- Unequal Freedoms: Ethnicity, Race and White Supremacy in Civil War–Era Charleston by Jeff Strickland
Jeff Strickland has set out to complicate the traditional narrative of historical Charleston, which sees its story purely in black-and-white terms. Even in a city [End Page 433] as dominated by slavery and slave owners as Charleston was, it had a more complicated story in its social, cultural, and political life. In a thorough examination of the lives of Irish and German immigrants during the Civil War era (roughly defined here as late 1840s to 1877), who in 1860 made up over 20 percent of the white population in the city, Strickland shows that as such a sizeable proportion of the population, these foreign immigrants were bound to have important effects on the city. While works by historians such as myself, Christopher Silver, and Michael Thompson have examined some aspects of this reality, Strickland provides a more comprehensive view.
He begins by focusing on the important economic presence of European migrants in Charleston. The Germans, in particular, were a significant part of the mercantile community, while the Irish provided a lot of the unskilled labor. Both groups upset racial decorum by trading illicitly with slaves, especially selling them alcohol. Through diligent research, Strickland shows that the courts dealt with hundreds of cases of immigrants illegally selling liquor to slaves and that these provoked fear among slaveholders. He connects some of the fear to the city’s strong nativist movement, which almost won control of the mayoralty and city council in the mid-1850s. These partisans did not take over, however, due in some measure to the involvement of immigrants, especially the Irish, in municipal politics. The Irish quickly naturalized, or at least declared their intentions to do so, seeking and exercising the franchise.
Despite all this economic and political activity, Strickland sees the Civil War as a watershed for the immigrants and their descendants. The destruction of slavery and the slaveholders’ grip on the city widened participation in city elections. Immediately after the war, the Germans rose to prominence, even seating a mayor in 1868. John Wagener, a merchant who had led a German Confederate unit during the conflict, was eager to participate in the new post-Confederate politics. He and his supporters in large part took over the local Democratic Party and provided the main opposition to the growing Republican Party. In what this reviewer considers the best chapter in the book—on the significance of the traditional German Schutzenfest, a shooting competition organized by the German Rifle Club—Strickland highlights how the Germans used cultural events to heighten their visibility and respectability in the city among native whites. Indeed, he rightly indicates that the Germans managed to abrogate state laws against private militias, paving the way for the rifle clubs that would later play prominent roles in opposing Radical Reconstruction. Many African Americans, newly enfranchised, thus saw the Germans as the main opposition to their progress. In 1871, for example, a Republican rally turned into an all-out assault on German businesses. So powerful [End Page 434] were ethnic issues during this time that both parties, in various fusionist guises, made sure to include among their supporters and candidates Irish, German, African American, and native white southerners. Ultimately, however, the Irish and German Americans chose white supremacy over interracial alliances, with most of them supporting Wade Hampton and the “Straight-out” ticket in 1876, the election which overthrew Radical rule in the state.
Strickland definitely shows how complicated race and ethnicity were in Charleston. His book’s organization, however, can be frustrating, with analysis occasionally becoming lost in all the detail. One chapter, for example, based in large part on excellent research in the R. G. Dun business records at Harvard, becomes a list of immigrant business owners and their financial holdings. Most of this information would have been better in an appendix. Similarly, a stronger chronological narrative in the Reconstruction chapters would have made the...