“Fake News” and Racial Violence after the Civil War

The following is a guest blog post by William A. Blair, author of The Record of Murders and Outrages: Racial Violence and the Fight over Truth at the Dawn of Reconstruction. Blair uses the accounts of far-flung Freedmen’s Bureau agents to ask questions about the early days of Reconstruction, which are surprisingly resonant with the present day: How do you prove something happened in a highly partisan atmosphere where the credibility of information is constantly challenged? And what form should that information take to be considered as fact?

Donald Trump has not been the only president to downplay racial violence. Nor is our current situation unique in featuring hyper-charged partisanship that reinforces information bubbles in which people mistrust information from the other side. Immediately after the Civil War, a toxic partisan climate caused information itself to become politicized, with the usual sources of reporting—eyewitness and newspaper accounts—dismissed by opponents as fictions created to mask a political agenda. An under-appreciated conflict in the Reconstruction era occurred over what constituted trustworthy information about lawlessness committed against African Americans in the South.

The term “fake news” was not used then, but Democrats led by President Andrew Johnson chastised Radical Republicans (those favoring more expansive Black rights) for allegedly fabricating reports of racial atrocities to mandate federal intervention on behalf of Black people. Resembling current controversies in which conservatives accuse liberals of allegedly fostering racial antagonism, even the New York Times—generally supportive of the Republican party then—criticized Radicals for fostering “anger and estrangement” between the North and South so they could “ride into power on the strength of pretended sympathy with the negro.” Conservatives also claimed that Senator Charles Sumner, a leading Republican, fabricated his so-called eyewitness testimony, which he offered to Congress in the form of anonymous accounts, just as reporters today protect identities of sources to prevent repercussions for exchanges of information. 

Yet as violence raged in the South, with massacres in 1866 at places such as Memphis and New Orleans, the issue became how to produce evidence of racial atrocities that held greater credibility than individual letters or partisan newspapers. The answer to this dilemma featured a moment in which military leaders like General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant broke from the president, their commander, to side with Republicans in Congress on a fact-finding mission that undercut Johnson’s plan for Reconstruction. The desire of these officers to protect civil rights overrode constitutional norms.

Republicans in Congress turned to the Freedmen’s Bureau to document these atrocities to prove to the country that military intervention was needed to establish governments in the South that enforced equal justice. Bureau officers became aware of racial strife almost immediately after the war and sent missives to Washington outlying their general concerns. But by September 1866, these military officers received orders to begin a more systematic accounting of racial violence to demonstrate that atrocities committed against freedpeople and white loyalists in the South demanded a greater military presence. 

The results created an accounting of racial violence organized under the provocative title of “Records Relating to Murders and Outrages.” The record changed the way that white and Black activists presented information on violence. No longer did congressmen rely only on anonymous accounts from people in the South or the partisan press. They used eyewitness testimony collected by Union officers on the ground who presented specific information on victims, assailants, dates of crimes, locations, and resolution of cases (minimal justice). The record they compiled between 1865 and 1868 contains nearly 4,000 incident reports detailing the terrible fates of more than 5,000 innocent people killed, assaulted, raped, burned, hanged, or otherwise harmed.

Radical senators first deployed this information in February 1867 as Congress debated whether to send troops into the South to oversee what became known as Military Reconstruction. The action represented an unprecedented expansion of federal power by nullifying state governments, creating military districts that registered Black men to vote, and disenfranchising a number of former Confederates. The information on outrages supported enactment of these policy measures. As officers continued to collect data on racial violence, they exposed the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, as well as attempts at voter suppression by terrorists who targeted Black people who for the first time cast ballots in a presidential campaign.  

Military officers stationed in the South had become the trusted messengers who worked with freedpeople to ensure that contemporaries could see the extent of racial violence. They left behind an invaluable record that has aided historians in their efforts to prevent the public from losing memory of these violent episodes in our past.

William A. Blair is the Walter L. and Helen P. Ferree Professor Emeritus of Middle American History at Penn State University.