Jim's Reviews > The Bloody Shirt: Terror After Appomattox

The Bloody Shirt by Stephen Budiansky
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's review
Aug 30, 2008

really liked it
bookshelves: history, non-fiction
Read in November, 2008

I agonized over how I should rate this book. I was a little disappointed with the way that Budiansky organizes his material. I felt that the book would have been a better account (and a better read) if he hadn't tied so much of his narrative to the handful of historical actors on whom he focuses. That said, this book presents a harrowing account of terrorist attacks by Southern whites on black freedmen and their white allies.

Some readers might object to the term "terrorism," but there is no other word that adequately conveys the calculated violence practiced by Southern partisans during the Reconstruction era. Soon after the end of the Civil War, Southern whites sought to reimpose a regime of white rule and black subservience, often amounting to slavery in all but name. All around the South, freed blacks who cooperated with federal authorities, or who were known to support the Republican party, were burned out of their homes or murdered. In some cases, black communities were massacred outright. Too often, federal authorities were too few or not properly empowered to adequately deal with the problem. While the terror was perpetrated by small groups of men, it received widespread support in the Southern states. Often, the leaders of these terrorist groups were also prominent civic leaders and elected officials.

Much of this history has been largely ignored in popular histories. The Southern version of history (which is as much mythological as historical) tends to cast the South as a victim of Northern oppression. Any violence on the part of Southerners is generally written off as the unfortunate, but understandable, result of desperation. The freed blacks are portrayed as dupes of Republican radicals. The struggle to extend basic education and political equality to freed blacks is castigated as a plot to break the "bonds of affection" between former slaves and masters. (In other words, only the former masters understood what was "good" for their slaves.)

Unfortunately, even mainstream histories are at least partly informed by this Southern version of myth-history. A case in point is Jay Winik's April 1865. As I have written elsewhere, Winik downplays the full scale of racism and post-war violence to serve his argument. If nothing else, Budiansky's account is a necessary corrective to the "happy ending" approach taken by other historians.

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