Category Archives: Civil Rights

American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant by Ronald C. White

Another in a series of books attempting to restore the life and career of Ulysses S. Grant into proper historical perspective. Undoubtedly the most popular man in America at the time of his death in 1885, his reputation has taken a beating in the years since the end of Reconstruction. Due to a combination of Northern exhaustion after 15 years of Civil War and Reconstruction, and a purposeful campaign by Southern historians and heritage groups looking to recast the war as anything other than a fight to retain the institution of slavery, many myths about Grant have taken hold in popular imagination.

Ronald C. White, in American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant, has given us a very accessible, and personal, biography of Grant that puts to rest many of the myths about him that have gained a foothold in popular memory since his death. He also provides what I consider to be one of the best reviews of Grant’s Presidency that has so far been published; one that puts it into proper historical context given the many challenges he faced after the disastrous Johnson years.

At the moment of his death on July 23, 1885, Ulysses S. Grant was arguably the most revered man in America. He had shepherded the Union war effort to ultimate victory, had completed two terms as President, which, if not spectacularly successful in hindsight, had done little to diminish his popularity, and he had riveted the nation with his heroic struggle against time, as he raced to complete his memoirs before the ravages of throat cancer took his life. Those memoirs, completed only five days before his death, are the widely acknowledged gold standard among military autobiographies, and their popularity restored the Grant family fortune. The country went into deep and prolonged mourning after his death, with 1.5 million people attending his New York funeral. Despite this though, By the end of the 19th century, Grant’s reputation had undergone a large, and largely negative, change.

Ask the average person today what they know about Ulysses S. Grant and you are as likely to hear that he was a “butcher” and a “drunk,” as you are to hear he was the preeminent military figure of the Civil war whose skill and strategic genius saved the union. As with most myths however, the truth is far more complicated. And in the case of Grant, they are almost universally incorrect. White does a very good job of separating fact from fiction with regards to these myths.

One of the most pernicious of these myths surrounds Grant’s alleged drinking problem. It is supposedly the cause of his forced resignation from the Army, and was at the root of any setback he experienced throughout the war. Grant didn’t discipline his troops after the initial victory at Belmont, so he must have been drinking. Grant wasn’t prepared for Albert Sidney Johnston’s attach at Shiloh, so he must have been drinking. Grant unwisely ordered a last assault at Cold Harbor, so he must have been drinking. And on and on and on…

Politics too played a part. Rumors that Grant had resigned from the Army in 1854 because of his drinking allowed rival Generals, usually those annoyed that Grant’s success was getting in the way of their glory, to raise the specter that he had fallen off the wagon and should be replaced, with the usual recommendation being that the replacement should be the one making the charge.

White deals with these rumors in a very effective way. Rather than devoting a whole chapter on the topic, which to me has the effect of elevating their credibility, he simply deals with them within the timeline of the narrative. He does not assert Grant did not drink – he clearly did – he simply notes there is no convincing evidence that Grant routinely drank to excess, or that his drinking had any effect on his military performance. Contemporary evidence, other than repeated rumors, are almost non-existent. Every person sent to Grant’s command to investigate these rumors, reported back they had no basis in fact. So the reality then, as White shows, is that while Grant was not a teetotaler, he did not have a serious drinking problem. And there is not a scrap of evidence drinking ever had an effect on his performance during the war.

Another persistent myth about Grant relates to his military skill. Southerners, eager to elevate their participation in the war as a heroic struggle against a marauding north intent on trampling rights guaranteed them in the Constitution, had to come up with ways to explain their defeat that didn’t involve admitting any fault with their (lost) cause. From this sprang first, the assertion that Southern soldiers were superior to the northern counterparts. Whereas they portrayed themselves as selfless warriors merely looking to defend hearth and home, Northern troops were depicted as the lackeys of money grubbers looking to strip the South of its wealth, or, as so eloquently put by Shelby Foote, Confederates believed “one Southern soldier was worth ten Yankee hirelings.” Ironically, an argument could persuasively be made that the reality was exactly the opposite. Confederate soldiers were fighting so the landed gentry could maintain their way of life, one that depended on slavery. It was the North that was fighting for a concept – “Union.”

