WordsDay: The Bloody Shirt and America's history of terrorism

The Bloody Shirt
by Stephen Budiansky

Most Americans don’t realize that a large portion of our country was, once upon a time, overrun by barbarians.

That age of barbarians isn’t covered in most history texts, and when it is, it’s usually called the Era of Reconstruction. And as many Southerners resisted reconstruction, they resorted to acts of barbarism to impose their terrible will over the rule of law.

Stephen Budiansky’s new book, The Bloody Shirt: Terror After Appomattox, explores this age of barbarism—for age of barbarism it was. No other word can suffice to explain the acts of terror and violence committed by large numbers of Southern whites in the decades immediately following the Civil War.

Budiansky’s book pulls no punches, and as a result it conjures palpable feelings of raw anger, frustration, and indignation. Southerners perpetrated injustice after injustice to keep blacks from exercising their rights as citizens as human beings. Northern whites who migrated south to help with Reconstruction efforts were also belittled and harassed.

“From 1867 to 1876, more than three thousand free African Americans and their white allies were killed in cold blood by terrorist organizations in the South,” the book says.

Budiansky’s loose narrative follows several individuals through the era, using them as archetypes for others who had similar experiences. None of them have happy stories, from Prince Rivers, an escaped slave who rose to prominence as magistrate in a black settlement only to be driven out of office after a massacre of his fellow townspeople; Lewis Merrill, a former officer with the 7th Cavalry who tried to stop the rising tide of the Klan in South Carolina; Adelbert Ames, a native Mainer who would become U.S. Senator and later Governor of Mississippi until whites suppressed the black voters who elected him to office; and entrepreneur Albert Morgan, who arrived in Mississippi and was welcomed by Southern society only to later be fleeced of everything he had when it became apparent he was not going to adhere to the racial status quo.

Former Confederate Lieutenant General James Longstreet, who tried to become a reformer after the war, suffers an especially pitiful and embarrassing fate.

Bad guys run amok. They burn and pillage. They literally get away with murder. They give each other a wink-wink, nudge-nudge and laugh it off as corpses dangle from trees and bodies bleed out in ditches. Terrorist organizations, made up of the so-called finest, most upright citizens, ruled through fear.

As a book, The Bloody Shirt is bit disorganized. Each chapter jumps in time and geography across the South, and although the chapters are kept in chronological order, the links between them are frequently weak.

Budiansky’s strengths lay in other areas. He is unflinching, for instance, in his ability to look at ugly situations. He puts institutionalized injustice on display and forces readers to ask uncomfortable questions. He is unapologetic that his characters do not have happy endings.

In fact, exposing that tragedy is part of the book’s purpose. In today’s world, where America fights the War of Terror, Americans forget we once had plenty of terrorism right here. Fanatics, committed to an outdated mode of life, refusing to respect the peace, willing to perpetrate horrific acts of violence, made life miserable for everyone else. (Which century is that, anyway?)

America still wrestles with the ramifications of that age of barbarism. Wounds haven’t fully healed—a process made harder by the glossing over of an entire generation’s behavior by selective cultural memory shaped, in large part, by the romanticized Lost Cause mindset.

The Bloody Shirt is not an easy read. Budiansky writes smoothly and compellingly, but his subject matter is distressing and depressing. No wonder history tends to gloss it over. But, as Budiansky suggests, until we face the ugliness and injustice, they will never go away. Budiansky never preaches about it. He just makes readers a little sick to their stomach about it instead.

5 replies »

  1. This was very interesting.

    For such a young country, the USA, from my perspective seems to have come a long way in a very short space of time.

    It is your country that has Mr Obama running for president…I have yet to see a European country come close to such an achievement.

    …and I am glad to say I did not see that flag on any number plates whilst in Florida.

  2. Thanks, Chris. Had been exposed to that and President Johnson’s complicitness. Am looking forward to reading this book and learning more.

  3. Great post Chris. I remember the Jim Crow laws from when I was a kid living in Florida. I could never understand them, but that’s the way things were back then. I’m so glad things have changed in this country. Although I have profound differences with Obama’s philosophy, I’m glad our country has come to the point where a black person has a serious shot of becoming president. We’ve come a long way in the last 43 years.


  4. I read the recent history of Jesse James, whom I had shelved in my mental shoebox along with Roy Rogers and Doc Holliday. (Sorry, I can’t remember the author’s name — I borrowed the book from our library.) What an eye-opener it was. It correctly termed his behavior “terrorism.”

    If there is one overriding good aspect of Bush’s disastrous kleptocracy it’s that many Americans are taking a good hard look at our national nature and how we allowed this situation to come about. King Crimson (again, quoting from memory): if we make it, we can all sit back and laugh, but i fear tomorrow we’ll be crying.