The Record of Murders and Outrages

This short book from Professor William Blair discusses the effort by the US Government, primarily the Freedmen’s Bureau, to document the racist terrorism inflicted by former confederate soldiers and other white southerners against African Americans and white Republicans in the former rebel states. As he writes, “The thousands of pages that makEve up the records reveal that federal agents gathered intelligence to prove the pervasiveness of racial conflict and violent atrocities against freedpeople in the Reconstruction South. … In the first months after the end of the Civil War, disputes over information raged along partisan lines. Democrats and conservative Republicans accused Radicals in Congress of distorting the extent of criminal behavior perpetrated by Southerners. The critics alleged that Radicals fabricated or exaggerated the stories of violence in order to send the military into the South on a supposed mission of mercy that hid a baser motive–to expand the party’s base through Black manhood suffrage. In a media landscape that was as partisan as the halls of government, Democrats and conservative Republicans refused to believe correspondents from opposing newspapers about lawlessness. Doubters also rejected the testimony from witnesses delivered before congressional committees under oath and denied the existence of the Ku Klux Klan.” [p. 2]

He goes on to tell us, “Even when confronted with seemingly hard evidence, critics dismissed the murders, rapes assaults, and other outrages on Black people as either cultural or social conflicts rather than struggles over political power to maintain white supremacy. They claimed that if African Americans experienced crime, it was nothing more than the usual violence occurring everywhere in America, including between white people. They also claimed, without proof, that white people were more often the victims of outrages perpetrated by Black people. In an effort to produce unmistakable evidence, officers of the Freedmen’s Bureau stationed in Southern communities after the Civil War documented racial violence to show that former rebels persecuted freedpeople and white Republicans through terrorism. Without the knowledge of President Andrew Johnson, they began to collect the data and eventually leaked it to Radicals in the Senate.” [p. 2]

The records helped support the Republican victories in the midterm elections and helped lead to the passage of the Reconstruction Acts over the objections of Andrew Johnson and other racist white politicians. We learn, “The sacrifices that Black people endured to share their testimony of white atrocities made an impact. Military Reconstruction led to newly elected Republican governments in the South, which in turn adopted Black manhood suffrage. Those governments also ratified the Fourteenth Amendment, which empowered the federal government to protect individual liberties. The intelligence on violence gathered by the Freedmen’s Bureau influenced other debates and policy formation. The monthly reports exposed the election intimidation that threatened newly registered Republican voters and put Georgia and Louisiana in the hands of Democrats. The information helped slow the timetable for readmission of states, especially Georgia.” [p. 3]

In an example of history rhyming, as with today the racist right denied the facts over and over again–and continued to do so. “But the story behind this record also exposes how difficult it has been to overcome white disbelief of the scope of racist violence against Black people–not just at the time but for at least another century. African Americans continued to bear witness to the violence and repression their communities suffered, but they were not joined by the white historical establishment until the 1960s, when scholars increasingly saw the truth about violence revealed in the archive. By the 1980s, historians using the reports of outrages produced important studies of Reconstruction violence. Nearly every historian of Reconstruction since has consulted the Freedmen’s Bureau record for its catalog of white atrocities.” [p. 3]

The pattern repeats itself over and over. There would be testimony and documentation of the racist violence introduced and racist conservatives would deny it, claim it was fabricated, claim it was exaggerated, or claim it wasn’t racially motivated but merely part of everyday American violence. Professor Blair details much of this denial as well as giving us prime examples of the terrorist violence the former confederate soldiers perpetrated.

Organized topically, the book goes from the struggle for credibility for the charges to what the African American Southerners faced, to military intervention and what that brought, to racist massacres former confederates perpetrated, and then gets into the case of Texas, which had the worst record for violence. He focuses on the early years of Reconstruction, 1865-1868, but in his Epilogue, Professor Blair takes the study beyond Reconstruction into the era of lynching, which had its own denials from racist conservatives. The brave work of Ida Bae Wells-Barnett documented the lynching cases and dispelled myths about their causes. “A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States (1895) contained the numbers, identities, and alleged crimes of the victims of lynching in the United States, especially for the year 1893. In those twelve months, Wells-Barnett tallied 200 lynchings throughout the country; most of the victims were Black men lynched in the states of the former Confederacy. She organized her tabulation under the crimes that white people alleged had justified the torture, burning, and hanging of Black people in public. In so doing, Wells-Barnett combated the widely repeated notion that lynching was the justifiable murder of Black men for raping white women. Her statistics demonstrated that murder, not rape, served as a leading charge against Black lynching victims–a fact consistent across many years. Even when the charge of rape exceeded that of murder in a particular year, alleged sexual assaults constituted only about a third of the total incidents. However, she and other African Americans understood that the ‘crimes’ themselves were typically false, manufactured by white supremacists as an excuse for the violent repression of Black independence.” [p. 230]

Professor Blair gives us some very useful tables. One of these is a table of the types of murders and outrages from 1865 to 1868 arranged by state. Another is a tabulation of victims and assailants, again by state, from 1865-1868. A third table shows the white southern boycotting of elections by comparing the numbers of white registered voters with the number of white voters who failed to vote in each of seven former confederate states. A final table shows the number of homicides in Texas from 1865-1868.

This short book, fewer than 175 pages, is well grounded in primary sources, and Professor Blair provides excellent context with judicious use of excellent secondary sources. The book is very well done, and I can highly recommend it for students of Reconstruction.

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