The second, and possibly the most important part of this effort to recast the war, was the importance of demonstrating the superiority of Confederate Generals. The post war south wanted heroes to latch on to. They had to be portrayed as honorable men, fighting for a righteous cause. They also had to find an explanation for their defeat other than the superiority of their northern counterparts. This was particularly true with their most idolized figure – Robert E. Lee.
Southerners dealt with these needs in two ways. First, they asserted the only way the North could have defeated the South was through brute force and overwhelming numbers. At no point, they asserted, were southern generals outmatched, or southern troops outfought. They simply lacked the resources needed to win. Secondly, in order to elevate the character of their hero Lee, they had to deflate that of the man who defeated him – Ulysses S. Grant.

White doesn’t deal extensively in what ifs related to the manpower argument. The South certainly had the resources it needed to win the war had it employed an effective strategy. It didn’t. He does debunk the notion that Grant was victorious solely through the application of overwhelming force. After all, the North had that same advantage from the beginning of the war, and were not able to defeat Lee. Only when an able General, one who understood the strategies needed to overwhelm Lee, took command, were they able to win. The fact is, as White shows, northern troops were equally as brave and skilled as their southern counterparts; and Grant was superior to Lee, particularly as a strategic thinker. Lee was myopically focused on the eastern theater, while Grant viewed the conflict as a nationwide one. Where Lee cared little for what happened in the west, Grant realized that success there made victory in the east more attainable.

White does a very effective job debunking most of the negative assertions about Grants military ability. He does not do this by ignoring Grant’s failures (e.g. Cold Harbor), or by denigrating the ability of Robert E. Lee. He presents an effective, though not ground breaking review of Grant’s efforts up to his elevation as General in Chief, and provides a very fair analysis of events after that point.

The only conclusion that can plausibly be drawn from available evidence is that Grant, far from being a butcher of men, was in fact a skilled tactician and strategist, who made effective use of his resources. He put in place an effective strategy for winning the war, and executed it with considerable skill. Robert E. Lee did present the toughest resistance Grant had come up against during the war, but Grant was more than equal to the task. His casualty rates during the Overland Campaign were appalling of course, but that was the expected result of the type of fighting needed to bludgeon the South into submission. Always on the attack Grant was guaranteed to suffer more casualties. But as a percentage of his Army they were no worse than Lee’s. And if one looks at the entire war, Grant lost considerably fewer men while in command than Lee did.

Following Lee’s surrender, Grant’s role changed. He entered the political realm, first as General in Chief under the volatile Andrew Johnson, then as interim Secretary of War, and finally as President. White provides an excellent review of this time, far better than most biographies of Grant which tend to rush through this period.

For many years, Grant has ranked near the bottom of the list of effective Presidents. But in recent years, as historians have begun to take a more dispassionate look at his two terms, that ranking has improved. White does what many biographers have not, examined his Presidency in the context of the challenges he faced.

As President, after two year of conflict under Andrew Johnson who aided the South as it tried to reassert white dominance, Grant faced a daunting task. Not only was he trying to repair the country, he was trying to protect the rights of newly freed slaves. Ambivalent about slavery before the war, Grant became a staunch supporter of full citizenship for former slaves after it.

He made significant progress pushing back the Ku Klux Klan, and successfully navigated the rough political waters that went along with military reconstruction in the South. Many assert, including I think the author, that Grant should be considered the first Civil Rights President. Strong evidence for this includes the views of Frederick Douglass, who had a tepid opinion of Lincoln’s efforts on behalf of blacks, but strongly support Grant’s. The support of Jewish leaders as well, who were insulted by Grant’s infamous General Order #11 in 1862 that singled out Jewish traders for condemnation, but who came around to view him as an ally, is another piece of evidence in favor of that view. And not only was he a proponent of full rights for African Americans, but he tried to install a liberal policy regarding Native Americans, believing the government had trampled on their rights.

As events eventually overtook the country, and weariness after 15 years of war and the conflict of Reconstruction set in, much of what Grant did and tried to do, was rolled back by subsequent administrations. It would be nearly a century before blacks were able to get restored to them anything close to their full rights again. But, Grant’s efforts here were noble, and were for a time successful. He deserves credit for that.

