Letter to T.P. Chandler Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A letter written by Edwin McCaleb to T.P. Chandler illustrates the experience of a white resident of the South in the aftermath of the Civil War and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. McCaleb describes the overall sense of chaos and confusion, which was furthered by the abrupt end of Lincoln's presidency and the installation of President Johnson. Although McCaleb was a Confederate soldier, he wrote in a way that demonstrated his high regard for President Lincoln and his disdain and distrust for Lincoln's successor, President Andrew Johnson.

Summary Overview

A letter written by Edwin McCaleb to T.P. Chandler illustrates the experience of a white resident of the South in the aftermath of the Civil War and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. McCaleb describes the overall sense of chaos and confusion, which was furthered by the abrupt end of Lincoln's presidency and the installation of President Johnson. Although McCaleb was a Confederate soldier, he wrote in a way that demonstrated his high regard for President Lincoln and his disdain and distrust for Lincoln's successor, President Andrew Johnson.

Defining Moment

The Confederate states of the South suffered much destruction during the four years of the American Civil War. The population was drastically reduced, the economy was crippled, and the Thirteenth Amendment threatened the plantation lifestyle which had defined the South. In addition to the financial drain of the war efforts, the abolition of slavery forced the South to restructure its economy which had previously been dependent upon free slave labor. Reconstruction, an effort initiated by President Abraham Lincoln before the end of the war, sought to amend physical damages endured by the South and restore relations between the Union and the Confederacy. Upon Lincoln's assassination, Vice President Andrew Johnson became the new president, and continued restoration efforts. Johnson, however, essentially ignored the chaos created in the South by the sudden freedom of African American slaves, leaving the problem to be handled by individual states. His leniency toward participants in the rebellion was viewed as a violation of the Constitution.

In his letter, McCaleb expressed his beliefs regarding how the transition of African Americans from slavery to freedom should be handled. He outlines a gradual plan for emancipation, which contrasts with the reality of sudden emancipation that was granted to African American slaves. The reigning attitude of white supremacy is evident in McCaleb's letter, as he describes the recently freed population in a derogatory manner. While writing in favor of abolition, McCaleb demonstrates that his sympathy for African Americans stops there. An attitude of fear, bigotry, and intolerance, an attitude that was common even among citizens in the North, comes out in McCaleb's description of the dangers of equal regard for emancipated African Americans. McCaleb's expression of distrust of the president, and early recognition of his penchant for sidestepping the law for his own benefit were reflected in statements made in favor of impeachment of Johnson years later.

Author Biography

Edwin McCaleb was a Confederate officer during the Civil War. He was held captive as a prisoner of war in the North. McCaleb was seventeen years of age at the beginning of the war, when he left college for the army. Little information exists about McCaleb, but based on his statement that he was seventeen at the beginning of the Civil War, his birth year can be calculated to have been 1844. Although from the South, McCaleb spoke against secession. He fought as a soldier for the Mississippi Twelfth Infantry Regiment, Company K. McCaleb believed whites were intellectually and socially superior to African Americans, but opposed slavery.

Document Analysis

This letter illustrates the postwar conditions of the South, and the dissatisfaction with restoration efforts following the assassination of President Lincoln. The South is described as chaotic and lawless, while rebels are threatened with retaliation from the government, which is believed by the writer to be unconstitutional. Emancipation was sudden, and dramatically impacted the status quo of the South. The views of African Americans held by the writer represent typical attitudes of whites in both the North and the South at the time during which the letter was written.

While this letter was written to and intended for a single acquaintance rather than a large audience, it has historical significance. It provides an intimate synopsis of the experience in the South after the Civil War and the assassination of President Lincoln. Confederate soldiers, like McCaleb, returned to find their home states ravaged by war. The population was reduced by about one-fourth, property values had plummeted, and land and structures had been destroyed. The economy of the South was weakened and further threatened by the sudden emancipation of African American slaves, upon whom plantation owners had relied for free labor.

