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. This book proposes to both challenge and explode the existing parameters of Reconstruction and Appalachian studies with a local-level examination of “socioecological order” in this distinct region (4). Nash contrasts the experiences of Appalachians with those of other southerners in the complicated postwar era while additionally reinserting Appalachian experiences and emphases centrally into North Carolina history and placing “understanding of the mountain South into a new, postexceptional phase” (6). Here the book fits well into the long-standing (and, surprisingly, still seemingly necessary and ever-renewing) historical effort to contest simplifying or marginalizing approaches to Appalachian topics while still asserting the utilities of regional study. This book neatly frames the singularity of the region and of its interpretive value for historians of the political cultures of U.S. racial formations, patterns of state development, capitalist development, as well as, of course, for those in Appalachian studies and southern history itself. Appalachian experiences matter, this book argues, and those who ignore the tenor of political change in the region may well fail to understand the dynamic implementation (and sometimes failure) in the mountain periphery of policy choices made at the national level. The first chapter provides a concise description of the geographical characteristics, social structures, and political attitudes of twenty counties in western North Carolina. Nash examines the relatively low percentage of slaves in the overall population and their uneven distribution even within the selected area, and couples that examination with a short analysis of secessionist thought and wartime experiences for the region. This short introductory chapter draws on essential work of John C. Inscoe and Gordon B. McKinney as well as original research. The second chapter moves attention to the early experiences of emancipation in the mountains, where the shocks of occupation, ingrained racism, and state institutional resistance efforts complicated the process. Tenant farming and sharecropping were already established in the region in the antebellum period, and these systems served as a conduit alongside apprenticeship systems to foster the tumultuous socioeconomic transition. In addition to the revolutionary changes of emancipation, Nash pays attention to the class divisions which the conflict over unionism only served to intensify. Nash argues that “wartime loyalty trumped all other claims in the year following Appomattox” (55). The third chapter offers a straightforward account of the political wrangle at the end of the war as the region grappled with the political transition at the state and national partisan levels. Chapters 4 and 5 focus on the activities of the Freedmen’s Bureau and the growing resistance to it from the Ku Klux Klan. These form the essential pivot point of the story and set up what is arguably the most interesting, but least developed, chapter of the book. Nash concludes that “the 1870s began literally with a bang as Klansmen attacked their white and black Republican allies, and they ended with a loud locomotive whistle announcing the railroad’s arrival to the region’s most important economic center” (177). By stopping at this critical juncture, Nash missed the opportunity to trace this essential transformation both further into the future and deeper into the political culture of the region in ways that animated the issues of Reconstruction beyond the era that he began the book promising to explode. Instead, the arc of the book actually serves to reinforce this end to the period of time Nash originally sets off and questions (but quickly abandons) as an scare quoted “reconstruction.” Some of the analytical promises outlined in the introduction are not realized in the narrative, though fully covering these issues would have lengthened what is currently a concise book suitable for course adoption. In the end, this book is largely a narrative political history of the affairs of the region during the immediate postwar period rather than a more realized and textured analysis of the critical connections of the Appalachian peripheral with the emerging postwar southern system. Nash does temper what otherwise might be a dry story with solid research and straightforward, clear writing. Nash’s account unearths the actions of many individual actors from the region and is sourced in a wide array of archival collections, government documents, periodicals, and other primary materials. His research is solid and his presentation is persuasive. Some of this approach to the significance of Appalachian experiences in post–Civil War national political culture and southern political economy has been clarified in a variety of directions in essential standard works by Inscoe, Altina L. Waller, Ronald D. Eller, Ronald L. Lewis, and others. This book does not engage the richest new readings of Reconstruction, such as Gregory P. Downs’s After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War (2015), and does not reach a comparable level of analytical power. But Reconstruction’s Ragged Edge provides a welcome regional counterpoint to the broader southern and national stories and is overall a solid and readable account that certainly contributes to historical understanding of the social and political transformation of western North Carolina in an era that continues to confound. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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