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).
Nash employs a largely chronological format. Following a helpful introduction, the first chapter sets the antebellum scene and narrates the Civil War in the mountains. The sprawling highlands had a smaller African American population (12.6 percent in 1860) than did much of the South. White western North Carolinians generally supported slaveholding, but the different demographics fostered more debate among whites than was customary in some other parts of the South. The next chapter discusses the Presidential Reconstruction period and underscores elite whites’ attempts to maintain control of laborers despite emancipation. In chapter three, Nash looks at political party struggles as Congressional Reconstruction empowered Tarheel Republicans in their battles against the Conservative Party, which had formed in 1862 as a pro-Confederate alliance amid class divisions in the state. Anti-Confederates and Unionists in the mountains, facing postwar political defeat by Conservatives, found renewed strength in the Republican Party under Congressional Reconstruction and the assertion of federal power through the military and the Freedmen’s Bureau. Chapter four explores how “a stronger, more active bureau brought together African Americans and white Republicans, making possible what many historians have held as sacrosanct about Southern Appalachia: that it was a Republican stronghold” (p. 90). Beyond facilitating wider political participation and reforms in the justice system, the Freedmen’s Bureau assisted freedpeople in their important attempts to build schools. The next chapter lays out the raw violence of the Ku Klux Klan as the Conservatives (soon to evolve back into Democrats) regained control once federal intervention waned. Nash then makes important contributions to understanding agricultural [End Page 440] change and economic development in the 1870s as a precursor of so-called New South efforts. His closing chapter covers how debates that led up to Republicans’ loss of control included fights about infrastructure to foster commercial agriculture, mining, and tourism. Much of the blame for delays in completing the Western North Carolina Railroad fell on the Republicans, and pursuit of economic development pushed white attention to racial justice even farther down the list of priorities. The railroad reached Asheville in 1880, marking a turning point for western North Carolina.
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. It is a story worth understanding in this place and many...