Grant also had to deal with several economic issues during his administration. Early in his first term, wealthy speculators Jay Gould and James Fisk tried to corner the gold market. Grant intervened to stop them just in time, the result of which was Black Friday, a panic that led to months of financial devastation. White argues Grant’s quick action should be credited. While that is true, I think he goes too far in absolving Grant here. He either didn’t realize or didn’t want to realize, that he was being used by Gould and Fisk. Had he been more diligent, he might have been able to terminate their machinations without the subsequent panic.

White also gives Grant too much credit for the way he dealt with the depression of 1873. The crisis, which was the result of over speculation in railroad stock, led Grant to further contract the money supply in order to prevent over inflation. White implies this was the correct move in that it kept inflation from getting out of hand. However, at the same time it caused interest rates to rise, which hurt those in debt (as Grant acknowledged and agonized over), and severely limited the amount of money available to companies with growth plans. Those actions probably prolonged the downturn.

White compares Grant’s steady, no nonsense reaction to the crisis to Franklin Roosevelt’s reaction to the Great Depression of the 1930s, as he tried to cheer lead the economy into action, which White implies was a less effective strategy. This is not a good comparison. Grant’s reaction was to the immediate crisis as it occurred, while FDR’s was to an economy that had been in depression for three years, and which had sapped the countries will. A more apt comparison would have been to Hoover, whose reaction was much the same as Grant’s, a refusal to apply stimulus, thus prolonging the crisis.

White also deals effectively with the numerous scandals that occurred during Grant’s two terms. Seemingly unable to believe anyone he had known and trusted could act duplicitously, he was slow to remove corrupt officials, and remained loyal to those taking advantage of their relationship with him for far too long. Grant was personally incorruptible, but was seemingly blind to corruption around him until it instigated a crisis. This is the reason Grant is ranked as a middling President rather than an above average one.

Overall I think anyone with an interest in Ulysses S. Grant would enjoy this book immensely. It is generally fair (with the exceptions I noted), and effectively deals with the many myths surrounding Grant and his career. He does a nice job of tying Grant’s life as a boy and student at West Point to his later action as General and President. He does a nice job of recounting Grant’s career, and his service in both Mexico and in the Civil War. He provides a very lucid account of Grant’s Presidency that puts it into the context of the challenges he faced. He also gives a great account of Grant’s world tour after his White House years, and a very moving one of his final death struggle.

Most importantly, it is very well written

There are flaws, some of which I noted. He was at times quick to give Grant the benefit of the doubt in cases where there was an equally plausible counter argument. He also seemed to take great pains to portray Grant as a devout Christian. He was a believer of course, but I don’t think religion played a particularly important role in his life. And finally I think he gave Grant too much credit for his reactions to the gold crisis in 1869 and the depression of 1873.

Still, highly recommended!

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Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America by Gilbert King

Americans like to praise themselves for their ability to recognize, and to rise above their prejudices; to eventually do the right thing by those that have been oppressed and marginalized in our society. We praise Abraham Lincoln for emancipating the slaves; we praise Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton for eventually achieving women’s suffrage; we praise Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey and most especially Martin Luther King Jr. for Civil Rights advances in the 1960s; and we revere the genius of the founders for producing governing documents that lend themselves to an interpretation that asserts more freedom, more compassion, more equality, and more liberty for our citizens. We use this praise to assert a progressive vision of America and its institutions.

Each of those mentioned above, along with many, many others, are deserving of the praise accorded them. But, instead of using their example as proof of the worthiness of our system, what we should perhaps be doing a lot more of, is asking why we always seem to get into situations where change requires the extraordinary efforts of extraordinary people to accomplish it. Why can we not EVER learn from past experience to keep us from making the same mistakes over and over and over again?

I do think a system that produces men like Thurgood Marshall, Harry T. Moore, and Charles Hamilton Houston certainly must have its admirable qualities, and I think that is in part attributable to the foresight of the founders. But we are also a country that cannot seem to learn from its mistakes. We tolerated discrimination and violence against African Americans for far too long, and still tolerate it. We are the same country that allowed travesties like the subject of this great book, the “Groveland Boys” case, to occur (only a decade before I was born), and we seem to be sliding back into an ethic that again condones prejudice and discrimination.

