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The Bloody Shirt: Terror After Appomattox by…

The Bloody Shirt: Terror After Appomattox (2008)

by Stephen Budiansky

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Violence in the South during Reconstruction ( )
  JackSweeney | Jan 15, 2017 |
I know I is not to be any worse off in the grave than I is now. *: One of the abiding misconceptions about the American Civil War is that the opposing armies parted with dignity, mutual respect, and even a certain degree of amiability at war's end. Joshua Chamberlain, the hero of Little Round Top, famously writes that he ordered his men to salute the brave Confederate soldiers who laid down their arms at Appomattox. Thus began the myth of a happy ending.

But historians have long recognized that civil wars are especially violent and acrimonious, and even after peace accords are signed, aftershocks of rage and recrimination continue. Given its horrible bloodletting, it would be strange if the American Civil War were an exception to this general rule. Author Stephen Budiansky, in one of the most horrifying books I've ever read, documents the decade following Appomattox and concludes two things: the war didn't really end in 1865, and the North didn't achieve the victory it thought it did.

When the "official" war ended, die-hard Confederates and secessionists seethed with anger and a stubborn refusal to submit. John Richard Dennett, a young "Nation" reporter who traveled through the South for 8 months after the war ended, concluded that nearly every Southerner he encountered was convinced that the emancipation of the slaves had reversed the natural order of things, and would eventually mean that an "inferior" race, bolstered by Republican carpetbaggers, would dominate a "superior" one. Given that a black revolt was one of the antebellum South's worst nightmares, this post-war conviction was a powerful incentive to violence.

The violence grew so rapidly over the next ten years, with some 3,000 black and white elected officials murdered, elections rigged, communities terrorized by Ku Klux and "rifle society" members, and Federal laws regulating local treatment of freedmen contemptuously ignored, that Budiansky doesn't hesitate to refer to the period as one of terrorism. The atrocities he documents are staggering. Over and over I found myself comparing them to recent human rights violations in Bosnia or Africa.

In September 1874, for example, Louisiana fire-eaters revolted. Citizens refused to accept the legally-elected Republican governor. A neo-Confederate puppet state government was set up and fighting broke out in the streets of New Orleans between state militia loyal to the Federal government (commanded by no less a figure than James Longstreet) and members of the infamous White League. Longstreet's militia were trounced. The "Shreveport Times," as well as other regional papers, explicitly advocated killing any Republicans or blacks elected to public office.

Or take the predominantly black town of Hamburg, South Carolina, most of whose elected officials were freedmen. in 1876, white toughs disrupted a July 4th town parade. The commander of the black militia that was marching in the parade protested, and just a few days later a white army, led by two ex-Confederate generals and a thug who would later become a U.S. senator, invaded Hamburg. The town sheriff was murdered and mutilated, nearly 30 members of the black militia were rounded up, and seven of them were singled out and murdered. Then the white thugs vandalized the town.

These and scores of other acts of terrorism went largely unpunished. Southern grand juries refused to indict; indicted defendants were usually acquitted or given laughably light sentences. By 1876, when Federal troops officially withdrew from the South, ex-slaves had been put in their place. As one southerner of the time observed, blacks were better off as slaves than as freedman. As slaves, they were valuable property. As freedmen, they weren't worth the dirt it took to bury them after they were murdered.

Budianksy's book is a sober but essential read, especially for anyone who believes that the Civil War "fixed" the plight of the southern black, that erstwhile blue and gray enemies clasped hands in friendship when the war ended, or that slavery wasn't the real cause of the war. But his book is also inspiring in its documentation of the men and women, black as well as white, who did their best (but for the most part failed) to bring law and order to the violence-torn South. All in all, highly recommended. Readers who find Budianksy's book interesting may also want to read Nicolas Lemann's Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War.
* Testimony of a 30-year old mulatto man beaten nearly to death by white terrorists who insisted that he hand over his guns. The mulatto repeatedly told his attackers he had no guns. Then, sobbing, he told the court: "I hasn't got anything in the world but myself, for I hasn't got any family, nor any parents, nor any land, nor any money, and I know I is not to be any worse off in the grave than I is now."
1 vote mugwump2 | Nov 29, 2008 |
One of R.E.M.'s early albums is entitled Fables of the Reconstruction. That could easily be the title of The Bloody Shirt: Terror After Appomattox (2008) by Stephen Budiansky. The accepted history has it that the Reconstruction of the South following the Civil War failed due to a vindictive Republican government saddling the helpless South with corrupt politicians, swindling businessmen, and allowing incompetent blacks to take government positions. Author James Loewen even points out in his book Lies My Teacher Told Me how children's textbooks use insults like "carpetbagger" and "scalawag" to describe people without any context of how these terms were used or mention of the many well-intentioned Northerners who came to the South during Reconstruction.

Budiansky pops the bubble of this revisionist history showing instead a South defeated in battle but continuing to fight to prevent enfranchisement and political viability of the freedmen among them. Budiansky pulls no punches and calls the organized violent tactics terrorism. Furthermore, it was a successful terrorism that basically forced the federal government to give up laying the groundwork for another century of segregation and inequality.

The Bloody Shirt relies heavily on primary documents that allow the reader to hear the voices of those who tried to reconstruct the South and those who often very openly admitted the crimes they'd commit to prevent it. Five men are central to the narrative:

  • Prince Rivers, a slave who escaped, fought for the Union, and became a South Carolina legislator. By the time Reconstruction ends he's been removed from office by the Democratic government and forced to work as a coachman, the same work he did a slave.

