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THE BLOODY SHIRT by Stephen Budiansky

THE BLOODY SHIRT

Terror After Appomattox

By Stephen Budiansky

Pub Date: Jan. 28th, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-670-01840-6
Publisher: Viking

Serviceable overview of vigilante violence in the Reconstruction-era South and its victims.

Historians have long observed that emancipation was a half-gesture: Scarcely any provision was made for the freed slaves, and it was all too easy for former owners to proclaim—as one of those who people military historian Budiansky’s pages does—that freed slaves would not be paid wages for doing the same work as they did while in bondage. “You shall work for me as you have heretofore,” the owner told the manumitted slaves, “and I will give you the same treatment you have always had, the same quantity and quality of food, and the same amount of clothing.” The victorious federal government set to work with 40-acres-and-a-mule schemes, instituting Reconstruction and appointing military and civilian governors throughout the South, some of them black. Defeated Southerners mounted resistance through groups such as, most famously, the KKK. Other groups operated at the local level, as with one self-described “committee” that warned that an Englishman who rented Louisiana land to freedmen would be punished by being burned out: the gin house first, the rest of the place next. “If that don’t break it up, we will break your neck,” the committee warned. How the Englishman responded we do not know, but Budiansky (Her Majesty’s Spymaster: Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Walsingham, and the Birth of Modern Espionage, 2005, etc.) tracks the fortunes of several Reconstruction appointees, as well as those of the renowned Confederate general James Longstreet, who took time to remind the guerrillas that their cause had, in fact, been defeated, adding, “These issues expired upon the fields last occupied by the Confederate armies. There they should have been buried.” Longstreet’s intercession did not make Reconstruction any easier—and, writes Budiansky, the general suffered terribly for having voiced such views.

The Longstreet episode is one of the best in the book, which covers ground well discussed elsewhere in the historical literature.