Saturday, July 5, 2008

The Bloody Shirt

I'm currently listening to the unabridged audio version of Stephen Budiansky's The Bloody Shirt: Terror After Appomattox. I'm ambivalent about it. The prologue had me all psyched up for a ripping expose of reconstruction-era violence, but the rest of the book is falling a bit flat for me.

Most of this book is made up of primary sources (letters, newspaper accounts, journals, etc.). After the prologue, Budiansky steps back, offering very little analysis of his sources. What authorial presence exists takes the form of omniscient narration. The sources are quoted at great length, often in their entirety, and are left to speak for themselves.

I found this style to be more than a little annoying. Budianskyhas found some amazingly revealing documents, but he does not provide much context, leaving the reader wondering whether these anecdotes are universal or local. In addition, Budiansky treats the Northerners who produced much of this material (Adelbert Ames, Albert Morgan, John Dennett, Lewis Merrill, etc.) as neutral observers, rather than as men who were constructing their own narratives. He basically treats them as unbiased reporters of fact, which doesn't do much to help his argument.

But what an argument it is. No one could possibly read the virulent, aggressive, racist words written and spoken by white Southerners and maintain that these were men of honor and character. The documents that Budiansky has assembled are shocking in their brazen contempt for the equality of all citizens, their horror at the idea of freedmen voting, and their hatred for due process in all its forms. These are not hints and subtle, coded messages. The shameless vitriol of the Southern newspaper writers will shock even those readers who were already acquainted with the rhetoric of the period. Budiansky ably demolishes the idea that the KKK and its allies were marginal or honorable by reproducing their indignant arguments against the stirring guarantees of the Declaration of Independence.

One criticism I expect to hear from the few neo-confederates who bother to read this book is that it paints Northerners in an all-to-heroic light. Budiansky is not attempting to take on the issue of racism or anti-equality movements in the North, but that does not mean that the North was a utopia of progressive racial harmony. Since the Northerners in this book are generally abolitionists, progressive reformers, and liberal Republicans who voluntarily traveled to the South in order to guide the process of Reconstruction, they do come out of this looking pretty good. Budiansky acknowledges that there was corruption and incompetence among the military and civilian authorities during Reconstruction, but his main Northern characters call to mind innocent, idealistic college students of the 1960s. I don't think there's anything wrong with making African-American elected officials, white Republicans (including some Southerners, such as James Longstreet), and ordinary freedmen/women the heroes of this story — in fact, I think that that is an angle that is too often undersold. Still, Budiansky's choices may make him vulnerable to attacks by those who choose to ignore his core evidence.

As much as I applaud the aim of this book, there are several things that grated on me. First, even though "colored" and "negro" were considered respectful terms in the 1870s, that doesn't mean that it is appropriate for historians to use them without quotation marks. Second, Budiansky never met a dramatic rhetorical flourish he didn't like. Third, see above complaint about his not being critical of the sources he presents. Fourth, the chapter breaks often seem random. Fifth (audiobook specific complaint), the narrator does voices for all of the different authors, and some of them make me a little uncomfortable because they sound like something out of Song of the South. I think that this is an important piece of work, but I think it might have been better in documentary movie form than in book form.

I disagree with William Grimes of the New York Times, who thinks that the myth of the oppressed South "surely expired a generation ago." It's probably true that academics no longer ascribe to a narrative of Yankee tyranny, but this book is not written for academics. The old idea that white Southerners were a noble people who were outrageously abused and harassed during reconstruction still thrives in the public imagination, and the value of Budiansky's work lies in its relentless presentation of an alternative narrative in which freedmen and their Republican allies are the true heroes of Reconstruction.

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