The Last Battle of the Civil War
By Nicholas Lemann
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Hardcover, 9780374248550, 272pp.)
Publication Date: September 5, 2006
List Price: $24.00*
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A century after Appomattox, the civil rights movement won full citizenship for black Americans in the South. It should not have been necessary: by 1870 those rights were set in the Constitution. This is the story of the terrorist campaign that took them away. Nicholas Lemann opens his extraordinary new book with a riveting account of the horrific events of Easter 1873 in Colfax, Louisiana, where a white militia of Confederate veterans-turned-vigilantes attacked the black community there and massacred hundreds of people in a gruesome killing spree. This was the start of an insurgency that changed the course of American history: for the next few years white Southern Democrats waged a campaign of political terrorism aiming to overturn the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and challenge President Grant’ssupport for the emergent structures of black political power. The remorseless strategy of well-financed “White Line” organizations was to create chaos and keep blacks from voting out of fear for their lives and livelihoods. Redemption is the first book to describe in uncompromising detail this organized racial violence, which reached its apogee in Mississippi in 1875.
Lemann bases his devastating account on a wealth of military records, congressional investigations, memoirs, press reports, and the invaluable papers of Adelbert Ames, the war hero from Maine who was Mississippi’s governor at the time. When Ames pleaded with Grant for federal troops who could thwart the white terrorists violently disrupting Republican political activities, Grant wavered, and the result was a bloody, corrupt election in which Mississippi was “redeemed”—that is, returned to white control.
Redemption makes clear that this is what led to the death of Reconstruction—and of the rights encoded in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. We are still living with the consequences.
Nicholas Lemann, dean of the School of Journalism at Columbia University, is the author of The Big Test (FSG, 1999) and the prizewinning The Promised Land. He lives with his family in Pelham, New York.
"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
"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 "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 gripping 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 "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 "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 Praise for The Big Test:
"A dazzling writer . . . Mr. Lemann makes this tale immensely readable." --Dan Seligman, The Wall Street Journal
"A swaggering good tale peopled with colorful characters, from the testmakers who created the SAT in the 1920's to the students who used it 40 years later to launch themselves as Lemann's Mandarins." --Gerald W. Bracey, The Washington Post