Stephen Budiansky “The Bloody Shirt: Terror after the Civil War”

(disclaimer: I know next to nothing about US history in the 19th century)

The 1865’s surrender of Confederate rebel forces, marking the end of US Civil War, left the southern Negro with every reason to celebrate – the Republican government and new US Constitution amendments gave him political and economical freedom, promising an end to the long period of disenfranchisement and slavery. Under new law, the Negroes in the Southern states would become citizens of equal status to the whites, with the power to vote and elect their officials. Little could they know that in less than ten years, the defeated white supremacists would raise their heads once again and, through an organized campaign of terror and violence, take this hard won political freedom away. By 1875, the last Republican state government in the South had been overthrown, in what almost amounted to a military coup, and the achievements of the Reconstruction had been overturned. “The Bloody Shirt” by Stephen Budiansky chronicles the events of the Reconstruction era, telling the stories of a couple of noble and idealistic politicians, enterpreneurs and military men who did their best to advance the political cause of Blacks in the South – only to witness the triumph of brutal racist force over the rights they had fought so hard for.

The narrative depicts the stories of five brave men – Adelbert Ames, a Union officer turned state governor; Prince Rivers, a former slave who rose to the position of a community leader; Albert Morgan, a Yankee plantator and enterpreneur seeking good fortune in the South; Lewis Merrill, a cavalry officer charged with fighting the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacist militias; and James Longstreet, the right hand of General Robert E. Lee, advocating reconciliation between the North and the South. Each of them tried to transform the South in accordance to the Reconstruction laws, granting full political freedom to the Negro – and each met with a resistance so virulent and intense it was hard to believe that is was coming from the same people who, only a few months before, have suffered a crushing defeat and were forced to surrender. The Southern elites, self-righteous and loath to step back even an inch in their complete dominance over the Blacks, were determined to resist the new order by all means, be it political scheming, coercion or sheer violence. Morgan, who tried to employ Negroes as free workers, was persecuted and driven out of business; Longstreet, after publishing a letter urging the former Confederates to endorse the new government, found himself ostracized by his former comrades and with his wartime reputation tarnished in a campaign of lies and slander. Merrill and Ames, charged with the duty of bringing law and order to their tumultous states, had to admit an utter defeat; Rivers faced the most bitter end of them all, ending his life driving a coach in some forgotten town, the same job he performed as a slave.

The tactics employed by former white slaveholders and aristocrats were those of a terrorist organization fighting an occupant force (indeed, the Northern presence in the South was often decried by Southern newspapers as “occupation” and “despotism”). Defrauded public funds were used to fund armed militias, “rifle clubs” and “white men leagues”, whose sole purpose was to spread terror and intimidation. Any Black challenging the old order or trying to exercise his right to vote ran risk of being beaten or murdered, and a band of mounted white men, armed with rifles, entering a town to “hunt for niggers” was a commonplace picture. A view of legitimate state official or sheriff jumping out of the window to escape a bloodthirsty mob was not uncommon. In a few cases, the terror took the form of an outright military takeover, when the legitimate government of a town was chased away with shotguns and artillery. State officials implored for federal troops, but most often to no avail, and when the military aid did come, it was woefully inadequate in strength and numbers (indeed, inadequate help for people in mortal danger seems to be a recurring motif in recent history). The opponent was not a bunch of extremists, but an entrenched, ruthless elite, desperate to hold power and ready to use any kind of violence to make sure that the “damned niggers” will not dare to raise their heads.

A true gem of the book lies in Southern newspaper clips from the period, filled with racist propaganda so intense and vitriolic as to be almost ludicrous. Here is an excerpt from “The Meridian Mercury:

“With a sigh of relief, thank God, we can announce that it is over, the election, the most disgusting, disgraceful and degrading thing ever devised by the malice of man. Thank God it is over! And pray His holy name to remove the sin-created and sin-creating thing, negro suffrage, the most abominable of abominations, the “sum of all villainies”, to which the sin of slavery is as snowy white is to coal black; to remove it from the land, and sink the hell-deserving authors of it to everlasting perdition! Confound them; blast them, scorch them with His righteous anger, and sink them to the lower depths, deeper down that the sympathy of the Infernal Spirits that inhabit the blazing regions of Hell can ever reach.”

Another fragment denounces the white supporting the Republican cause and ends with a statement of purpose:

“Between them and us there is not a murderer or thief in the world for whom we have not more respect that we have for the vagabonds who are seeking to impose negro rule upon the people of South. The most abandoned criminal, the most cowardly murderer, the most despicable highwayman, that ever expiated their crimes on the gallows, in the State prison, or the galleys, are honorable and princely gentlemen compared to such wretched sneaks.”

Absurd as it may be, the saddest part of the propaganda came after the last pro-suffrage government was overthrown, when the racists took to writing the history. The supremacists made every effort to expiate themselves and represent the terror as a “political necessity”, needed to combat the “negro despotism and oppression”. How this could succeed remains totally baffling, but sadly, it did succeed to large extent, and the violence became clouded beyond the mystique of “cavalier South”, proud and defying the Yankee authority. Budiansky makes his point by citing the 1876 massacre in a town called Hamburg, in which dozens of Blacks were killed by a white militia. After the riot, the whites erected a monument dedicated to the only member of the mob that Blacks managed to kill in self defence. A few years ago, the monument was catalogued in a historical inventory – as a monument “to the only resident of Hamburg to be killed in the Hamburg riot of 1876”.

The narrative in the book is flawless, conveying the dramatism of events in an almost novel-like fashion. The biggest shortcoming of Budiansky’s description is that it almost completely lacks a deeper analysis of federal government’s policy toward the South in the post-war period. It is implied that pleas for military help and reports of impending disaster were met with Washington’s indifference or, at best, a lukewarm response; however, the reader does not learn much about the inside politics at the White House. I find it difficult to understand how a nation that fought so hard to win the war could forfeit its goals so easily – since, at least as far as Negro suffrage is concerned, in ten years the results of the war had been completely reverted. Perhaps the cause of Negro was sacrificed at the altar of realpolitik of the day, or the president Andrew Johnson lacked the political will and acumen to deal with the Southern insurgency properly – a more detailed analysis would certainly be welcome. Nevertheless, I found the book engaging and compelling and can earnestly recommend it.

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