Summers on Nash, 'Reconstruction's Ragged Edge: The Politics of Postwar Life in the Southern Mountains'

Author: 
Steven E. Nash
Reviewer: 
Mark W. Summers

Steven E. Nash. Reconstruction's Ragged Edge: The Politics of Postwar Life in the Southern Mountains. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016. 288 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4696-2624-6.

Reviewed by Mark W. Summers (University of Kentucky )
Published on H-SHGAPE (March, 2017)
Commissioned by Jay W. Driskell

With so prestigious a press and such a formidable range of sources in North Carolina’s Research Triangle, it is an irony that no study of Reconstruction in the Tarheel State as a whole has come out in a century (though, to be fair, Paul Escott’s book treating a longer period and W. McKee Evans’s brilliant examination of the Cape Fear region make up for much of the lack). What place could use it more or would have more materials to draw on, to make it possible? A very good start, however, could be made in limning some of the most distinctive themes found in Steven E. Nash’s skillful examination of the Civil War’s aftermath in the westernmost twenty-odd mountain counties.

The main danger that this book raises will be in readers’ minds. If they think that Reconstruction’s Ragged Edge offers a convincing challenge to stereotypical impressions of a southern Appalachia apart in its prejudices, ideas, interests, and economic aspirations from the rest of the section, they think right; if they assume that it is no more than that, they sell its author short. The story Nash tells goes further. Reconstruction’s Ragged Edge does indeed compensate for the comparative neglect given to the Appalachian South in Reconstruction surveys, by taking up an area where the give-and-take that went into defining African Americans’ freedom and the making of a new set of relationships between labor and employer played a less central role. Though the plantation South did not lie so far away, in the upcountry, other considerations made white residents more likely to give a favorable hearing to Republicans than planters would in the cotton and sugar belt, where labor control and keeping local black majorities from sharing power became all-consuming priorities. Whites in the uplands had divided over loyalty to the Union, even as they united in endorsing racial hegemony. The end of slavery was not enough to erase their antebellum political affiliations, any more than it could alter the antebellum priorities of bringing railroads and economic development to areas isolated from the rest of North Carolina by technology rather than by distinct values.

Under those conditions, a competitive party system had the chance to arise. With direct federal intervention--the army, the Freedmen’s Bureau, and a congressionally devised program of Reconstruction and restoration--Republicans won office, local and statewide. That they depended on federal might rather than on their own resources proved one fatal mistake among many. Their downfall came when that outside support was removed, but not for that reason alone. Klan violence would not have the catastrophic impact that it had in the Piedmont; the ostracism and intimidation so ferociously applied in black belt counties in Alabama and Mississippi played a comparatively minor role here. As Dr. Nash shows, the Democrats solidified their advantage by making the issue of economic development their own.

Two concerns loomed particularly large. Federal action against illicit whiskey distilling infuriated small farmers, for whom moonshining provided an essential income enhancement. At the same time, everybody looking for economic development wanted to see the area connected by rail to the Atlantic coast. Republicans’ draw rested on their commitment to a crowd of subsidies and grants to promoters. Democrats could counter it best by embracing local railroad interests and showing that they were better placed to complete unfinished lines. The scandals and unfulfilled promises of railroad aid that Republicans had held out cost them a vital constituency. The pressing need for rail connections ended up pushing black priorities farther and farther back among their white allies. In the end, the “Redemption” that Democrats delivered offered industrial development at the price of the social change that the mountain counties also needed. The chance for a real makeover was lost across the South, but as Nash makes clear, the forces and methods used to kill Reconstruction came in varying proportion, depending on what part of the section historians study; that variability might have been better served by a more flexible federal policy of punishments and incentives--going lighter on moonshiners, say, or giving stronger encouragement to wartime Unionists in the upcountry than in other parts of the South where Unionism lacked a large white constituency--as well as a more consistent readiness to respond to the night-riders and vigilantes who carried death and fear in their wake.

This is a smart, well-researched, and well-written book, even if some of its arguments have been culled from Nash’s previous work and amalgamated into this overview. Its mining of primary sources is not only exhaustive; the endnotes have no end of historiographical digressions which is as rewarding a feast as the body of the book itself. The author has a style occasionally wry and always felicitous. “Reconstruction could not be escaped by a mixed drink,” he comments at one point (p. 55). It is, of course, not a full story of Reconstruction’s changes in household or personal relationships. Political, rather than social evolution, remains at the heart of Reconstruction’s Ragged Edge, and on the latter much more work remains to be done. To which the author could rightly respond: so what? The book’s strengths in what it does make it so indispensable not only for the study of North Carolina but the whole South in the war’s aftermath that one can only hope that it serves as an inspiration for a larger study, from the Tennessee border to the coastline. Based on his handling of the subject here, no scholar would be fitter to handle it than Steven Nash.

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Citation: Mark W. Summers. Review of Nash, Steven E., Reconstruction's Ragged Edge: The Politics of Postwar Life in the Southern Mountains. H-SHGAPE, H-Net Reviews. March, 2017.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=48105

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