Through his examination of one Southern town, Swanson discusses labor and racial issues that affected the American South during the period between Reconstruction and the ’60s.
The straightforward, chronological narrative opens with Confederate president Jefferson Davis seeking to escape Gen. Sherman’s army and fleeing to Danville, Va., which he briefly makes the capital of the seceded states. The South fell soon after Davis’ arrival in Danville, and the town continued to be a hotly contested region for much of its history. The first chapter explains the events leading up to the Danville Riot, in which racial tensions exploded into gunfire in the streets. Swanson relates this fascinating topic with a nonjudgmental eye—his coldly neutral examination of Southern race relations seems, if not supportive of white supremacy, at least noncommittal. This tone continues for the rest of the work, which follows the rise of the textile industry and attempts to unionize factory workers, many of whom had moved to Danville after their farms had failed. While Swanson writes competently and chose a fascinating, little-known facet of Southern history, the book lacks a central theme. There are compelling character sketches, articles and transcripts but no internal structure to tie them together. The book provides an interesting look at one Southern town, but only occasionally provides a broader view of its connection to the South or the nation as a whole, and vice versa. The work also feels simultaneously too broad and too narrow—Swanson intends to cover the history of Danville, but he ultimately focuses on the impact of the textile industry, leaving the reader to wonder about other aspects of the town’s past that are only briefly touched upon.
A clearly written, interesting history in need of a sharper focus and stronger structure.