Reconstruction's Ragged Edge: The Politics of Postwar Life in the Southern Mountains

Reconstruction's Ragged Edge: The Politics of Postwar Life in the Southern Mountains

Reconstruction's Ragged Edge: The Politics of Postwar Life in the Southern Mountains

Reconstruction's Ragged Edge: The Politics of Postwar Life in the Southern Mountains

Synopsis

In this illuminating study, Steven E. Nash chronicles the history of Reconstruction as it unfolded in the mountains of western North Carolina. Nash presents a complex story of the region's grappling with the war's aftermath, examining the persistent wartime loyalties that informed bitter power struggles between factions of white mountaineers determined to rule. For a brief period, an influx of federal governmental power enabled white anti-Confederates to ally with former slaves in order to lift the Republican Party to power locally and in the state as a whole. Republican success led to a violent response from a transformed class of elites, however, who claimed legitimacy from the antebellum period while pushing for greater integration into the market-oriented New South.

Focusing on a region that is still underrepresented in the Reconstruction historiography, Nash illuminates the diversity and complexity of Appalachian political and economic machinations, while bringing to light the broad and complicated issues the era posed to the South and the nation as a whole.

Excerpt

Reconstruction was well under way when Rebecca Harding Davis, a journalist and respected literary realist who grew up in the mountains of western Virginia, penned a short story set in western North Carolina. Published in Lippincott’s in 1875, “The Yares of the Black Mountains” featured Miss Cook, a northern woman investigating the “moral character” of mountain southerners. Each time Miss Cook appeared in the story, she reveled in western Carolinians’ perceived backwardness. Her interactions with the people of Asheville and Buncombe County betrayed a sense of superiority that undermined her supposedly objective social studies. There was no business, both the mining and railroad operations had halted, and the prison was antiquated. The people of the mountains constituted “a queer tribe” in Miss Cooks slanted view. They were poor, and they used farming and spinning methods she considered obsolete. She described the story’s titular mountain family as “wild beasts.” In her opinion, the antebellum social order stunted the region’s development, and the lack of internal improvements condemned it to postwar poverty. Satisfied with her findings regarding the region’s “decadence,” Miss Cook crowed that “between slavery and want of railroads, humanity has reached its extremest conditions here.”

At first glance, this story is a prime example of the late nineteenth-century local color literature that created an “exceptional” Appalachia, portrayed as isolated from the rest of the South socially, economically, and culturally. A second look at Davis’s story, however, shows more than the construction of an Appalachian “other.” On the same day that Miss Cook dismissed western North Carolinians as backward and hopeless, she witnessed other things that should have given her pause. She took in the splendor and beauty of Mount Pisgah as well as a serene, rustic town square full of activity. While Davis’s description of the square leads with the sleepy image of a cow grazing, it expands to include stores replete with various trade goods. It seems that this place, so stagnant and dreary in Miss Cook’s eyes, possessed enough commercial activity and natural attractions to lure in many future—and real— northerners. Finally, the fictitious northern woman observed a black woman milking as a former Confederate officer plowed his field. It seems that despite her dour conclusions, Miss Cook saw things in western North Carolina (see . . .

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