Reconstruction in Alabama: From Civil War to Redemption in the Cotton South

By Noe, Kenneth W. | The Journal of Southern History, May 2018 | Go to article overview

Reconstruction in Alabama: From Civil War to Redemption in the Cotton South


Noe, Kenneth W., The Journal of Southern History


Reconstruction in Alabama: From Civil War to Redemption in the Cotton South. By Michael W. Fitzgerald. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2017. Pp. xii, 451. $49.95, ISBN 978-0-8071-6606-2.)

An unexpected sesquicentennial is following hard on the heels of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War. Conflicting memories and agendas, polarizing political rhetoric, exposed corruption in high places, struggles for public space and unobstructed ballot boxes, and tragic acts of senseless violence followed by judicial apathy now rise regularly like the ghosts of Reconstruction. Some voices even warn of a new redemption. Accounts and attitudes bom in Reconstruction's aftermath, meanwhile, continue to have currency in many circles and appear regularly in a bevy of newspaper comment sections and Facebook memes. As Michael W. Fitzgerald observes at the beginning of Reconstruction in Alabama: From Civil War to Redemption in the Cotton South, the major survey of Alabama in the Reconstruction era somehow remains Walter L. Fleming's Civil War and Reconstruction in Alabama (New York, 1905), a volume that is not only well over a century old but also steeped in the racist assumptions of its times. In this new work, Fitzgerald sets out to supersede Fleming's painfully passe volume while integrating a mass of recent literature. Fitzgerald delivers more than a new synthesis, however. Boldly postrevisionist in its interpretation. Reconstruction in Alabama offers nothing less than a new framework for understanding the period in the complicated cotton South.

Throughout Reconstruction in Alabama. Fitzgerald stresses the centrality of factional politics and proto-New South economics, factors that he believes most historians of the period gloss over too readily. He grounds his analysis in antebellum Alabama, where white non-elites regularly confronted black belt planters for power. When a mass of planters attempted to push Alabama out of the Union in 1861, Jacksonian Democrats from the northern Alabama hill country uncomfortably joined a growing handful of elite Whig conservatives to oppose the Confederacy. Wartime persecution, battlefield defeats, and brutal retaliation along the Tennessee River increased both Unionist numbers and their alienation from many of their white neighbors. Shared harassment never successfully welded these vying scalawag factions, and rivalry and class distrust endured. Unconditional Unionists from the hills particularly scorned wealthy latecomers, some of whom really did embrace the Union simply as a way to protect or rebuild personal fortunes. Race, in contrast, ironically provided a unifying element, as few white Alabama Republicans were antislavery or interested in the rights of postwar freedpeople except when they needed temporary allies. …

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