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Journal of Interdisciplinary History 32.2 (2001) 324-325

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Book Review

Rethinking Southern Violence:
Homicides in Post-Civil War Louisiana, 1866-1884

Rethinking Southern Violence: Homicides in Post-Civil War Louisiana, 1866-1884. By Gilles Vandal (Columbus, Ohio State University Press, 2000) 319pp $60.00 cloth $19.95 paper

Though this book is not really a rethinking of southern violence, it is a splendid piece of research on homicide in Louisiana during an especially troubled period. Vandal has painstakingly tabulated homicides, both individual and collective, relying on official federal and state records, and on an exhaustive survey of surviving newspapers. Crime statistics are notoriously unreliable; even homicides can evade capture by the records. Still, Vandal argues that there is no systematic bias in his data. His numbers are the best available now and probably forever.

Vandal analyzes the data by parish, intrastate region, time, race, gender, rurality, and motive, paying as much attention to class as the evidence will allow. All of this work is admirably, and explicitly, informed by existing historiography and social science theory, making it a story about a particular time and place that is indexed to the several larger stories of which it is a part.

The study tends to corroborate the understanding of Reconstruction as a reign of terror inflicted on freedmen by whites desperate to maintain white supremacy in social life and politics, and to control the black labor that was needed by large landowners. Its attention to nuance and variety in the ecology of violence is admirable. The Mississippi River parishes were relatively peaceful compared to those of the Red River region. Cotton-growing Protestant North Louisiana was different from sugar-growing Catholic South Louisiana. Women differed from men in their involvement in violence. White women differed from black women, plantation areas from farming areas, and towns from countryside. Vandal even takes into account the operation of outlaw gangs that operated in particular times and places, as well as the historical context in which white-capping, bulldozing, lynchings, riots, and massacres took place.

That homicide rates, combining individual and collective violence, were related to the ebb and flow of political tensions, and that political tensions were related to the percentage of blacks in the population, will not come as a surprise to historians of the South. Nor is it surprising that New Orleans--despite being a den of iniquity--was less violent than the countryside, but it is surprising that New Orleans after the war was less violent than before. This is only one among hundreds of nuggets that are modestly sprinkled throughout the text.

An interesting revisionist finding is that black-on-black individual homicide was lower during this period than white-on-white individual homicide, which runs counter to currently accepted accounts. Unfortunately, it also tends to undercut Vandal's attempt to link the high rates of intraracial homicide in twentieth-century black urban ghettos to their supposed origins in a culture of violence attributed to the rural nineteenth-century South. This is a replay of the argument that black families tended to be matriarchies. Contrary to theory, however, black [End Page 324] families during the late nineteenth-century South were not unlike white families, and black violence was lower than white--no prototypes of twentieth-century pathologies there.

Though Vandal is insistent in his portrayal of blacks as vigorously resisting the violence and intimidation that they received from whites, he elsewhere contradicts himself by saying that they were less active and less violent than a neutral observer would expect under such circumstances. Nor is this the only contradiction.

The chapter on gender is to be applauded as one of the most interesting in the book. Yet, it raises some troubling questions. Vandal credits the southern code of honor, and the Victorian code of chastity and purity, with shaping the behavior of women, whose activities he retrieves from newspapers and a few other sources. Left unexamined is the possibility that this evidence was itself shaped by the culture. Contemporary observers of the behavior may simply have made...


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