Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Book Review: "The Bloody Shirt"

Right up front, I'll make something plain; Stephen Budiansky's book "The Bloody Shirt" does not attempt to break new ground about the Reconstruction era. Instead, this book is designed to revive and retell the stories of a few individuals to illustrate the experiences of many. To his credit, Budiansky does not claim to be writing an authoritative study of Reconstruction, his intention is to show the impact that terrorism had in a few places and on a few persons in the South after the war as part of a larger reflection of the post-Civil War South.
He does a good job of not trying to pretend the book is more than it is, and should be regarded as such. Some criticisms of the book I've seen harp on various perceived shortcomings, but this is not Foner, Stampp, or Fitzgerald writing a definitive history of Reconstruction. "The Bloody Shirt" is a storyteller bringing nonfiction to life in the words of those who lived it, with the footnotes and bibliography to prove it.
To that end, the book is roundly successful; the personalities are well-described and evocative, the references utilize primary sources like letters and newspaper clippings, and the stories themselves are emotive, powerful, and sometimes unbelievable.
Where the book is most successful; however, is in throwing water on the idea that Reconstruction is universally understood today as a time of domestic terrorism, subversion, and racism. In his critique of this book, Professor Blum of San Diego State implies that the subject matter of Reconstruction is already well-traveled and universally accepted. Would that this were true!
Budiansky helps us see just how far we still have to go (and how wrong the idea that Reconstruction is well-understood) in the final vignette of the book where he explores an event called "The Massacre at Hamburg". This subject deserves and will receive its own post, but just by bringing it to life in the words of the victims and witnesses, then showing the recurring responses over the decades, including a striking one in 2006, Budiansky has written an important book.
His narrative technique is sometimes a bit jumpy and fragmented, and the chronology gets muddled up, but this does not detract from the larger issues at hand. Budiansky's book is a reminder of the spasms that wracked the post-war South and the racism, violence, and depredations that plagued African-Americans and Republican whites. More importantly, he illustrates how this painful history, despite a recent surge in Reconstruction scholarship, continues to elude common sensibilities. A primary example will be presented in a few days, so stay tuned!

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