  • Adelbert Ames, the military governor of Mississippi who fought a losing battle to rebuild the state under the new amendments to the Constitution.

  • Albert Morgan, a Northerner who moved to the South to become a farmer, married a black woman and found himself increasingly threatened by his white neighbors (albeit popular with his black neighbors) and ended up running for his life.

  • Lewis Merrill who fought bloody battles against the Ku Klux and white rifle groups in South Carolina that were as organized and calculated as the Confederate army during the War.

  • James Longstreet, one of Robert E. Lee's ablest and most popular generals during the War. His public statements that the Confederacy's loss means the South must support the Republican government lead not only to his ostracism but a false revision of his war record.

As well as I know the lowly depths that humans can sink, I couldn't help but be shocked by this book. It was a sobering and instructive read. The issues raised in the book still reverberate to our time and I recommend it to anyone interested in the Civil War, racism, and American politics.

While reading this book I learned of Slavery by Another Name by Douglas Blackmon (interview) which could be a good follow-up book.
Memorable Passages
"To white conservative Southerners, the outrage was never the acts they committed, only the effrontery of having those acts held against them. ... The bloody shirt perfectly captured the inversion of truth that would characterize the distorted memories of Reconstruction the nation would hold for generations after. The way it made a victim of the bully and a bully of the victim, turned the very act of Southern white violence into wounded Southern innocence, turned the very blood of their African American victims into an affront against Southern white decency; the way it suggested that the real story was not the atrocities white Southerners committed but only the attempt by their political enemies to make political hay out of those atrocities. The merest hint that a partisan motive lay behind the telling of these tales was enough to satisfy most white Southerners that the events never happened, or were exaggerated, or even that they had been conspiratorially engineered by the victims themselves to gain sympathy or political advantage." - p. 5
Note: This behavior sounds eerily like a lot of the political discourse of the past decade or so.
[General Longstreet] He hoped that he might be forgiven the "bluntness of a soldier" to remind his fellow Southerners what had been decided at Appomattox. "The surrender of the Confederate armies in 1865," he wrote, "involved: 1. The surrender of the claim to right of secession. 2. The surrender of the former political relations to the negro. 3. The surrender of the Southern Confederacy. There they should have been buried. The soldier prefers to have the sod that receives him when he falls covers his remains. The political questions of the war should have been buried upon the fields that marked their end.
One of the gravest errors, Longstreet went on, was the opinion that "we cannot do wrong, and that Northerners cannot do right." There were good and bad in both sections. But one must now bend to the other. The war had decided which. - p. 153
Another United States senatorial committee convened to record the words of the victims after it was too late to help them. The Democrats now held the House; the mood of the country was now more one of fatigue with the travails of the South than anything like the righteous indignation of times past. The lingering Republican majority in the Senate had an air of resigned impotence, of going through the forms with no expectation of results. - p. 208.
New York : Viking, 2008.

( )
2 vote Othemts | Jun 26, 2008 |
Neither a comprehensive history of the ten years following Appomattox in the South, nor a political science type abstract analysis of "terror," Stephan Budiansky's book is all the more powerful as history and indictment for simply following the tales of certain select people and towns in those years, and demonstrating with simple facts the way Southern democrats took back much of what they lost in the Civil War, and took it back through the tools of terror, intimidation and the manipulation of local public opinion. A book which ends up illuminating much subsequent political history in the US, at least for those of us not already steeped in the history of the era.
3 vote Capybara_99 | Apr 14, 2008 |
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The title of this book refers to a small footnote to the brutal war of terrorist violence that was waged in the American South in the years immediately following the Civil War.  (Prologue)
Piles of shattered glass lay thick on the streets of ruined Charleston; grass and even small shrubs gre unmolested in its untraveled thoroughfares. (main text)
To white conservative Southerners, the outrage was never the acts they committed, only the effrontery of having those acts held against them. (p.5)
A bald fact: more than three thousand freedmen and their white Republican allies were murdered in the campaign of terrorist violence that overthrew the only representatively elected governments the Southern states would know for a hundred years to come. (pp. 7-8)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0670018406, Hardcover)

From 1866 to 1876, more than three thousand free African Americans and their white allies were killed in cold blood by terrorist organizations in the South. Over the years this fact would not only be forgotten, but a series of exculpatory myths would arise to cover the tracks of this orchestrated campaign of atrocity and violence. Little memory would persist of the simple truth: that a well-organized and directed terrorist movement, led by ex-Confederates who refused to accept the verdict of Appomattox and the enfranchisement of the freedmen, succeeded in overthrowing the freely elected representative governments of every Southern state. Stephen Budiansky brings to life this largely forgotten but epochal chapter of American history through the intertwining lives of five courageous men who tried to stop the violence and keep the dream of freedom and liberty alive. They include James Longstreet, the ablest general of the Confederate army, who would be vilified and ostracized for insisting that the South must accept the terms of the victor and the enfranchisement of black men; Lewis Merrill of the 7th Cavalry, who fought the Klan in South Carolina; and Prince Rivers, who escaped from slavery, fought for the Union, became a state representative and magistrate, and died performing the same menial labor he had as a slave. Using letters and diaries left by these men as well as startlingly hateful diatribes published in Southern newspapers after the war, Budiansky proves beyond a doubt that terrorism is hardly new to America.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:25:08 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

A narrative account of Reconstruction-era violence documents vigilante attacks on African Americans and their white allies, in an analysis that traces the period through the careers of two Union officers, a Confederate general, a northern entrepreneur, and a former slave.… (more)

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