Beyond Redemption: Race, Violence, and the American South after the Civil War by Carole Emberton. University of Chicago Press, 2013. Cloth, ISBN: 022602427X. $45.00.
This book surprised me. I expected an examination of white southern violent resistance to Reconstruction and how it led to “Redemption,” but instead found something much broader and more thought provoking. In Beyond Redemption, author Carole Emberton challenges the period’s prevailing narratives and forces readers to consider how violence permeated America’s political culture. Such ambition occasionally leads to overreach, but it nevertheless provides valuable insights for anyone interested in the aftermath and consequences of the Civil War and emancipation.
In Emberton’s vision of postbellum America, the very concepts of citizenship and redemption were up for grabs. Each of the major groups involved—northerners, white southerners, and African Americans—defined these terms differently. During Reconstruction, each sought to enforce their image of American government and citizenry — and each used the concept of redemption to legitimize their aims. Northerners sought to expand the power of the state to ensure the rights of its citizens, especially in reaction to violent acts committed against recently freed slaves. White southerners attempted to maintain a strictly white supremacist society but fractured when Radical Republicans and black militias restricted their political power. The freedpeople primarily sought protection and stability through legal and political systems that they believed would both guarantee their rights and reverse their seemingly vulnerable position in the white-controlled South.
However, Emberton’s primary argument is that violence was — or became central to — each group’s conception of redemption and citizenship. In her introduction, she states that “Reconstruction produced a political culture that idealized military valor and sacrifice as the ultimate expression of American citizenship” (9) and ultimately “awakened Americans to the formative role violence played in the development of their political and national identity” (7). The most important contribution of the book is Emberton’s consideration of the tenuous relationship between black men and violence and how northern and southern whites perceived that relationship. Due to the preceding violence of the Civil War, martial manhood became the primary signifier for who deserved citizenship. In turn, northern white perceptions of African Americans were constantly shifting. Emberton shows that while northerners used depictions of black suffering to justify Radical Reconstruction, they inadvertently sapped northern support for freedpeople through overexposure —and reinforced white perceptions of black passivity.
In the book’s best chapter, Emberton demonstrates that black military service similarly produced conflicted reactions by white northerners and southerners. By outwardly adopting military practices, freedpeople either became too active—stoking long-held fears of black-on-white violence—or too passively obedient, unwittingly reinforcing perceptions of black inferiority and docility. Furthermore, nineteenth century political values tied martial valor and masculinity to the right to vote. Northerners were willing to protect black voting rights, but only if southern blacks proved sufficiently able to protect themselves. Freedpeople expecting protection soon grew frustrated with the North’s unwillingness to fully commit and relied on militias manned by former black soldiers to ensure their safety and ability to vote. This also cut both ways, preserving the franchise through organized violence (thus confirming the perceived connection between martial manhood and citizenship) and providing white southerners with the blueprint for their eventual, violent overthrow of Republican rule.
While Emberton’s interpretation is convincing, her rigorous focus on violence, gender, and race causes her to occasionally overstate her case or to ignore the practical realities of Reconstruction-era politics. Her discussions of white perceptions of contrabands and United States Colored Troops are sometimes one-dimensional—only focusing on perceptions of black inferiority and savagery. Recent works by Chandra Manning and Glenn David Brasher, for example, demonstrate how northerners sometimes improved their estimation of—or at least their empathy for—southern blacks after direct contact. Similarly, Emberton’s argument that shared ideas of martial manhood led many northerners to identify with white southern “redeemers” instead of former slaves simplifies the more complicated racial ideology of northern veterans described by Barbara A. Gannon and Caroline E. Janney. Emberton’s emphasis on masculinity as the central aspect of voting rights and gun ownership also obscures the tangible contemporary benefits of both. While it is undoubtedly true that “the Civil War strengthened the relationship between voting, arms bearing, and citizenship” (127) and even that voting became “the ultimate expression of a man’s social and political status,” (144) these outward assertions of masculinity and citizenship were surely not the primary advantages of either. Votes and bullets were highly effective ways to keep political allies in power and eliminate rivals and/or potential voters. Emberton understandably regrets that violence became an integral part of black political mobilization, but what was the alternative? For Reconstruction to have been successful in the long-term, violence—or the threat of the same—would have inevitably become a necessary ingredient, through either federal military enforcement or wide-scale military organization by blacks.
These criticisms aside, Beyond Redemption is an important work, particularly noteworthy for providing a new perspective on a historical period with a robust historiography. Its density can sometimes be imposing and readers should have a familiarity with the history and literature of Reconstruction, but those who do will find this to be a fascinating and challenging study.
Christian McWhirter is an Assistant Editor with The Papers of Abraham Lincoln and Editor of the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association. He is the author of Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music in the Civil War (2012).