Mother Jones

FABLES OF THE RECONSTRUCTION

America’s post-Civil War experiment in racial equity didn’t simply end on its own—it was violently overthrown.

PEOPLE DEAL WITH political trauma in different ways. After the 2016 election, yuppies who once scoffed at preppers found themselves stockpiling canned goods. Barack Obama went kitesurfing. Hillary Clinton hiked in the woods. Hundreds of thousands of people began meeting in small groups—“for the first time in my life,” many told reporters—to organize a resistance. Some people bought bourbon, some people bought dogs, and I found myself reading about Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

In the years before the Civil War, Higginson, the abolitionist scion of a powerful Boston Brahmin family, had dabbled as a Unitarian minister, helped bankroll John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, and even sustained a sword wound to his face while breaking into a Massachusetts jail to rescue a fugitive slave. He prayed for a great cleansing war to rid the nation of slavery, and when it came he cheerfully enlisted. Then, in the fall of 1862, Higginson embarked on one of the most radical projects in American history.

Placed in command of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, the Union Army’s first all-black regiment, Higginson found himself at the epicenter of a social revolution.

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