Martin Luther King Jr famously said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I would love to believe that, and I hope it is true, but my faith in that notion is being sorely tested. Books like this one, shine a very bright light on our history, and force us to face the notion that we should not only be praised for overcoming our own evil, but rather should be criticized for allowing it to fester for so long.

Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America by Gilbert King is an absolutely superb book. A beautifully and tightly written narrative, it recounts the events surrounding the Groveland, FL rape case in 1949. Four African American men – Walter Irvin, Charles Greenlee, Sam Shepherd, and Ernest Thomas – were falsely accused of raping 17 year old Norma Lee Padgett. Railroaded by a racist Sheriff, the odious and evil Willis V. McCall, a racist judge Truman Futch, and a go along to get along prosecutor Jesse Hunter ,the four men were convicted of the crime despite there being no evidence other than planted shoe impressions, and the word of Padgett herself.

Parallel to this narrative is a history of Thurgood Marshall and his time as lead council for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Eventually the two stories intersect as the NAACP takes on the case of the “Groveland Boys, ” taking it to the Supreme Court twice, and eventually the office of the Florida Governor.

While this is a historic event whose outcome is well known, it is not a story many have heard before. The narrative style of the book demands some level of uncertainty as to its outcome for it to have the full effect. So I won’t be providing any spoilers here. This is ironic because knowing the level of racism in the south, the sway the KKK still had over whole swaths of the region, including Lake County, FL where this takes place, the ending seems foreshadowed. Still, there are enough twists and turns in the story to more than keep your attention and turn this into a genuine page turner.

I think part the author’s intention with this book was to inspire us with the stories of men like Marshall who were able to use their intellect, morality and persistence to overcome injustice from inside the system, and with the courage of the Groveland Boys themselves who, despite having to endure what can only be described as torture – both physical and mental – asserted their innocence knowing to do so would almost certainly result in their deaths.

I was inspired by them. But contrary, I believe, to the authors further intention, this did not lead me to believe in the efficacy of our system, or that it inevitably bends us toward justice. From my perspective, it is just the opposite. Justice is achieved despite our system. Only through the courage of people like the heroes in this story, who had to overcome a system stacked against them at almost every level, do we ever make progress toward a more just state.

This book is must reading!

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My Rating:
4.0 rating

ImpeachmentImpeachment of a President: Andrew Johnson, the Blacks, and Reconstruction by Hans Trefousse

Andrew Johnson is one of the most enigmatic and controversial presidents in American history. Depending on one’s perspective and place in time he was either the man responsible for the failure of Reconstruction in the south, or, the man who helped avoid a race war by steering a moderate course between advocates for full civil and political rights for African Americans and those that wanted to keep them in as close to a state of slavery as possible. Johnson has been the subject of many books, by many of the leading scholars of the Reconstruction era, including Eric Foner, who, for my money, is at the top of this list. Each looks at Johnson in different ways, interpreting his actions and the motivation behind them from different points of view. In one respect they all agree, Andrew Johnson was in inveterate racist whose racism shaped his views of Reconstruction and the proper role of the freedmen in the post-Civil War South.

In his book Impeachment of a President: Andrew Johnson, the Blacks, and Reconstruction, Hans Trefousse has produced an extensive and, in my opinion, unique view of Johnson and his presidency. He views Johnson’s motivations from the dual perspectives of Jacksonianism and racism, a perspective I haven’t seen before, and don’t entirely agree with. Trefousse acknowledges, as most scholars do, that Johnson’s intense racism made it impossible for him to “sympathize in any way with policies furthering racial equality. (Trefousse, 5) However, Trefousse departs from conventional wisdom which views Johnson as “inept and stubborn,” by concluding he was in fact sincere in his beliefs and a skillful, uncompromising tactical politician.

Andrew Johnson viewed himself as a “Jackson Democrat.” This implied, among other things, a belief in white superiority, a classical states rights view of the constitution, a rejection of secession as one of those rights, a bottom up view of politics including an often intense distrust of large monied interests, and like Jackson himself, a willingness to stubbornly stand one’s ground in defense of his beliefs, trusting in eventual vindication by the American people. Trefousse does not dig into Johnson’s motivations for his dislike of the slavocracy before the war, something that would not be a characteristic of a Jackson Democrat, but he does ascribe the others to him, and uses them to explain Johnson’s actions throughout reconstruction, especially in relation to the efforts to impeach him.

