I Saw Death Coming: A History of Terror and Survival in the War Against Reconstruction, by Kidada E. Williams

Review by Brian Tanguay

Many Civil War historians have examined the period after the war, focusing on the radical Republican leaders who labored to enshrine legal protections and civil rights for formerly enslaved people. There’s no denying that Thaddeus Stevens in the House and Charles Sumner in the Senate, among others, worked heroically to pass the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution, as well as the Civil Rights Act of 1866. These political achievements not only gave emancipated people hope of obtaining civil and legal protections, they also nudged the country a little closer toward the ideals of its founding documents.  

But what’s often missing from post-war accounts is what the newly emancipated experienced on the ground—the day-to-day reality of their lives. To understand we must first try to imagine what it must have felt like when the heavy yoke of bondage came off, when the burden of centuries was lifted and cast aside. Blacks were at long last emancipated, but not entirely free because the defeated Confederates, plantation owners, and white people in general didn’t change their minds about Black people. Rarely, if ever, is social position, power and privilege relinquished without struggle. The South lost on the battlefield, in no small measure because Black men by the tens of thousands joined Union forces and fought with courage and valor, but defeat on the battlefield was one thing, altering ingrained social customs, beliefs and habits that had prevailed for generations was another. In her new book, I Saw Death Coming (Bloomsbury), Kidada E. Williams, Associate Professor of History at Wayne State University, adds depth and nuance to our understanding about what life was like for Black people during this critical period of American history.

On their first day of freedom Black people faced the challenge of building an existence from scratch, solving the problems of shelter, food, and clothing, the acquisition of tools, farm implements and livestock without money or credit, and caring for children and the elderly, while surrounded by resentful white people determined to see them fail. What’s remarkable is the number of Black families that succeeded against such stacked odds, debunking the notion that Black people were incapable of handling freedom. Blacks didn’t just pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, they seized freedom and built homesteads, farms, churches, schools and communities; they tilled the soil and planted cash crops like corn and cotton; they started businesses; they served in elected offices. Predictably, Black success and growing self-sufficiency sparked a murderous backlash. 

“Hard-liners in the fight against Black people’s freedom,” writes Williams, “came from all ranks of white southern society.” White society was determined to nullify Black peoples’ right to have rights, and accomplished this by a campaign of terror that began when the war ended. While federal troops were deployed throughout the South, they couldn’t be everywhere, and in remote towns and hamlets Black people were at the mercy of the Ku Klux Klan and other white vigilantes. 

Using archival material, oral histories, and transcripts from the Klan hearings held by Congress, Williams illustrates the brutality and trauma Blacks experienced when vigilantes came calling, usually in the dead of night. In numbing detail, Williams shows that night raids were a central tactic in the effort to foil Reconstruction; incident by incident, the terror Black families experienced when their homes were invaded, shot up, or burned out is made palpable. Black men and women, and even children, were whipped, beaten, shot, stabbed, stripped naked and sexually assaulted, and saw their possessions stolen or destroyed. Many were maimed for life or suffered mentally with what today we know as PTSD. Children were especially vulnerable when their parents, out-numbered and out-gunned, were forced to submit to merciless cruelty and humiliation. 

The intent of these raids—some targeted, others random—was to make clear to Black people that everything they worked for, every material gain they achieved, could be taken from them in an instant. Moreover, the powerlessness of the victims was reinforced when they petitioned local authorities to intervene and uphold the law. Too often this was a futile quest because the authorities and the terrorists were one and the same; the local sheriff was in many cases a party to the crime. And as Williams notes, “Judges and juries were often vigilante sympathizers, if not perpetrators or abettors themselves.” Blacks seeking justice from white authorities courted retribution; the consequences of speaking up had to be carefully weighed. 

I Saw Death Coming succeeds in two notable ways. First, it centers individuals, telling, to the extent the historical record allows, their personal stories. Some survivors of night raids never fully recovered from the physical and emotional trauma; others suffered irreversible financial reversals when they left tools, livestock and crops behind as they fled for their lives. Second, the book serves to remind readers that the expansive ideals of Reconstruction didn’t fail because Blacks were unfit for freedom or citizenship; Reconstruction was deliberately undermined by white southerners and a northern public who wanted to move on from the Civil War. White vengeance in the South coupled with white apathy in the White House doomed Reconstruction. But of all the tactics employed to keep Blacks subordinate, none was more terrifying than night riding. Tragically, the true number of victims will never be known. 

I Saw Death Coming will be published by Bloomsbury in January 2023.