The Bloody Shirt – Terror after the Civil War, by Stephen Budiansky, 2008
The “bloody shirt” was a phrase used by the defenders of racism in the South to hide the bloodshed, intimidation and anti-democratic methods used against ex-slaves and Republicans during Reconstruction. It came from a real incident where an ordinary northern white man named Higgins was beaten by the Klan in Mississippi. The legend was that this same bloody shirt (and there really was one) was taken to Congress and waved in the air by Benjamin Butler, an abolitionist general. (This part never happened, of course.) The ex-Confederates would say ‘he’s waving the bloody shirt’ to make light of any claim they were violent. Asserting all along that they were ‘unjustly’ accused of barbarism, they insisted that ‘they’ were the victims of ‘nigger rule’ and carpetbagger Yankees. And this inversion of the truth is, even today, the accepted myth about the period after the Civil War.
If you wanted to know why the Civil War did not end segregation and destroy Klan terror, or promote voting rights and black land ownership, this book explains the brutal process whereby the Confederate aristocracy, while losing the war, won the ‘peace’ - mainly through violence. It confirms Marx’s analysis that a democratic revolution must become ‘permanent’ in order to fully succeed.
The Civil War did not develop into that ‘permanent’ revolution. The legal end of slavery brought about by the war led for a time to voting rights being granted former slaves. For almost 10 years, the vast majority voted in Reconstruction governments in all the former slave states, as the freedmen outnumbered the Confederate whites. These governments allowed blacks to sit on juries, vote, hold office, own land, travel, build up businesses and generally act like anyone else. And that was unheard of. These governments were slandered by the White Leagues and the Klan (who themselves were led by the South’s most prominent citizens…) as ‘carpet baggers', ‘scalawags’ and ‘nigger rule.’ To the racists in the South who wanted a ‘white man's’ government,” whites who supported the Republican Party were as bad, or worse, than the black ex-slaves. It took almost 10 years of Klan and White League violence to be successful in overturning democratic rule in the South. These same elements then controlled the South for the next 90 years. Only with the advent of the Civil Rights movement in the 60s was there another attempt to end the rule of the Jim Crow, segregationist South.
Budiansky focuses on 5 different people to tell this story. One was typical of the white people who moved south after the Civil War to make a living. Albert T Morgan, a moderate, non-abolitionist, just wanted to start a business in Yazoo City, Mississippi. Like most Northerners, he had no clue about what was really going on in the South. Until he found out - 'the half has not been told you!' What Morgan discovered was that any white person who had ANY sympathy for black people was first shunned, then verbally harassed, then tricked out of property, and finally assaulted and shot at by the leading citizens and ‘good’ white people of Mississippi. You see, among other things, he had made the mistake of marrying an educated, mixed-ethnicity woman, Carolyn Highgate, of New York state. Morgan was elected several times as a Republican, until armed Democratic Party thugs swung the election of 1875 in the other direction.
Even being a Confederate General was not enough, as James Longstreet found out. Probably the best general in the Confederate Army – actually superior to Lee in some respects - he suggested to his fellow Southerners that they had lost the war, and should accept the peace. He joined the Republican Party. For this impertinent suggestion and act, he was roundly reviled by the whole Southern establishment, to the point where his death went unremarked by the Confederate Army societies in the south. Although every other Confederate general was ‘not forgotten.’ Longstreet fought the "Knights of the White Camelia" reactionaries at Liberty Place in New Orleans in 1874 while leading the pro-Republican Louisiana State Militia. 100 people died or were injured, and Longstreet was captured. While U.S. troops came in the next day and put down the rebellion, this event signaled the end of reconstruction in Louisiana and the triumph of reacion. To this day there is a memorial to the battle in New Orleans, by the river in the French Quarter, mentioning both 'sides' as somehow co-equal heros.
Another was a black man, “Prince” Rivers. He joined the Union Army outside Charleston, South Carolina, ending as a sergeant of the First South Carolina Volunteers. Rivers had great abilities, and went on in to become a legislator and then judge in Reconstruction South Carolina. He settled in a town called Hamburg, across the river from Augusta, Georgia. Hamburg, South Carolina, was later to be the scene of a massacre of black militia and other citizens, led by violent white racists under command of a former Confederate general, Matthew Butler, and a former Confederate legislator, Ben Tillman. This event set the stage for the complete destruction of this black-run town, and the beginning of the end for Reconstruction in South Carolina. Prince Rivers ended up as a coach driver, the same occupation he had during slavery. Hamburg vanished after burnings and floods, and now lies beneath a riverside housing project in “North” Augusta, SC. Even in 2006, a monument commemorating the one white racist killed during the slaughter at Hamburg was mentioned positively during the Centennial of North Augusta. The text of the monument reads, “to the only (sic) resident of Hamburg to be killed in the Hamburg riot of 1876.”
There is a local connection in this book as well. Adelbert Ames’ parents lived in Northfield, Minnesota, and owned the Ames Mill, right next to the dam on the Cannon River, and at one time the original source for Malt-o-Meal. Ames became the Reconstruction governor of Mississippi, where he built schools and universities for the first time, which also included black people. He was forced from office in 1875 after the terrorist Mississippi White Leagues threatened, killed or beat anyone attempting to vote a Republican ticket. They were successful and the “white man's government’ of the Democratic Party took control – for the next 90 years. As the Yazoo Democrat (newspaper) said, “Carry the election, peaceably if we can, forcibly if we must.”
Even during the 10 years of Reconstruction black people were shot, hung, beaten, driven off land, fired, foreclosed on, their crops burnt, their animals stolen. They were hindered from voting, sitting on juries, going to school, holding office, and generally having much more rights than a slave. White Republicans were killed, insulted, burnt out, mobbed and made the victim of various ‘legal’ stratagems by the white southern aristocracy. Essentially, the Confederate Army and the Confederate government became the Ku Klux Klan, the White Leagues and the Democratic Party. 3,000 freedman and Republicans, including 60 office holders, were killed during this period. The Republican administrations of Andrew Johnson, U.S. Grant and Rutherford Hayes did not send enough troops to the south, nor have any deep commitment to democracy for blacks or even their own Party. And they allowed the South to slip back into the hands of the ex-Confederacy. The United States paid for this.
While this story may seem like ancient history, it is not. In the American body politic the Civil War and black slavery are defining events. Even now, the Republican South is still the most conservative, economically impoverished and socially retrograde part of the country. You can track the movement of members of the Southern Baptist Convention into the north, and where they settle will coincide with extremely conservative politicians being elected in those western or northern rural areas. The day Lyndon Baines Johnson supported the Voting Rights Act in 1966 was the day the Democratic Party Bollweevils started to move into the Republican column, until today the Ex-Confederate South is almost solid Republican. Irony of ironies. So it doesn’t matter what your party label is in these states – only so long as it is reactionary in every way.
The Civil War played a role in fusing fundamentalist Christian religion with racism. After the war, it promoted the rule of a southern aristocracy that has used southern ‘nationalism’ and religion to weld many southern whites to their reactionary banner. The open shop in the south is a testament to that. The South today is still the homeland of the most conservative politicians in the United States – and has been since the end of the Revolution, for more than 200 years. The southern bloc has held back progress in the Unites States for nearly every year of its existence since then. There is a long running argument about even bothering with the "backward southerners," promoted by Democrats like Thomas Schaller. However, social progress in the United States will be far more difficult without winning over working class elements in the southern states. Undermining the influence of the Bourbon corporate capitalists in oil, real estate, military procurement, coal and auto is essential to a national revolutionary strategy.
And I bought it at Mayday Books!
---- Red Frog, 2/22/03.