Andrew Johnson, “like Andrew Jackson, conceived of an America ruled by whites.” (Trefousse, 4) As guaranteed in the constitution, Johnson was devoted to democracy and viewed it as a precious gift. But, in his view the constitution was “written by white men, [and] he believed that its benefits were reserved for whites.” (Trefousse, 4) As Trefousse points out, evidence for this racism is abundant, ranging from disgust at seeing black troops stationed in Tennessee while he was its wartime governor, to his denunciation of the Reconstruction Bill of 1867 he described as a “measure to treat the suffering people of the South under foot ‘top protect niggers’,” to his annoyance at seeing predominantly black laborers working on the White House lawn. (Trefousse, 4) The primary expression of Johnson’s racism during this period however, was his stubborn determination to minimize the role of black’s in Reconstruction, and to maintain the domination of the white race. In furtherance of that goal, all through the Reconstruction period, Johnson acted on these racist principles, taking actions which he believed would maintain white domination in the reconstructed south, including his May 29, 1865 Proclamation of Amnesty which “inaugurated and extremely liberal policy of pardoning ex-Confederates,” and his call for white southerners to hold conventions for the purpose of organizing new state governments, thus disregarding demands for black suffrage. (Trefousse, 11) His racism would not allow a policy of land distribution to freedmen. As Trefousse observes, had Johnson wanted to “maintain the dominance of the white race… [he]…could not permit the transfer of land to the freedmen.” (Trefousse, 15) Consequently he established a policy of returning confiscated land to their Confederate owners in an effort to deny freedmen the opportunity to become landholders. In early 1866 Johnson vetoed the Freedmen’s Bureau bill, primarily for racist reasons, and in 1867 he vetoed the Civil Rights bill partially for constitutional reasons, but also because “it offended his racial sensibilities since it proposed to outlaw all discrimination between the races.” (Trefousse, 26) And, in 1866 he opposed passage of the fourteenth amendment to the constitution whose moderate purpose was to insure the equal treatment of all citizens under state law. As with the Civil Rights bill, Johnson objected partially on substantive grounds, but also because it gave rights to blacks which he did not believe they should have. In taking these uncompromising stands, Johnson passed up numerous opportunities to compromise with moderate and conservative Republicans that may have enhanced his political position. Instead, he chose to stand his ground, certain “that history and his country would ultimately recognize the purity of his actions.” (Trefousse, 6) Instead, while he was President, “[Andrew Johnson] would utilize the entire resources of his high office to keep the South a white man’s country.” (Trefousse, 29)

While racism was the primary reason for Johnson’s opposition to the equitable treatment of freedmen, it was not the only one. Another, Trefousse argues, was that Johnson, like Andrew Jackson, was devoted to an indissoluble Union and to the Constitution. He held a classic states rights position as did Jackson ascribing to the individual states sovereignty in most matters. He drew the line at state nullification of federal law and secession, neither of which he believed were sanctioned by the Constitution. This explains his loyalty to the Union; a view at odds with the majority of his former constituents in Tennessee. It also partially explains a number of his actions during Reconstruction including his veto of the Freedman’s Bureau bill, the Civil Rights bill, and his opposition to the fourteenth amendment. All of these actions Trefousse argues, were based on Johnson’s view of the proper role of the federal government; specifically, his belief that the constitution did not give the federal government power to define the terms of suffrage in the various states. It was also evident in the way Johnson worked to minimize the effects of military Reconstruction, replacing generals who were viewed as too radical. It was perhaps most dramatically demonstrated by his challenge to the Tenure of Office Act. Designed to restrict Johnson’s control of federal patronage, the act forbade the dismissal of any Presidential appointee still in the term of their appointment without Congressional approval. Johnson, anxious to rid himself of Secretary of War Stanton, and in an apparent desire to test the act’s constitutionality, removed him from office, setting up a confrontation with Congress. Republicans in the House of Representatives, who had been looking for an excuse to Impeach Johnson, used his violation of this act to do so. After shameful and unethical behavior on both sides, Johnson was ultimately acquitted by one vote in the Senate.

