Reconstruction's Ragged Edge: The Politics of Postwar Life in the Southern Mountains By Steven Nash

Pat Young

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From the review:

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.
 

Pat Young

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From the conclusion of Mark Summers' review:

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.
 

DaveBrt

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Conclusion:

By 1871 the Klan was able to stage large-scale raids on Unionist communities in the mountains. Villages that had once resisted their citizens being taken out by the Klan now shut their windows when a Klan raid took place, leaving their Unionist neighbors to their fates. Reconstruction crumbled in the mountains long before the election of 1876.

Nash does a good job of uncovering the unique aspects of Reconstruction in the western counties. Unlike many other modern Reconstruction studies, this book tells a largely white story due to the particular demographics of the regions. It was a history that I was previously only familiar with in the most general way, and Nash supplies many details that I did not previously know about.

Nash devotes the final parts of the book to the region in the 1880s and to the later memory of Reconstruction in the mountains. This was a welcome"afterword" on the subject.

I would recommend this book to those interested in the history of Appalachia, and North Carolina, as well as to students of the Reconstruction Era.
My direct ancestor lived in the northeastern Georgia mountains before moving his family (and most of his community) to central Texas in the early 1890's. When I asked my grandmother why the family moved, the only story she could tell me was "because of the constant violence in the area and the Klan." Unfortunately she could not remember any details (she had not been part of the family then).
 

Pat Young

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From the review by Daniel Margolies The American Historical Review, Volume 123, Issue 1, 1 February 2018, Pages 233–234.

Reconstruction’s Ragged Edge provides a worthwhile exploration of the experience of the Reconstruction period in western North Carolina, a region still oddly overlooked in southern historiography and in broader treatments of this fraught and still contested era. Steven E. Nash deepens the effort to overcome simplistic historiographical framings of Appalachian otherness and exceptionalism by offering new local readings of the socioeconomic “incursion of federal power” (2) into the mountains after the Civil War. In the introduction, he promises an emphasis on the state, which places this regional study in line with fresh emphasis on the activist state in this era and generally in the nineteenth century.
 

Pat Young

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From the review by:
In terms of the Civil War and Reconstruction, the southern mountains are probably best known for having relatively few black residents and a strong contingent of Union supporters. This demographic reality might lead us to think that the region remained relatively untouched by the most significant Reconstruction conflicts. Yet these areas were also hotbeds of extralegal violence, indicating that Reconstruction did in fact affect Appalachian communities. Steven E. Nash draws together these strands and places small mountain communities within a larger story of sweeping political, economic, and social changes, and he argues that these communities were central to Reconstruction nationally. Not only did white Republicans cooperate with their black neighbors and the federal government to transform regional power structures in western North Carolina, but circumstances in these counties influenced overall state policy as well. Mountaineers shaped Reconstruction at both the micro and the macro levels...

...At its heart, this book is about power. Wartime hostility among white communities, class tensions, racial conflict, and jurisdictional contests meant that power remained up for grabs through the postwar period, especially as inter- and intraparty loyalties shifted. The shape and trajectory of these power struggles were slightly different in the mountains than in other parts of the South, but they were not wholly dissimilar. These mountain communities were on the edge of Reconstruction, as the title suggests, and there were limits to how much influence they wielded at the state level. But it is at the edges that we can discern the shape of the whole.
 

Pat Young

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From the review by
In Reconstruction’s Ragged Edge: The Politics of Postwar Life in the Southern Mountains, Steven E. Nash analyzes social and political change in western North Carolina from about 1860 to 1880. Situating these mountain counties within the broader politics of the South and [End Page 439]the nation, Nash is working within a fruitful recent vein of Appalachian studies that moves beyond earlier scholars’ concern with refuting stereotypes and instead takes scholars “into a new, postexceptional phase” (p. 6). While his mountainous region has peculiarities during Reconstruction, part of the point is that the era’s events played out in distinctive ways across the country: “Reconstruction was a national event with regional and local variations” (p. 3).

...Inevitably, I have minor quibbles. I would have liked to see more specificity supporting such historiographical claims as Nash’s argument that “wartime exigencies enhanced an opening of the region to outside influence that scholars often place in the late nineteenth century” (p. 6). I would also have preferred more explication of paternalism when he asserts that “mountain masters shared the paternalistic ethos common to southern slaveholders” (p. 29). In most cases, though, the endnotes give clear explanations of how this study intersects with existing work on important topics such as the relative significance of African American political agency and Freedmen’s Bureau interventions (p. 212n4), the significance of racism in the Klan’s terrorism in the mountains (pp. 220–21n5), and the role of tourism in the region’s economic development (p. 230n4).

Nash does a splendid job of showing how local experience was key in western North Carolina’s Reconstruction years. His detailed research paints individual lives being shaped—sometimes bettered and sometimes battered—by local political and justice systems, Freed-men’s Bureau decisions, and organized violence.
 

