civil War myth, Lemann delivers an engrossing but painful account of a disgraceful episode in American history."—Publishers Weekly

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One function that politics serves is to embody, through parties, the sometimes startlingly different ways in which people can perceive the same situation. To a Republican during the Reconstruction era, Adelbert Ames would have seemed to be a very promising young American. He was the son of a sea captain, born in the port town of Rockland, Maine, in 1835; his family had been in America since the seventeenth century and, by the time Adelbert was a young man, had acquired enough influence to get him an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West

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  • Nicholas Lemann

  • Nicholas Lemann, born in New Orleans in 1954, began his journalistic career there; he subsequently worked at The Washington Monthly, The Washington Post, and Texas Monthly. National correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly from 1983 to 1998, he is now a staff writer at The New Yorker, a frequent contributor to other national magazines, and dean of the School of Journalism at Columbia University. The author of The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy and The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America, Mr. Lemann lives in Pelham, New York, with his family.