- Reconstruction's Ragged Edge: The Politics of Postwar Life in the Southern Mountains by Steven E. Nash
Reconstruction occupies a central place in American history. It is often the last topic discussed in early American history courses and the first lecture delivered in the modern American history classroom. The sloppy reunification of the United States, coupled with the negotiated failure of efforts at racial equality and civil rights for African Americans, comprise convenient narrative starting and stopping points for both halves of the American survey. Recent scholarship focusing on the interplay between multiple levels of postwar power both within and without the South suggests, however, that this neat story was more complicated. In Reconstruction's Ragged Edge: The Politics of Postwar Life in the Southern Mountains, Steven E. Nash skillfully applies this "reconstruction at the grassroots" framework to Western North Carolina, while simultaneously adding to the underappreciated historiography of postbellum, preindustrial Appalachia (2).
Nash's narrative stretches from the antebellum period through the beginning of Western North Carolina's industrial transition. Divided into six chronological chapters, Reconstruction's Ragged Edge explores antebellum North Carolina mountain society, the immediate impact of emancipation on postwar labor, shifting definitions of postwar loyalty and political power, the activation of federal intervention through the Freedman's Bureau, the conservative backlash and the disintegration of Republican power, and the emergence of an industrial-market economy. Superficially, the postwar experience in North Carolina's mountains mirrored much of the rest of the South's. A growing rejection of federal power, nourished by increasing conservative violence, eroded the temporary progress made by Republicans and their Washington allies. While Western North Carolina may have fit this overarching narrative, the author adds fresh and complex dimensions to the story.
Nash argues that, while race and ultimately white supremacy still mattered in the western mountains, "white mountain Republicans embraced [End Page 121] outside power and cooperated with their black neighbors to transform regional politics" (6). This local-state-national power relationship lasted for several years, as entities like the Freedman's Bureau temporarily brought federal power and legitimate reform to Western North Carolina. As conservatives chipped away at this Republican coalition with rhetoric and violence and federal bureaucrats gave up on mountain reform, "redemption" took hold, and with it came the popular development of industrial infrastructure. In short, "national strategies called for the expansion of citizenship; instead, local events facilitated Western North Carolina's integration into the nation's market" (8). It is in this complex relationship where the author's analysis shines. Nash is able to present a compelling regional case study while preserving the national implications of Reconstruction policy in the Western mountains.
The author organizes his monograph cogently and accessibly. Each chapter is logically framed and tells a compelling story. Nash successfully navigates a multilayered narrative, while his inclusion of personal stories and incidents of race and political violence lends a vivid, if not disturbing, element to most chapters. His chapter three discussion of the fluidity of Unionist loyalty and the fusion of varying classes of "loyal" North Carolina mountaineers with the national Republican Party, its platform, and attending power is particularly instructive. Additionally, the author interestingly details the transformation of liquor regulations and enforcement into a conservative wedge issue against the federal bureaucracy in the last few chapters.
Nash's research is exhaustive, and he synthesizes a dizzying array of government documents, correspondence, newspapers, and secondary sources into a readable study. Perhaps most impressive is his ability to weave personal stories, exchanges, and events into most chapters. His description of the 1867 Wilkesboro Riot is particularly vivid and instructive.
With so many interrelated themes, subsections perhaps would have helped organize the chapters more effectively. Additionally, the conclusion seemed brief for such a multifaceted monograph. Ultimately, though, these are minor criticisms. As Nash argues, "Reconstruction ushered in a new era in Western North Carolina's history. But on a broader level, Western North Carolina's post–Civil War experience tells us even more about the...