The best books on racial violence, fake news, and voter suppression in the post-Civil War South

William A. Blair Author Of The Record of Murders and Outrages: Racial Violence and the Fight over Truth at the Dawn of Reconstruction
By William A. Blair

Who am I?

Racial violence has been on my mind for decades, ever since I encountered the Freedmen’s Bureau Record of Murders and Outrages as a grad student. I didn’t know what prompted the government to gather such data. Later, as a professor directing a Civil War-era research center at Penn State, I sponsored a teacher-training initiative, “Breaking the Silence,” a UNESCO project on the Atlantic Slave Trade. I became starkly aware that most white Americans, myself included, had a poor sense of the brutality enmeshed in our history. This is not meant as a condemnation: without a fuller recognition of this racial past, we will have problems reconciling such issues in our own polarized times.

I wrote...

The Record of Murders and Outrages: Racial Violence and the Fight over Truth at the Dawn of Reconstruction

By William A. Blair,

Book cover of The Record of Murders and Outrages: Racial Violence and the Fight over Truth at the Dawn of Reconstruction

What is my book about?

We may think our current situation unique in featuring partisan bubbles in which people mistrust information from the other side. But immediately after the Civil War, a toxic partisan climate caused information on racial violence to become politicized, with eyewitness and newspaper accounts dismissed by opponents as fictions to mask a political agenda—what we call today “fake news.” To counteract the tendency to downplay racial atrocities, military officers led by Ulysses S. Grant ordered the Freedmen’s Bureau to document crimes against African Americans. They then leaked the information to Congress, which embarrassed the president. The resulting “Records Relating to Murders and Outrages” helped justify military occupation of the South, exposed the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, and documented voter suppression conducted through terrorism. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of To Die Game: The Story of the Lowry Band, Indian Guerillas of Reconstruction

Why did I love this book?

I taught this book years ago while an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Written like a novel, although a serious work of history, it is not your usual book on Reconstruction. In compelling prose, Evans details the struggles of the Lowry Band of Lumbee Indians who clashed with Confederate officials in southeastern North Carolina during the Civil War. Henry Berry Lowry managed to escape after killing a rebel official. He took to the swamps, eluding capture with the help of local African Americans and Native Americans. It is a little-known story among people outside of that region and shows the complicated nature of putting the country back together again after a Civil War. I had never heard of this tribe until encountering the book and found the story unlike anything else in Reconstruction literature.

By William McKee Evans,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked To Die Game as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The dramatic and exciting story of Indian guerilla warfare against the Confederates during the Civil War. During the Civil War many young Lumbee Indians of North Carolina hid in the swamps to avoid conscription into Confederate labor battalions and carried on a running guerilla war. To Die Game is the story of Henry Berry Lowry, a Lumbee who was arrested for killing a Confederate official. While awaiting trial, he escaped and took to the swamps with a band of supporters. The Lowry band became as notorious as their contemporaries Jesse and Frank James, as they terrorized bush-whacked leaders of possses…

News of the World

By Paulette Jiles,

Book cover of News of the World

Why did I love this book?

Although a novel, I found that this story of a man’s journey to return a girl kidnapped by Native Americans to her birth parents in Texas provides insights into the power struggles over racial issues in Reconstruction. My own research in my book showed that Texas accounted for nearly 60 percent of all the violence reported by the Freedmen’s Bureau from 1865 to 1868. And you can see why here. Factions among white people vied for power in a new world where Black voting could make a difference. Ultimately, this story personalizes the journey that two people had to make through those hard moments. A compelling read, the book also translated to a very good movie starring Tom Hanks.

By Paulette Jiles,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked News of the World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the aftermath of the Civil War, an aging itinerant news reader agrees to transport a young captive of the Kiowa back to her people in this exquisitely rendered, morally complex, multilayered novel of historical fiction from the author of Enemy Women that explores the boundaries of family, responsibility, honor, and trust. In the wake of the Civil War, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd travels through northern Texas, giving live readings from newspapers to paying audiences hungry for news of the world. An elderly widower who has lived through three wars and fought in two of them, the captain enjoys his…

Book cover of A Fool's Errand: A Novel of the South During Reconstruction

Why did I love this book?

