Fenians, Freedmen, and Southern Whites: Race and Nationality in the Era of Reconstruction

By Grob-Fitzgibbon, Benjamin | The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Fenians, Freedmen, and Southern Whites: Race and Nationality in the Era of Reconstruction


Grob-Fitzgibbon, Benjamin, The Arkansas Historical Quarterly


Fenians, Freedmen, and Southern Whites: Race and Nationality in the Era of Reconstruction. By Mitchell Snay. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007. Pp. xiv, 218. Acknowledgments, introduction, illustrations, bibliography, index. $40.00.)

In this lively and engaging study of African-American freedmen, southern whites, and Irish Americans, Mitchell Snay argues that the concept of nationalism, particularly civic nationalism, is a key ingredient to understanding the era of Reconstruction. In the aftermath of the Civil War, new and fundamental questions were raised about what it meant to be an American. The answers given to these questions revolved around "freedom, citizenship, and suffrage." Thus, "Reconstruction ideology channeled nationalist impulses into civic terms of political enfranchisement" (p. 9). Although disparate in their understandings of nationalism, freedmen, southern whites, and Irish Americans all held democracy and citizenship as the central battleground in their struggles for national and political self-determination.

Snay's work is divided into an introduction, five chapters, and a conclusion. The introduction provides a succinct overview of his argument, briefly describing each of the three groups and showing why and how they can be studied comparatively. Chapter 1 takes a more in-depth look at the groups, describing their relationship to republicanism and Radical Reconstruction and the impact this had on their national identity. Chapter 2 addresses the secret societies and paramilitary organizations that supported freedmen, southern whites, and Irish Americans during Reconstruction, namely the Union Leagues, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Fenians. Snay argues that together they created a "political culture of countersubversion" that was defined by "elaborate initiation rites and secret rituals," "mysterious nocturnal meetings," and a "strongly paramilitary organizational structure" (p. 51). Chapter 3 explores notions of class and nationality, using the "land question" as a window through which to view the relationship between them. Chapter 4 examines ethnic and racial nationalism, concluding that ultimately this phenomenon was overshadowed during Reconstruction by civic nationalism, the focus of Chapter 5. This final chapter is the heart of Snay's argument, convincingly showing that "Civic nationalism was the most powerful force shaping the aspirations of Fenians, southern whites, and African Americans" (p. 169).

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