This Week in Reconstruction, December 16-22, 1866

Dublin Core


This Week in Reconstruction, December 16-22, 1866


The last thing any society needs in its judicial system is confusion. Unfortunately, confusion is perhaps the only consistency in Richmond's current system of justice. That confusion is why the case of Dr. Watson has taken over the pages of the Dispatch and the gossip of the city. This case is interesting not because he is accused of a gruesome and bloody murder, though he is, but because it will answer questions regarding the judicial system left answered at the close of the Civil War. Dr. Watson, of Rockbridge county, Virginia, is accused of shooting and killing a "negro" man. After the civil authorities refused to arrest him, he was taken into custody by the military. No one knew the military could do that. No one knows if the military can do that. This case is no longer about the death of an innocent black man, that detail now seems salient, but a test to see what power truly reigns supreme: the military or the civil government. The Dispatch quickly makes it clear that they object to any arrests made by the military. Peace has been declared, both the President and the Supreme Court have made that fact undebatable. Therefore, the military no longer has the right to act as a police force, the editors argue. Many white Richmonders agree, fearing that they may no longer be protected by a civil government that is slow to punish white on black crime. Despite public outcry, the military, under the authority of the Freedmen's Bureau Act, opened a military commission with the purpose of trying Dr. Watson for murder. After a week of delays and stall tactics by Watson's lawyer, it seems the trial will officially begin. But just as opening statements are being heard, President Johnson steps in and orders the military commission to end and Dr. Watson to be released. Richmond's white southern elite lets out a temporary sigh of relief because President Johnson has ignored the significance of a dead black man, and again sided with them.


December 16-22, 1866


Nat Berry