All posts by William Horne

Violence After Victory: Reconstruction Scholarship at the OAH

The streets, sidewalks, and facades of New Orleans’ famous Canal Street repeatedly bore witness to terrible outbursts of violence throughout the Reconstruction Era, as ex-Confederates tried to overturn the egalitarian reforms of Reconstruction through bloodshed and intimidation. Several of the most important massacres and street battles in the history of Reconstruction happened within walking distance of the Marriott, this year’s venue for the Organization of American Historians (OAH). In fact, the Mechanics’ Institute Massacre of 1866, which Philip Sheridan famously termed “an absolute massacre by the police” of supporters of black suffrage, took place just four blocks up Canal Street from the conference.[1] In this sense, the OAH was a fitting venue for Sunday’s panel, “Democratizing Violence in the Post-Civil War South.”

The panel explored the role of violence in shaping Reconstruction and the meaning of the Confederate defeat. Two of the speakers, David Williard and Carin Peller-Semmens, employed a bottom-up perspective to gauge the impact of vigilantism on the parameters of Reconstruction, while the third, Bradley Proctor, examined the ideology behind acts of white supremacist violence. Despite the different methodologies, the panelists made a single, collective assertion that the wave of postwar violence carries significant implications for our understandings of the arc of Reconstruction, its design, and its possibilities.

Peller-Semmens makes perhaps the most recognizable claim about postwar violence: that white vigilantism constituted an important political tool through which former Confederates regained local control after the war. Her essay, “‘The Creatures Do Not Respect Their Creator’: The Unifying Power of Violent White Supremacy in Northwest Louisiana,” argues persuasively that ex-Confederates in northwestern Louisiana used violence as a tool to overthrow the Republican Party in the Red River region of the state. Peller-Semmens examines the correspondence and political origins of three massacres in the region–at Shady Grove, Colfax, and Coushatta–finding that vigilantes tortured and killed local Republicans in grisly spectacles to permanently disable the party.

Where previous narratives of violence in northwest Louisiana tend to discuss postwar violence within its immediate context, Peller-Semmens provides a more detailed and sophisticated framework by alluding to antebellum systems of power.[2] She finds that “violence supplanted mastery as the means of subjugating freedpeople” after the war, cutting across class lines and prior party affiliation as part of a popularized struggle in ways slavery never could. This widespread white vigilantism in northwest Louisiana helped institutionalize white power and citizenship at the expense of African Americans while repositioning the remembered antebellum plantation regime to align more closely with the rhetoric white solidarity than property. In short, vigilantism rendered white southern politics participatory.

Williard likewise argues compellingly in “The Violent Creation of Confederate Veteranhood” that ex-Confederates’ acts of vigilantism in the immediate aftermath of the war indicate real changes to southern social and political hierarchies. Williard’s argument finds poignant illustration in his telling of an attack on a formerly enslaved man in Mississippi by a group of Confederate veterans. The victim, whose name was sadly omitted in the records, carried a pass from his enslaver-turned-employer to visit another plantation. Rather than respect the authority conveyed by the pass, however, the ex-Confederates declared “we don’t give a damn for that” and brutally assaulted the bearer. For Williard, widespread incidents like this indicate that the nature of citizenship itself had been altered during the war and its aftermath. White violence transformed the antebellum hierarchy predicated on the fetishization of enslavers’ property-in-persons to one based on white men’s “capacity to weild force… [as] the basis for standing within their communities.” These vigilantes acted to make sense of their Confederate service and challenge the classist version of white supremacy that characterized the region in the antebellum period.

Williard and Peller-Semmens’s more granular analyses of the role of violence in shaping the course of Reconstruction pair well with Proctor’s larger ideological framework in “The Mind of the Klan: An Intellectual History of White Supremacy during Reconstruction.” Proctor notes that though the antebellum order had been thoroughly upended by the war and emancipation, the nature of its replacement was still very much in doubt during Reconstruction. This uncertainty, for Proctor, helped inspire the Klan to pursue violence. In this sense, as with Williard and Peller-Semmens, postwar white vigilantism represents more of a response to changes brought by emancipation than an urge to maintain the prewar regime of plantation violence.

Proctor weaves examples of Klan violence into this ideological narrative to illustrate its connection to material systems of power. He finds that over half of the local officials and politicians they assaulted were white, and that Klansmen also attacked planters whose terms of employment seemed to favorable to freedpeople, representing a significant breach with the property-oriented, elite-friendly antebellum system. Proctor likewise argues that Klansmen espoused a specific vision of the post-emancipation household and regularly assailed “white or black, who seemingly challenged strict familial or sexual boundaries of race.” As a result, he observes, two thirds of the women attacked by Klansmen were single, versus only about one tenth of men.

The overarching vision of the panel indicates the richness of the “Dark Turn” in studies of the Civil War era.[3] Although violence alone falls flat as an analytical construct (as chair and commenter Greg Downs rightly noted), the renewed emphasis on violence provides an opportunity to better understand the workings of local government and its relationship to white supremacy. Indeed, one of the most significant and unfortunate achievements of Reconstruction was embedding white supremacy in state and local systems of power at the very moment when it might have finally been vanquished. Placing a greater emphasis on acts of violence also allows historians of the period to locate white northerners within the workings of white supremacy. Did they tacitly condone these acts, actively participate, or accept them as the price for Reunion? Despite the innovative work of Edward Blum, Chandra Manning, Elaine Parsons, and others in this direction, there is still much we do not know about the northern role in Reconstruction violence.[4] And if the many panels examining the legal implications of Reconstruction are any indication, the project of outlining the material and cultural limits of Radical reforms within the context of white supremacy and vigilantism will remain important for the foreseeable future.

[1] James Hogue, Uncivil War: Five New Orleans Street Battles and the Rise and Fall of Radical Reconstruction (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006), 44.

[2] Gilles Vandal provides by far the best survey of postwar violence in Homicides in Post-Civil War Louisiana, 1866-1884 (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2002).

[3] Brian Matthew Jordan, “The Future of Civil War History,” Emerging Civil War, June 23, 2016, https://emergingcivilwar.com/2016/06/23/the-future-of-civil-war-history-brian-matthew-jordan/.

[4] Edward Blum, Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion, and American Nationalism, 1865-1898 (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2005). Chandra Manning, What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War (New York: Knopf, 2007). Elaine Parsons, Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan during Reconstruction (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2015).

William Horne

William Horne is a PhD candidate at The George Washington University and editor at The Activist History Review, http://www.activisthistory.com. His research explores the relationship of race to labor, freedom, and capitalism in post-Civil War Louisiana. Mr. Horne’s dissertation, “Carceral State: Baton Rouge and its Plantation Environs Across Emancipation,” examines the ways in which white supremacy and capitalism each depended on restricting black freedom in the aftermath of slavery. He can be contacted at horne.activisthistory@gmail.com and followed on Twitter at @wihorne.