Democratizing Violence in the Post-Civil War South

AHA Session 186
Saturday, January 7, 2017: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Director's Row H (Sheraton Denver Downtown, Plaza Building Lobby Level)
Kate Masur, Northwestern University
Justin J. Behrend, State University of New York, College at Geneseo

Session Abstract

In mid-December 1865, seventy-five year old planter Felix Allen sent a former slave on an errand from his plantation in Pike County, Mississippi to the neighboring county of Amite. The man had likely made the trip between Allen’s land and the nearby home of Allen’s son-in-law John Houston many times in slavery and in freedom, and had no reason to suspect that this trip would prove extraordinary.  Two days later, however, the man appeared at the nearby Freedman’s Bureau office in Magnolia where, in the words of the officer on duty, he “presented a most frightful appearance, his breast-bone broken, and spitting blood.”  On the night of his journey, the man had been roused from his bed by a band of white former Confederate soldiers.  The man explained that he carried a pass from Allen describing his errand and authorizing him to travel between Allen’s plantation and Houston’s.  Under slavery, a pass from a planter of Allen’s prominent stature served as an aegis of protection.  Emancipation and the defeat of the Confederacy had changed that expectation.  The men who entered the cabin that December night responded with a curt “We don’t give a damn for that.” They then dragged their victim off the plantation to a spot where many other white men had gathered, and commenced the assault that left his face mangled and his chest shattered.  The assault, one of an uncounted multitude perpetrated against newly freed African Americans in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, illustrated a transformation in both who wielded power and how they wielded it in the American South. 

Scholars of Reconstruction typically depict violence of this kind as the terrain on which African Americans, supported inconsistently by institutions of the state, fought for an expanding pursuit of democratic rights against a white southern population hostile to popular rule and committed to maintaining antebellum hierarchies.  That understanding of the post-Civil War South tends to situate violence and democracy as antagonists, and in so doing misses a central transformation of the era. After emancipation, a new political culture emerged that embraced violence as a prerogative and even the duty of all white men in order to enshrine white supremacy as both the goal and foundation of a racially exclusive democracy. Our panelists aim to show that in the Reconstruction era, robust debates about who could wield violence made more complex contributions to the political culture of the American South than simply casting violence as a tool of racial domination.  Instead, they were part of integrated visions of citizenship rooted in competing notions of the relationship between order and belonging in the wake of the twin social ruptures of emancipation and Confederate defeat.  Violence thus was a problem of democracy as much as it was a problem for democracy.  Our panel will speak to scholars of the Civil War and Reconstruction as well as those interested in state formation, liberal subjecthood, and post-emancipation and post-colonial studies.

See more of: AHA Sessions