The Bloody Shirt: Terror After Appomattox
by Stephen Budiansky, Viking, 2008, 311 pages, $27.95.
For all the arguments and controversies regarding the Civil War that have raged over the better part of the past century, popular and scholarly writers express remarkable unanimity on one key aspect: The war ended in the summer of 1865. In the generally accepted telling, Union armies gained absolute strategic and tactical mastery, Confederates grounded their arms, and the four-year saga came to a close. Accordingly, the next decade’s events—however sensational or important they may have been—are acknowledged as the province of a distinct and different era. As every textbook insists, there is The War and then there is Reconstruction, two periods that occupy separate chapters in our history.
Now Stephen Budiansky hurls a challenge into the teeth of this well-established paradigm, offering a counternarrative in which the surrender of the Southern armies did not signify the end of the conflict but merely a shift from conventional to guerrilla warfare in a seamless effort to defend the principle of white supremacy. The Bloody Shirt weaves together the experiences of a few men—two Union officers, a former slave, a northern entrepreneur and an ex-Confederate general—who “risked everything to try to build a new society of equality and justice” during the term of Republican rule in the South, only to be defeated in their efforts by a campaign of violence that “overthrew the only representatively elected governments the Southern states would know for a hundred years to come.”
Writing in a crisp, engaging style, Budiansky presents his readers with a sequence of episodes from the careers of his protagonists, creating an impressionistic portrait of the life and death of the fledgling civilian governments installed by the Federal Army in the former Confederate states. The result reads like a finely crafted novel. By focusing on specific incidents from their respective tenures as agents of Federal power in the South, Budiansky reveals the outlines of the vast conspiracy between the reactionaries who engaged in murder, assault, rape and arson against newly enfranchised blacks and their white allies, and the greater part of the overall Southern white population, which shielded these barbaric activities by offering false testimony in the courts, failing to bring indictments when serving on grand juries and refusing to execute arrest warrants. As this campaign of terror grew ever more successful, its agents and abettors grew correspondingly bolder. The night rides of masked Klansmen against isolated individuals gave way to pitched assaults against the institutions of the Republican governments themselves by vigilante militias numbering in the thousands. By the mid-1870s conservative Democrats, through intimidation and voter fraud, had regained control of the Southern state governments, overturning many of the fruits of Federal victory for much of the next century.
However, though he puts forth riveting personal narratives, Budiansky fails to use them effectively in the service of his thesis: that “Reconstruction did not fail, but was overthrown, with impunity and audacity, in one of the bloodiest, darkest, and still least known chapters of American history.” He remains so tightly focused on the particular travails of his subjects that he does not provide a context sufficient to give those stories any greater significance. He simply offers up five men operating in three Southern states (Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina), then brackets the whole with introductory and concluding pages laden with sweeping assertions without ever demonstrating that his specific case studies are, in fact, representative of anything larger than themselves. As a result, Budiansky’s broader arguments about “the South” and “Reconstruction” rest on nothing more than a handful of anecdotes—compelling and spectacular anecdotes, to be sure, but they ultimately prove too thin a foundation to support his far-reaching conclusions.
Then, too, there are failings of objectivity and methodology. Entire chapters often rest on only one or two hardly disinterested sources that offer up entire conversations in such precise detail that one cannot help but question Budiansky’s willingness to accept them so uncritically.
Furthermore, his understanding of Reconstruction as a clear-cut morality play, pitting the just demands of freedmen and their Northern white supporters against the mono lithic evil of conservative Southern whites, is as overly simplistic a model as the Lost Cause caricature of a superior yet defenseless people victimized by “thieving carpetbaggers, ignorant Negroes, and low scalawags” that he rightly wishes to challenge. The author’s frequently outraged 21st-century sensibility may confer a cathartic degree of righteous superiority upon some readers, but such displays of “presentism” offer little in contributing to our understanding of the past.
Still, whatever its faults, The Bloody Shirt furnishes an all too rare reminder that the fighting continued long after the armies ceased to collide. It reminds us as well of the need to distinguish between the successful completion of conventional military actions and the achievement of the political objectives for which such activities are undertaken. In that regard, the times have never been more propitious for a book that endeavors, albeit imperfectly, to explain how it was that the United States “could win such a terrible war and lose the ensuing peace.”
Originally published in the April 2008 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.