James Wilford Garner (1871-1938) was born and raised in Pike County, Mississippi, the same county where my paternal great-grandparents were born and raised (during the Reconstruction period, the state legislature split the county into two, with the southern half retaining the name and the north half being renamed Lincoln County). Garner graduated from the Mississippi Agricultural & Mechanical College in 1892 and went on to study at the University of Chicago and Columbia University.
Garner would become a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and University of Illinois, and he also did extensive teaching work in India. He co-authored a history of the United States with Henry Cabot Lodge, and he published a number of other works on government and political science.
The work he is best known for is his Ph.D. thesis, published in 1901 under the title of Reconstruction in Mississippi. It firmly established him as what was then called the Dunning School, named for Columbia professor William Archibald Dunning. The school of thought generally favored a conservative, more pro-Southern understanding of the post-Civil War Reconstruction period.
The thinking of the Dunning School was influential in universities through World War II, although it was not without its critics, notably historian and civil rights activist W.E. B. DuBois. However, DuBois did consider that, of all the writings associated with the Dunning School, Garner’s Reconstruction in Mississippi was the fairest.
Reading it today, 120 years after it was published, is to see it as a product of its time. Yet Garner did marshal a huge amount of data to support his thesis that Reconstruction, managed by Radical Republicans and backed by the U.S. Army, was largely a disaster for the state of Mississippi.
The work begins with a summary of secession and the Civil War and the transition from war to reconstruction. It covers presidential reconstruction under Andrew Johnson, followed by congressional reconstruction. The period of congressional reconstruction was particularly marked by rampant theft and corruption in the state government, involving Northerners called carpetbaggers and Southerners know as scalawags who seemed determined to raid the state of as many resources as possible. Garner notes that many of the Union soldiers who had fought in Mississippi returned after the war to live there. (He also notes than roughly one fifth of private property in the state changed ownership during the period.)
It was a difficult time for many in the state. Not only was Mississippi economically devastated by the war, rail lines had to be rebuilt, the postal service reestablished, social order restored, and a civil government created that could function. Garner also devotes entire chapters to the creation and functioning of the Freedman’s Bureau, the disturbances associated with the Ku Klux Klan, and the creation (or re-creation) of the public school system, which was also plagued by corruption.
Reconstruction in Mississippi has a definite pro-Southern tilt to its depiction of Reconstruction, but I understand why DuBois considered it relatively fair. Garner is evenhanded in his criticisms, and he does discuss the period broadly and rather inclusively. He doesn’t paint the period of slavery as some happy, pleasant time for all concerned. But it’s his extensive use of data, tables, and charts that is most impressive.
Top illustration: A Drawing of a Freedman’s School in Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1866.