I used to teach this book in Civil War classes. Although billed as fiction, the book is a thinly veiled account of Albion Tourgée’s actual experiences with terrorism. Tourgée refers to the protagonist as “The Fool,” a dig at himself in the third person. An Ohioan, he relocated to North Carolina after the Civil War, became involved in Radical politics (advocating African American voting), and was elected a superior court judge. Tourgée battled the Ku Klux Klan. He faced death threats and provided accounts of lynchings of prominent Republican leaders—acts of political violence. The “Fool” started out as an idealist who tried to encourage equality under the law and then found himself, along with others, ground down by the violence around him, causing him to return to the North. The book allows readers to feel the problems of Reconstruction through the eyes of someone who lived through them.

By Albion W. Tourgee,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Fool's Errand as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“We tried to superimpose the civilization, the idea of the North, upon the South at a moment’s warning … It was a Fool’s Errand.”

The year is 1865 and the war between the states of North and South has ended.

Comfort Servosse, a Union officer, has decided to make his life in the South.

But is he only a fool for doing so?

Drawing upon his own experiences Albion Tourgee constructed a novel which vividly brings to life the world of the South during the Reconstruction.

“The native Southron, the 'poor white,' the carpet-bagger, the old Unioner, the freedman, the…

Book cover of After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War

Why did I love this book?

I know the author personally and had a chance to read portions of the manuscript before it went to press. It is by far the best account of the occupation of the former Confederacy by the U.S. Army during Reconstruction. Meticulously researched, it gives readers a firm sense of where the military was and when, as well as how it was forced to confront insurgent white Southerners determined to obstruct advances in equal rights through whatever means possible, including violence. That intransigence caused increases in military supervision of governments, leading the author to state, “Military Reconstruction therefore exposed the necessary interdependence of democracy and coercion. (180)” There’s the irony—that expanded freedom required military control of governments. The author is a very good writer, having won the Flannery O’Connor Award for a short story collection Spit Baths.

By Gregory P. Downs,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked After Appomattox as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On April 8, 1865, after four years of civil war, General Robert E. Lee wrote to General Ulysses S. Grant asking for peace. Peace was beyond his authority to negotiate, Grant replied, but surrender terms he would discuss. As Gregory Downs reveals in this gripping history of post-Civil War America, Grant's distinction proved prophetic, for peace would elude the South for years after Lee's surrender at Appomattox.

After Appomattox argues that the war did not end with Confederate capitulation in 1865. Instead, a second phase commenced which lasted until 1871-not the project euphemistically called Reconstruction but a state of genuine…

Book cover of They Left Great Marks on Me: African American Testimonies of Racial Violence from Emancipation to World War I

Why did I love this book?

I found this book inspirational as I wrestled with my own research on violence against Black people after the Civil War. Williams deals with the legacy of violence and the wounds left physically and emotionally when people—in this case African Americans—receive little justice for crimes against them. She demonstrates time and again the need to bear witness and testify to these crimes so that there may be the possibility of an accounting. It took courage for African Americans to report crimes to the Freedmen’s Bureau, to testify in front of Congress about Klan violence, and to battle against lynching while often facing violent repercussions. Even though justice rarely occurred, this testimony mattered in leaving a record that challenged the narrative of white supremacy and, as the author maintains, providing political education for the Civil Rights Movement.

By Kidada E. Williams,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked They Left Great Marks on Me as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Shares wrenching accounts of the everyday violence experienced by emancipated African Americans
Well after slavery was abolished, its legacy of violence left deep wounds on African Americans' bodies, minds, and lives. For many victims and witnesses of the assaults, rapes, murders, nightrides, lynchings, and other bloody acts that followed, the suffering this violence engendered was at once too painful to put into words yet too horrible to suppress.
In this evocative and deeply moving history Kidada Williams examines African Americans' testimonies about racial violence. By using both oral and print culture to testify about violence, victims and witnesses hoped they…

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