Book Review: Reconstruction’s Ragged Edge By Steven E. Nash

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“Registration at the South- Scene at Asheville, North Carolina”, Harpers Weekly September 1967, North Carolina Collection at Pack Library

 

     The Southern Appalachian Mountains are one of the most frequently misunderstood regions, both culturally and historically, in the United States. Perceptions of the region as backward, generally free of  slavery, loyally Unionist, and sequestered from the rest of the nation were frequent and pervasive in the late nineteenth and into the twentieth century. A lack of thorough and accurate historical research of the region, until recently, only served to allow those misconceptions to fester and harden. Steven E. Nash turns those misconceptions of postwar life and politics on their head in Reconstruction’s Ragged Edge: The Politics of Postwar Life in the Southern Mountains. Nash’s latest work is the next logical step in the historiography of nineteenth century western North Carolina, and should be read alongside the works of his mentors, like Southern Mountain Republicans 1865-1900 by Gordon B. McKinney and Mountain Masters: Slavery and the Sectional Crisis in Western North Carolina by John C. Inscoe.

     Nash clearly understands the need to provide a heap context for readers. He openly acknowledges the messiness of WNC’s history and opens the book with an overview of Antebellum and Civil War era western North Carolina; confirming the nearly dispelled myth of mountaineers’ Union loyalties and progressive views on race. Immediately the reader is confronted with the delicate nuances of economics in western North Carolina, and Nash reaffirms that the mountain planter class, “exhibited a level of political and economic control comparable to the broader southern gentry.” This idea sets the stage to demonstrate how the power held by these mountain masters manifested itself during the Reconstruction period.

     Although western North Carolina was not exactly exceptional in the Antebellum period, Nash’s research demonstrates that when it comes to Reconstruction (which is too often ignored) WNC was a unique example of how the Freedman’s Bureau succeeded and fell short. Because of the centrality of the region’s location, Freedmen’s Bureau agents were able to help connect local Republican party leaders (who already had a strong presence in some mountain counties) with national party organizers and sweep the elections of 1868. This grand success early into Reconstruction led the Freedman’s Bureau to believe its work had been done, so it withdrew from the region along with federal forces leaving a gap for the former planter class to once again take the reigns.

     Reconstruction’s Ragged Edge falls in line with the contemporary historiography of the region, and rightly so, by placing an emphasis on the importance of the geographical nuances and challenges of the Southern Mountains. The years after Federal withdrawal, Nash argues, were wrought with a burst of political power for Conservatives and groups like the Ku Klux Klan, due in part, because of the one  political issue that brought support from western Carolinian Republicans and Democrats; the need for internal improvements, namely, railroads. Geographic isolation, though it hadn’t been such a large problem for economic centers like Asheville before the war, became an increasingly important issue to mountain farmers switched from cereals and corn to tobacco after the Civil War. The major markets for the plant were in the central part of North Carolina, however, there was no railroad access for western farmers to ship their crops. Between the withdrawal of Federals and support for needed infrastructure, the Republican party fell apart before it was even able to take off.

     In Reconstruction’s Ragged Edge Steven E. Nash has grown the canon of literature about nineteenth century western North Carolina in a big way. Although Gordon B. McKinney had previously studied the politics of the region in Southern Mountain Republicans 1865-1900, he did not focus on, as Nash demonstrates, the important geo-political factors at play in western North Carolina at the time. While there was some impact on the region’s Republican tendencies by the outcome of the Civil War and small populations of African Americans in the area, Nash makes it clear that, like much of the history of western North Carolina, there were many factors at play in this economically and politically volatile era in American History.

     Overall, Nash’s Reconstruction’s Ragged Edge: The Politics of Postwar Life in the Southern Mountains will be an important read for all students of Appalachian history. Nash has compiled a wide breadth of research to make his case for this timely exploration of Reconstruction in the heart of Southern Appalachia. Employing a variety of sources and using masterful prose, Nash has unraveled the complicated and nuanced history of an often ignored region and era in American History and created a foundation for future scholars to uncover even  more.  

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