The Other Panic of 1873: Federal Authority in the South and West

Friday, January 6, 2012: 2:30 PM
Miami Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Carole Emberton, University at Buffalo (State University of New York)
This paper explores one aspect of what historian Elliott West terms the “Greater Reconstruction” of the 1860s and 70s: the question of how to define and legitimize federal authority. In particular, it reveals how western conquest and southern Reconstruction became mutually instructive in the minds of many observers who strove to understand what had gone wrong in the South and how to ensure a successful expansion of federal authority in the West.   This regional dialectic becomes most apparent around moments of significant violence, such as the spring of 1873 when two seemingly disparate and unrelated events brought the issue of federal authority to the forefront.  The murder of Maj. Gen. Edward Canby by Modoc Indians in California on April 11, and the massacre of a company of black militiamen in Colfax Louisiana by White Leaguers two days later, raised complicated questions about how the government should deal with unruly populations who flagrantly resisted its authority. The paper will explore the divergent reactions to the two events, including how Canby’s murder became a rallying cry for greater federal intervention in the West, while the Colfax Massacre represented the failure of federal intervention in the South and the need for white “home rule.”   Some white southerners praised Canby’s murder as an act of vengeance on behalf of the South against military despotism. African Americans, on the other hand, viewed both events as evidence of the poisonous effects of race prejudice for both blacks and Native Americans.
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