Five Myths About Reconstruction

What I learned in school in the South about Reconstruction was apparently wrong: “1. Reconstruction was a failure. 2. African Americans took over the South during Reconstruction. 3. Northerners used Reconstruction to take advantage of the South and to get rich. 4. Republicans “waved the bloody shirt” to hide their lack of substantive policies. 5. Republicans gave up on black rights in 1877.” — Washington Post column by James W. Loewen, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Vermont, is the author of “Lies My Teacher Told Me” and “The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader.”

In high school and college history classes in North Carolina, I learned that Reconstruction was a complete, utter and abject failure – a fraud perpetuated on the South by corrupt, boorish, unenlightened carpetbaggers from the North who sought mainly to line their own pockets, ally themselves with angry and and illiterate former slaves, and to punish the South for losing the Civil War.

If Abraham Lincoln had not been assassinated in 1865, I learned, he would not have perpetrated a punitive Reconstruction on the Southern people. I learned that white Southerners were universally opposed to Reconstruction, which imposed an anti-democratic Yankee cabal on the Southern people and was a betrayal of the nation’s democratic ideals. The South, according to what I learned, was very fortunate that Reconstruction ended with the “compromise” enacted after the miraculously close presidential election of 1876 in which Republican Rutherford B. Hayes prevailed over Democrat Samual Tilden in the Electoral College after Tilden won the popular vote.

I was unaware that this “spin” on Reconstruction was mainly a relic of white supremacist control of the history books. The truth of the Reconstruction Era is far more complex than what many of us were taught.

Untold Stories: White Southerners During Reconstruction Who Believed in Civil Rights for Blacks, Such As Christopher Thomas of Henry County, VA

In revisiting the Reconstruction Era with William Winn, a retired professor and native of Martinsville, VA, he shared with me some fascinating research he has done on Virginia native Christopher Y. Thomas (1818-1879). (1), Thomas was a prominent public official who served as Commonwealth attorney for many years, in both houses of the state legislature, and as one of three Republicans from Virginia in Congress (1870-72).

Thomas was a native Southerner who opposed secession, allied himself with the cause of civil rights for blacks, fathered several children by a slave, and believed it was his responsibility to generously provide for them.

Before the Civil War, Thomas was an Andrew Jackson Democrat. But at a Constitutional Convention held prior to the first battle of the Civil War, Thomas opposed Virginia seceding from the Union. Despite his opposition to the war, he was appointed to distribute supplies to needy families of Confederate soldiers in Henry County.

After the Civil War’s end, he represented Henry County at a convention that created a new constitution for Virginia. And he was most active in creating Virginia’s first public school system.

President Ulysses S. Grant offered to make Thomas military governor of Virginia, but he turned it down, “because he believed he had disqualified himself” during the war by distributing food to the Confederate families while soldiers were still fighting, according to his son Frank, Mr. Winn recalled.

Thomas served one term in Congress, 1870-72, representing Henry County and adjoining counties. But he alienated his constituents by supporting the civil rights and force bills. He was not returned to Congress. “I would rather be right than re-elected,” he reportedly said. In the mid-1770s, he owned and edited a Republican newspaper, the Martinsville Herald.

This could not have been popular with the white supremacist Democrats who were to eventually impose monolithic one-party control on Virginia and the rest of the “solid South” for nearly 100 years, until the 1970s.

As with Thomas Jefferson, there is evidence that C.Y. Thomas fathered children by a slave by the name of Chaney. Several area residents claim to be descended from Thomas and Chaney, and apparently generous provisions for some of the Chaney children were included in the Thomas will, including a property where the Patrick Henry Mall is now located. Thomas married Mary Reamy, a member of a prominent family in the area. But she was not buried with him in the Leatherwood Cemetery, interestingly, but in Oakwood Cemetery instead.

Drill Deeper:


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  1. Recently, I came across your blog post on 5 Myths when trying to find information about my great grandfather, Christopher Thomas. I found your comments fascinating and would like to find out more about the research you mention. Unfortuntely Winn has died. Do you have any idea where his papers on this topic might be found? Thanks for writing up this information. Ann Thomas Brody


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