The two books considered here offer fresh insights into the role of violence in shaping the culture and politics of the Reconstruction South. The first, Carole Emberton’s Beyond Redemption, provides an extended analysis of the ways in which post–Civil War Americans struggled to apply the language of redemption in their attempts to explain the unprecedented violence of the war and its aftermath. The second, Stephen Ash’s A Massacre in Memphis, [End Page 75] focuses on the horrific violence of the 1866 Memphis race riot both as a key moment in the political history of Reconstruction and as a case study in the long history of American racial violence.
While the violent white supremacists who toppled Reconstruction governments in the South called their movement “Redemption,” Carole Emberton’s book demonstrates that the concept of redemption generated a multivalent discourse central to the entire postwar generation’s attempt to make meaning from the unparalleled violence of the Civil War. She contends that, on the one hand, redemption could be the language of peaceful postwar change, as former slaves, abolitionists, and Radical Republicans argued for expanded and federally protected citizenship rights in order to redeem the sacrifice of soldiers and the sufferings of African Americans who had endured violence and oppression at the hands of cruel masters. On the other, redemption could also require continuing violence, especially as white southerners who rejected the moral and political legitimacy of congressional Reconstruction policy aggressively challenged the Reconstruction order. In that context, black and white men increasingly equated citizenship with martial manhood, a highly gendered concept that required violent demonstration as contending groups made their claims upon or against the national state. During this period, Emberton argues, the discourse of redemption from violence existed side by side with a strong and highly gendered tradition of masculine redemption through violence.
Beyond Redemption’s focus on the ambivalent character of Civil War–era violence-redemption narratives is particularly effective in its analysis of the discourse of black enlistment. Although the leading black abolitionist Frederick Douglass celebrated the presence of black soldiers on Civil War battlefields as a transformative event in which collective black manhood and citizenship could be achieved by the redeeming experience of military service, Emberton argues that white society viewed black troops differently. Because white leaders feared that blacks might be uncontrollable on the battlefield, for example, they regularly subjected black soldiers to humiliating forms of coercion and strictly scrutinized their conduct for signs that they might seek revenge for slavery. White officers such as Thomas Wentworth Higginson took pains to reassure superiors about the bravery of their solders, but they were equally concerned about their troops’ levels of obedience and sometimes worried that they would act savagely toward southern civilians. Far from having the liberating experience Douglass hoped for, moreover, black soldiers [End Page 76] were often forced into the army by brutal “press gangs,” denied legitimate bounty payments, and poorly trained. Government officials also refused to equate military service with citizenship, sometimes describing the service of black troops as an obligation they owed their government rather than as an indication of their new status as members of the political community.
While Emberton is careful not to isolate the Reconstruction discourse of redemption from the antebellum period, she is sometimes overly general in her descriptions of earlier antislavery discourse. For example, she argues that abolitionist images of black suffering focused exclusively on the damage slavery did to white society and that “nothing was said of the trauma, grief, and dislocations that white violence inflicted on black victims or their families” (51). While this may be true of Reconstruction images, it is not a complete picture of abolitionist visual culture that encouraged white viewers to identify directly with black suffering. The...