In addition to the economic hardships with which Southerners were faced following the war, Confederate states also had to accept the reality of living among free African Americans. A tremendous social adjustment was in order. In his letter, McCaleb accurately represents the attitude of white Americans toward African Americans, stating “we can never regard the Negro our equal either intellectually or socially.” McCaleb goes on to warn against the destruction that would be faced by the nation if African Americans were ever to be regarded as equals and interactions between races were to be permitted. McCaleb asserts that the laws of God prohibit such interactions and to ignore such laws would result in “a race of mulattoes as fickle and foolish as the Mongrel population of Mexico.”

Despite his belief in superiority of whites over African Americans, McCaleb demonstrates opposition to slavery, referring to it as “a cancer upon the body politic of our social organization.” In his letter, McCaleb suggests an alternative procedure of emancipation, which is more gradual and allows both plantation owners and African American slaves time to adjust to the economic and social shift. Not only is the economy of the South threatened by the removal of slavery as a resource, McCaleb argues, but by the responsibility to care for this population that is presumed to be ignorant, incompetent, and unable to care for itself without the intervention of whites.

McCaleb's letter represents his high regard for the recently assassinated President Abraham Lincoln, as well as his distrust of President Johnson. His affinity for President Lincoln likely was not representative of the popular opinion in the South of the president during the Civil War, but accurately reflected the growing sentiment for Johnson. Johnson, despite being advised to advocate for African American rights, deferred the responsibility to the states. Johnson was far more lenient than his predecessor in his punishment of rebels, granting amnesty for those who owned property valued above $20,000. In contrast to his lenient policy, McCaleb described Johnson's trial of rebels as unconstitutional because of his use of military, rather than civil courts to try rebels with no affiliation with the army.

Essential Themes

McCaleb's letter contains themes with lasting significance, including his positions on slavery, race equality, and reconstruction in the South. Although slavery never again became permitted in the United States following the Emancipation Proclamation, African Americans continued to be treated poorly by whites and were often employed under unfair, binding contracts that offered little more freedom than they had as slaves. Race inequality remained a topic of contention, which erupted during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Efforts to grant rights and freedoms to African Americans were made during the Reconstruction Era, but were largely unsuccessful. The South maintained an impoverished identity despite charities and programs designed to support the Reconstruction efforts. The Panic of 1873, which led to a national economic depression, further crippled the South.

Opposing viewpoints were held regarding how restoration should be implemented. While economic and structural restoration of the South were common goals, McCaleb's letter demonstrates the viewpoint of the side advocating for the limitation of rights of African Americans. Opponents pressed for freedom and rights of former slaves. Historically, a social compromise can be seen. The Black Codes sought to further white supremacy and restrict the freedoms of African Americans. The Fourteenth Amendment was passed, granting legal citizenship to anyone born in the United States, including African Americans. While this gave citizenship rights and protection by laws to African Americans, it provided little in terms of equal treatment. African Americans continued to be viewed as inferior to whites, and it was out of this belief that Jim Crow laws were born. These laws required racial segregation and remained in effect for nearly a century, until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • “Constitution of the United States: Amendments 11–27.” National Archives. National Archives and Records Administration. Web. 29 March, 2014.
  • Kennedy, Stetson. Jim Crow Guide to the U.S.A.: The Laws, Customs and Etiquette Governing the Conduct of Nonwhites and Other Minorities as Second-Class Citizens. 2nd ed. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2011. Print.
  • McCaleb, Edwin H. “Letter to T.P. Chandler.” 1865. Digital History. Eds. S. Mintz & S. McNeil. University of Houston, 2012. Web. 29 Mar. 2014.
  • “Reconstruction.” The Columbia Encyclopedia. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013. Credo Reference. Web. 29 March 2014.
  • Schultz, Kevin. HIST2. 2nd ed. Vol. 1. Boston, MA: Wadsworth-Cengage Learning, 2012. Print.
Categories: History Content