Where Trefousse departs from many other historians’ analysis of Johnson’s actions during this period, is in his interpretation of Johnson’s apparent stubbornness in the face of Republican pressure. Usually dismissed as the actions of a vindictive and recalcitrant politician, Johnson’s unwillingness to go along with Republican reconstruction efforts were actually politically calculated to achieve a very specific result. Every action he took, from purposely alienating his own ostensible allies by refusing to compromise on even the most moderate attempts to give basic civil and political liberties to freedmen, to risking impeachment over his violation of the Tenure of Office Act, was calculated, argues Trefousse, “to accomplish his own goals – to thwart Radical Reconstruction and maintain white supremacy in the South, “policies he truly believed would eventually be seen by history as correct.

At times it seems Trefousee has a sneaking admiration for Johnson. This is understandable. Certainty can be an appealing quality in a politician – at least initially. However, from the tenor and tone of the book as a whole, particularly in his extensive discussion of Johnson’s racism, Trefousse does not appear to have a high opinion of Johnson as a statesman. It is certainly clear he believes Johnson’s behavior during the Reconstruction period was harmful to the country. He notes more than once that because of the eclipse of the Southern ruling class, had Johnson acted more decisively, overcoming his racist attitudes, that “it would have been comparatively simple to enfranchise at least some of the Negroes in the former Confederacy,” (Trefousse, 7) Andrew Johnson was a Jacksonian living in a post-Jacksonian world and was unable to view things any other way.


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4.0 rating


In A Rage for Order: Black-White Relations in the American South Since Emancipation, Joel Williamson takes a unique look at southern racial violence, noting that “one of the great ironies of American history…[is that]…when the nation freed the slaves, it also freed racism.” (Williamson, 78) This resulted he argues, in physical and cultural segregation, and the unleashing of some of the most sadistic racial violence seen since the end of the Civil War.

Williamson begins his work with a brief review of the rise of slavery in America, noting the strenuous efforts southern whites made to make a place for blacks in their economy by trying to find a place for them in every aspect of southern life. One result of this was the creation of the Sambo image, a construction whites invented depicting slaves as “simple, docile, and manageable.” (Williamson, 15) He describes an almost Focaultian power discourse he calls the “organic society,” where whites could not “prescribe and enforce a precise role upon black people without prescribing and enforcing a precise role upon themselves.” (Williamson, 17)

The heart of A Rage of Order however is Williamson’s discussion of the evolution of white racial attitudes in the south after emancipation, particularly the interplay of three southern white “mentalities” which he uses to describe “intellectual atmosphere[s] of a distinctive, clearly identifiable quality.” (Williamson, 70) These mentalities, which became prominent at different times were: “Liberal,” which was strongest in the 1880s and argued that black potential was as yet unknown, but was encouraged by the strides blacks made under white leadership during reconstruction; “Conservative,” which had probably started in the 1830s and was the default mentality of most white southerners, always there, but would adapt into other mentalities to insure its survival. Conservatives held that blacks were innately inferior, and in order to help them survive it aimed at defining their place in American society; and “Radical,” the most violent and insidious of the mentalities, held that blacks, no longer under the yoke of slavery, would regress to their “natural state of savagery and bestiality.” (Williamson, 71) Radicalism, which was mostly responsible for the extreme violence and racism against blacks, included forced segregation, disenfranchisement, and the use of lunching and riots as acceptable political tools, was most prominent between 1897 and 1907. Williamson’s devotes most of this work to the effects of this radicalism and how conservatism responded to it.

The rise of radicalism is not easily explained. Williamson believes an effort by northern politicians, including some Democrats, to make a place for blacks in government, fears of the reintroduction of reconstruction, and economic and political upheavals characterized by replacement of the plantation economy by tenant farming and industrialization, were all contributing factors. Based on the amount of space he devotes to it however, it appears Williamson believes the primary cause was the interplay of economics and the Victorian model of gender roles. This Victorian sensibility cast men as the breadwinner and women as the protector of hearth and home. Unable to provide for their families during bad times, men could at least protect their women from the outrages of the “black beast rapist.” This despicable construction was the result of the deliberately fabricated Radical view of black retrogression. In this view, “the most significant and awful manifestation of [this] black retrogression was an increasing frequency of assaults on white women and girls by black men.” (Williamson, 84)