Pat Young

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From the review by Steven Case of the State Library of North Carolina in the North Carolina Books from the state library:

The perception that the mountain South was a Unionist stronghold during the Civil War, and displayed a more egalitarian spirit after the war, has been an enduring one. Built largely on the assumption that a lack of plantation culture led to a relatively small slave population and therefore less robust support for the institution of slavery, and coupled with the independence of spirit thought necessary to carve a living out of relatively difficult circumstances, this belief has remained fixed, though never unchallenged, in the narrative of the Civil War and the postbellum period.

Historian Steven Nash, in his excellent and nuanced study, provides yet more evidence that the North Carolina mountains were of a piece with the state and the region, and that the assumption of egalitarianism was no more evident in the this part of North Carolina than anywhere else, though it differed in the types of occupations and infrastructure needs that the region’s geography imposed. Through six chronological chapters, covering the antebellum period through about 1880, plus a detailed introduction and conclusion, Nash carefully builds up a detailed picture of these needs, as well as the political and social forces that sought to either meet or exploit them. Individual cases, culled from primary sources such as letters, diaries, Freedman’s Bureau files, and contemporary newspapers, create a compelling picture of an area as hard hit as any other by the war and its aftermath, and additionally handicapped by difficult terrain and relative lack of political clout in a state still seemingly dominated by eastern elites. Nash details the relative powerlessness of the newly enfranchised, who, enabled by the support and active intervention of Federal troops and Freedmen’s agents, benefited for a time from the broader representation that national policies and new political alliances had made possible. These same contemporary accounts, however, give greater evidence of the strong, sometimes violent, and ultimately successful conservative backlash.
 

Pat Young

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More from the review:

Some may find the work to be a difficult read, though this will have nothing to do with the quality of the book nor the persuasiveness of Nash’s contentions. True, Nash’s book, while lucidly argued and impressively sourced, is not aimed at a general readership. More than this, though, one must concede that Nash’s picture of the Reconstruction period, particularly as it illustrates the general conditions and treatment of the newly freed African American population, does not show the United States at its best, though occasional glimpses of nobility of purpose and a quest for true equality do indeed shine through, and the author is at pains to bring such instances to the foreground. Nevertheless, to read of injustice and inhumanity, even if couched in sturdy academic prose, and surrounded by a welter of painstakingly gathered statistics and detailed notes, cannot help but leave the reader dispirited, though always more fully informed. Recommended for academic libraries and libraries with strong history collections.
 

Pat Young

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From the Review:

In examining Reconstruction historiography, Appalachia is often overlooked. Reconstruction’s Ragged Edge: The Politics of Postwar Life in the Southern Mountains by Steven E. Nash helps to fill this gap by examining how politics and society shifted in western North Carolina. Appalachia, the author argues, is central to understanding North Carolina’s Reconstruction. Nash provides an overarching history of Reconstruction in western North Carolina, but the book speaks to a larger region. To understand why Republicans lost control of North Carolina, you must understand the western portion of the state.
 

Pat Young

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From the conclusion of the review:

While Nash’s Reconstruction’s Ragged Edge may seem a regional study, its implications are not. The book has numerous contributions that will interest historians of the Civil War era. Not only does the book tie the Civil War to Reconstruction by examining how, for many, “the war did not necessarily stop in 1865,” it also helps to explain why Reconstruction ended (181). Nash raises numerous questions for Reconstruction historians, even those less interested in the mountains. For example, Nash makes clear we need a more nuanced picture about how conservatives in other regions of the South gained the support of Unionists and lured other white wartime dissenters away from the Republican Party. In Appalachia, Nash argues, it was a combination of factors—including violence, the failure of the Federal government to keep intervening, economic development, and promises of railroads—that led to the breaking up of a biracial alliance. In turn, of course, that helped to bring about the end of Reconstruction in North Carolina.


This book will be enjoyed by scholars of Appalachia, Reconstruction, the Civil War, and the American South more generally. Indeed, anyone who enjoys good historical writing will not be disappointed by Reconstruction’s Ragged Edge. With clear prose and a compelling narrative, this book is an enjoyable and worthwhile read.
 

Lubliner

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Stereotyping the southern Appalachia 'kinfolk' was on my mind from beginning to end. Judging just from these reviews you posted, I see I had a totally backward and ignorant idea concerning their 'worldliness' and knowledge of what was happening in America. Instead of being as I stated, an inkling that they kept abreast of national activities remains predominant now. The overall misconception of the civil war soldier seems that, if he cannot spell it, he does not know it, and maybe never heard of it. How does one define 'enlightened'?
Thanks @Pat Young,
Lub.
 

TnFed

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Hog Drives..it did make a tidy sum of money , especially for those that didn't have many economic avenues . Not much outgo, you didn't have feed them hay, corn, whatever. Just turn then lose in the woods and let them graze, then round thrm up and head to South Carolina.
 

TnFed

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In Madison and Watauga Counties the slave population was slight. 3.6 and 2 percent respectively. But in Burke County it was 25 percent and in Caldwell County 20 percent.. Buncombe and Henderson was only 13-15 percent. However in
 

TnFed

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However in the summer the black population could have doubled in Buncombe and Henderson County as wealthy planters left the deep south heat behind.
 
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