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July 2024
3min read

It might, indeed, have been worth remembering in that crucial war of the American people, the Civil War that was waged between 1861 and 1865. That war was fought, apparently, on the pious belief that once secession had been crushed and slavery had been ended, both sides could pick up the old threads and go on to rebuild a once-broken but now-restored Union. In the end the picking-up process turned out to be rather intricate.

This process brought with it the unpleasant period known as Reconstruction, in which a good many bad things happened; and a highly informative and eloquent sidelight on some of these bad things is contained in Jonathan Daniels’ new book, Prince of Carpetbaggers .

Mr. Daniels here considers the checkered career of a Union brigadier general named Milton Smith Littlefield. Littlefield, who was a notorious figure in the 1870’s but who has been almost completely forgotten by a slightly ungrateful nation since that time, was the archetype of the Yankee who went south after Appomattox to try the incompatible jobs of recementing the Union, doing justice to the emancipated Negro, and winning power for the Republican party and personal profit for himself. He did his best in all of these fields, and in the end all of his ventures failed, and for a time he was the great personal villain of the postwar story as far as good southerners were concerned.

Prince of Carpetbaggers , by Jonathan Daniels. J. B. Lippincott Co. 320 pp. $4.95.

Littlefield was a New York-born middle westerner who lived in Michigan and Illinois before the war, became an officer in an Illinois regiment, fought at Shiloh, served as Sherman’s assistant provost marshal in Memphis early in 1863, and then went to occupied territory in the Carolina sounds and in Florida, where he helped to organize Negro regiments for the Union Army. At the end of the war—after getting his eyes opened, apparently, as to the financial possibilities by serving on timber-rich Edisto Island, South Carolina, .and then retreating to Philadelphia to open a profitable lumber company—he struck the powers in Washington as a deserving soldier and a right-minded Republican and found himself, presently, drifting about in North Carolina, organizing new voters for the party and trying to make a dime or two out of the revival of southern industry and commerce.

Littlefield was a child of his time, and he did the best he could. His motives seem to have been mixed. He had a genuine desire to see the new Negro citizen brought forward into full citizenship; he wanted to restore the shattered Carolina economy; he wanted also to make money for himself, and he had intimate connections with powerful financial interests up North. In the end practically everything failed, Littlefield became a fugitive from North Carolina with a price on his head, and only the shadowy figures in the background got what they wanted.

Personally, Littlefield seems to have been a likable, picturesque sort of character, suave but never quite too obviously the slick operator; but he is important, not as a person, but as a type. He was the sort of person (that is to say) bound to move into the vacuum which the war left in the South, and the vacuum was there chiefly because no one had bothered to do much thinking about what would be done with the victory after it had been won. North and South alike, all anyone wanted to do with the Civil War was win it; what might come afterward was something that could be taken up later, and the tragedy was that it opened the way for the sharpshooters, who had the help not only of northerners who wanted political power and a quick dollar but also of southerners who had exactly the same ends in view.

And it is this point that Mr. Daniels makes very clear in a book which stands out as one of the most readable, provocative, and smoothly written works ever devoted to the whole miserable Reconstruction era. The carpetbagger was not merely the creation of greedy and conscienceless Yankees, although these were behind him in full measure; he also dealt with equally greedy and conscienceless southerners, and what gave him his destructive leverage was the fact that, as Mr. Daniels puts it, he discovered the latent possibilities in “the indissoluble union of Americans meeting with a profit motive.” There was money to be made in the reconstructed South by the corruption of legislatures, the inflated use of the credit of bankrupt states, the creation of new corporations which some day, somehow, would make money for someone other than the trusting stockholders—and the carpetbagger rode to wealth on the discovery of this truth. In his ride he had allies in the South as well as in the North.

Mr. Daniels tells a significant story—possibly apocryphal, probably in its essentials true. After the crash came—after the South had regained control of its affairs and the carpetbaggers had retreated once and for all—a former Confederate who had at last become a trusted emissary of the state of North Carolina went North and sought Littlefield out in his home to urge him to go back to North Carolina and stand trial for his innumerable misdeeds. Littlefield, according to the story, gave the former Confederate a huge stack of papers on his desk, which showed just what he had been up to during the Reconstruction period and whom he had been up to it with. Then Littlefield said:

“Read the papers. Read them, and afterwards, if you will give me North Carolina’s guarantee that all those others involved with me in these matters will be brought to justice with me, I’m ready to go back and stand trial.”

The North Carolinian, says this story, read the papers, and then got up sadly and said:

“General, I respect your condition. I do not think we will trouble you any more.”

As Mr. Morison says, we won the war with Japan in jig-time and left an all but insoluble problem for the postwar generation to deal with. It was in the grand tradition. We did the same thing in the Civil War. The strategy that brings victory is fine, but now and then a nation at war ought to think about the strategy that will help make the ensuing peace worth its cost.

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