Williamson uses a number of biographical essays as a way to demonstrate the manifestation of these mentalities. He includes essays on Booker T. Washington, who took an accommodationist approach to race relations, and W.E.B. DuBois, who did not. Most interesting, but ultimately the least convincing, were biographies of three prominent radicals: Rebecca Latimer Felton, Benjamin Ryan Tillman, and Tom Dixon. In each case, Williamson tries argues for a psychological explanation for their turn to radicalism. For Rebecca Latimer Felton, author, feminist, and U.S. Senator (for one day), it was disgust at her prescribed role in Victorian society. For Benjamin Ryan Tillman, it was the paranoia that arose as his daughters came of age and his memories of plantation life as an adolescent surrounded by slaves. And for Tom Dixon, the author of The Leopard’s Spots and The Clansman on which the movie The Birth of a Nation was based, it was the psychological resentment he held for his father and grandmother, and the role they played forcing his mother into an underage marriage. Implicit in the sketches of Felton and Tillman, and more explicitly in that of Dixon, is the notion that the psychological condition represented by these three was also present in millions of other southern radicals. Though interesting, it is a leap to extrapolate from these case studies a wide spread psychological explanation for radicalism in the south, particularly in the absence of any other evidence.

At times Williamson takes a somewhat sympathetic view of Conservatives and their reaction to Radicalism. He admires the way it presented a pliable public face, going along with many of the radical proposals, including segregation and disenfranchisement, waiting for the day when radicalism would subside. As such, Conservatism was nearly indestructible. Overall I found Williamson’s arguments to be fairly persuasive. The interplay of the three “mentalities” he describes, and the role of Victorian gender identification in the rise of Radicalism, was convincing. His assertion that psychology can be used to explain the rise of Radicalism for millions of southerners was unpersuasive. I also found his explanation for the decline of Radicalism, that Radicals realized blacks were not dying off or retrogressing as they predicted, unpersuasive. It seems to me by 1915 when Williamson dates the end of Radicalism, they had achieved all of their goals – segregation, disenfranchisement, and state sanction for violence. There was simply no longer a reason to maintain it, and so Conservatism again became dominant.

This book is impressively sourced, using primary and secondary sources as well as newspapers and manuscripts. It is easy to read with few lapses in the narrative.




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My Rating:
5.0 rating


Written in the style of a murder mystery, Suzanne Lebsock in A Murder in Virginia: Southern Justice on Trial has given us a work which is both entertaining and learned. The way a good mystery leaves something unresolved at the end of each chapter, so does Lebsock, turning what could have been an interesting, but dry, look at race relations in post-reconstruction era Virginia, into a real page turner. More importantly however, she has written a book that gives a real life glimpse into the economic, social, and political lives of both blacks and whites in rural Lunenberg, Virginia following the Civil War. And although not explicitly stated by her, I am of the opinion that in exploring this set of events, Lebsock is reflecting the racial consequences of the new south ideology given voice by C. Vann Woodward, primarily in his works, Origins of the New South and The Strange Career of Jim Crow.

A Murder in Virginia centers on the murder of one Lucy Jane Pollard, wife of farmer Edward S. Pollard. Her body was discovered a few feet from her home, Lucy Pollard had been “murdered with an ax on a sticky June afternoon in 1895”[1] Suspicion immediately and predictably fell on black suspects, and within two days, “though no physical evidence linked them to the crime, six black women had been arrested for her murder.”[2] Later, a black man, Solomon Marable was also arrested. As Lebsock shows us, the arrest of these black suspects was the last predictable thing about this case.

Contradicting earlier looks at the new south which have tended to take an optimistic view of the post reconstruction period, emphasizing north-south reconciliation following the end of military reconstruction, and taking a sympathetic view of the redeemers (the men who helped restore white supremacy), C. Vann Woodward takes a decidedly darker, and less continuous view. Following reconstruction, and as a result of the compromise that put Rutherford B. Hayes into the White House in exchange for southern home rule, northern monied interests combined with southern Democrats to restore white rule in the South. With the failure of southern populism and its initial appeal to racial harmony, southern conservatives used the bogeyman of black domination to frighten poor whites into line. From then on, blacks saw the rights they had gained during and immediately after reconstruction fade away, and eventually saw the installation of Jim Crow throughout the south.

This process was not instantaneous however, leading to one of the more controversial aspects of Woodward’s work; his contention that race relations during this period were in flux, and were much more flexible than was generally thought. A Murder in Virginia reflects this flexibility, where aside from the initial suspicion that the murderers were black, and the worries they would be lynched on the way to trial, nothing about this case seemed to go the way we would expect based on our normal assumptions of the nature of race relations after the Civil War. This is evidenced throughout the book. There is the casual nature of the relationships between blacks and whites; with Lucy Pollard making dinner for one of the accused who worked on her farm. And one is struck by the power of John Mitchell, the black man who led the effort to defend the accused women, who was a member of the Richmond city council, an editor of the Richmond Planet newspaper, and who rubbed shoulders with many of the most powerful white men in the city. Also interesting were the number of former confederate lawyers who were willing to help the women with their defense, the impartiality of the Virginia Supreme Court in ordering retrials, the decision of Judge Samuel F. Coleman to order a new trial for the defendants, and the efforts of Governor Charles O’Ferrell who later called out the state militia to protect the defendants against possible lynchings, and pardoned defendant Mary Barnes. Even Lunenberg county officials, who had initially convicted the women and defended that conviction through the appeals process, demonstrated some fairness by protecting the defendants from harm and eventually dropping the charges. The penultimate evidence for the complex nature of race relations reflected in this book is that with the exception of Solomon Marable, who was eventually executed, all of the defendants, through the efforts of both black and white supporters, either had their charges dropped, or were pardoned.

One must be careful not to overstate the level of black-white harmony during this period. As white dominance began to reassert itself one could see the undercurrent of racism that presaged Jim Crow moving closer to the surface. It was this racism that led the women and Marable to be arrested in the first place, and though the county and state took pains to protect them, the very fact they needed protection spoke volumes about the racism of local whites. It was also at this time that we saw the Danville riots take place, and a commensurate rise in Klan violence.

Lebsock’s book is also important for the glimpse it gives us into the lives of blacks during this period. She highlights the changing role of black women, looking at their movement from their prescribed sphere of hearth and home that characterized their lives for much of the nineteenth century, to their entrance into the public. Specifically she tells the story of Rosa Bowser and Marietta Chiles, education pioneers and the founders of the Richmond Women’s League, formed to aid in the defense of the Lunenberg women. She also looks at how blacks adjusted economically during this period, highlighting the importance of the household economy to their survival, characterized by home gardens, the raising of farm animals, and the bartering that was necessary to purchase necessities. On the day of the murder one of those accused, Pokey Barnes, was bartering for chickens. As Lebsock observes, “this was the hidden economy of the poor, a ceaseless exchange among women who struck deals in person and moved goods, one house to another, on bare feet.” [3] She also provides insight into the mutual dependence between white landowners and black tenants, who, in exchange for a piece of land, agreed to work that of the owner. The importance of this arrangement is evidenced in her narrative by the fact that Wilson Abercrombie, the husband of defendant Mary Abernathy, continued to work for Edward Pollard after the murder.

One of the great strengths of this book is the way Lebsock marshals her resources, particularly contemporary newspaper accounts. They provide a significant part of the narrative, as the press played an important role in winning new trials for the Lunenberg women. Particularly important was her use of the Richmond Planet, Richmond’s black newspaper run by John Mitchell. By mining this resource, Lebsock is able to underscore the truly vital role played by this publication.

As a piece of history I am not really sure if this book breaks any new ground; I don’t believe it does. It seems as though the narrative reflects well-known views on the nature of the south during this period. However, I have very few criticisms to make. The book is well organized, especially important given the number of people she was obliged to include in the narrative. Particularly helpful was the “List of Characters” she provided at the beginning. I found myself referencing it a number of times as I read this. Overall then this is an extremely well written book with a style that will appeal to the casual reader as well as those with a deeper interest in the history of the Jazz Age and in race relations.





[1] Lebsock, Suzanne A Murder in Virginia: Southern Justice on Trial (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2003), p.13

[2] Lebsock, Suzanne A Murder in Virginia, p. 42

[3] Lebsock, Suzanne A Murder in Virginia p. 140

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