|A cover of the Democrat-leaning satirical magazine Puck, from 1887,|
depicting Rep. John Sherman still waving a 'bloody shirt'
[That's right, it's April, which means that it's Confederate Heritage Month. We continue our coverage. Previous installments at the bottom.]
There's another well-used phrase that has its origins in the Reconstruction period, like "carpetbagger" and "scalawag" -- and like them, devised for the purpose of obfuscating the campaign of eliminationist violence that white Southerners unleashed on freed blacks and the whites who sought to help them.
"Waving the bloody shirt":
"the demagogic practice of politicians referencing the blood of martyrs or heroes to inspire support or avoid criticism."Stephen Budiansky, as we noted in the previous installment, described in his amazing book The Bloody Shirt: Terror After the Civil War the fate that befell a white "carpetbagger" -- that is, an educator who had the temerity to attempt to organize schools for black children -- named Allen Huggins was brutally whipped within an inch of his life by the Ku Klux Klan.
... In American history, it gained popularity with an incident in which Benjamin Franklin Butler of Massachusetts, when making a speech on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, allegedly held up the shirt of a carpetbagger whipped by the Ku Klux Klan.
But that was only the beginning of the story (excerpted in the New York Times):
The sequel was this—or at least this was the story everyone in Monroe County believed, and in time everyone in Mississippi and the whole South had heard it, too. That a U.S. Army lieutenant who was stationed nearby recovered the bloody night-shirt that Huggins had worn that night, and he carried it to Washington, D.C., and there he presented it to congressman Benjamin F. Butler, and in a fiery speech on the floor of the United States Congress a few weeks later in which he denounced Southern outrages and called for passage of a bill to give the federal government the power to break the Ku Klux terror, Butler had literally waved this blood-stained token of a Northern man’s suffering at the hand of the Ku Klux. And so was born the memorable phrase, “waving the bloody shirt.”
Waving the bloody shirt: it would become the standard retort, the standard expression of dismissive Southern contempt whenever a Northern politician mentioned any of the thousands upon thousands of murders, whippings, mutilations, and rapes that were perpetrated against freedmen and women and white Republicans in the South in those years. The phrase was used over and over during the Reconstruction era. It was a staple of the furious and sarcastic editorials that filled Southern newspapers in those days, of the indignant orations by Southern white political leaders who protested that no people had suffered more, been humiliated more, been punished more than they had. The phrase has since entered the standard American political lexicon, a synonym for any rabble-rousing demagoguery, any below-the-belt appeal aimed at stirring old enmities.
That the Southerners who uttered this phrase were so unconcerned about the obvious implications it carried for their own criminality, however, seems remarkable; for whoever was waving the shirt, there was unavoidably, or so one would think, the matter of just whose blood it was, and how it had got there. That white Southerners would unabashedly trace the origin of this metaphor to a real incident involving an unprovoked attack of savage barbarity carried out by their own most respectable members of Southern white society makes it all the more astonishing.
Most astonishing of all was the fact that the whole business about Allen Huggins’s bloody shirt being carried to Washington and waved on the House floor by Benjamin Butler was a fiction.
The story about Huggins being whipped by the Ku Klux was true enough. Huggins was whipped on that bright moonlit night so ferociously that he could barely walk for a week or two afterward, so ferociously that in a burning anger that overcame any fear of his own death he traveled to Washington to testify before Congress and then returned to Monroe County with a deputy U.S. marshal’s badge and a determination to arrest every man he could lay his hands on who had been a part of the reign of Ku Klux murder and terror in those parts. And Benjamin Butler—“Beast Butler,” as he was invariably called in the Southern press, the man who had committed the unpardonable insult against Southern womanhood as the Union occupation commander in New Orleans during the war with his order that the next Southern woman who insulted his troops on the street would be “regarded and held liable to be treated as a woman of the town plying her avocation”— this nemesis of the South, now a congressman from Massachusetts, did indeed make a long, impassioned speech about the Ku Klux outrages on the House floor that April, and did tell the story of Huggins’s brutal beating in the course of it.
But nowhere in the Congressional Globe’s transcripts of every word that was uttered on the House floor is there any allusion to a bloody shirt; nowhere in the press accounts of the leading papers of the time is there any mention of a crazed congressman waving a blood-stained garment, on the floor or off; nowhere in any reports of Huggins’s appearances before Congress does such a story appear. That part never happened.
What was more, this was not the first time that Southerners had invented the fiction that Northerners were given to making fetishes of blood-stained tokens of their victimhood at Southern hands. The same story had cropped up fifteen years earlier in connection with another Massachusetts politician equally reviled in the South, Senator Charles Sumner.
Once again the beating was a fact, the alleged Northern reaction to it a fantasy. Furious at the insult to Southern honor Sumner had committed in a speech attacking slavery and the morality of the slave owner, South Carolina congressman Preston Brooks had approached Sumner in the Senate chamber, stood over his desk, and beat him on the head thirty times with his gold-headed cane until Sumner crumpled to the floor in a pool of his own blood.
And sure enough, Southerners were soon saying that Sumner’s bloody coat had become a revered “holy relic” in Yankee and abolitionist circles. Sumner, they said, had carried his own blood-encrusted garment to England to show the Duchess of Argyle, when she invited him to dinner; had placed it in the hands of an awe-struck John Brown, before his fateful raid on Harper’s Ferry; had put it on public display in Exeter Hall. “All the abject whines of Mr. Sumner, for being well whipped,” wrote one Southerner in 1856, a few months after the event, “all the exhibitions of his bloody shirt to stale Boston virgins who, in vexation of having failed to secure a man, would now wed a Sumner, have proved futile.” Years later, years after the Civil War, scornful stories about Northerners exhibiting Sumner’s bloody shirt were still being circulated in the South. Not a scrap of it was true.
A footnote, but a telling one: To white conservative Southerners, the outrage was never the acts they committed, only the effrontery of having those acts held against them. The outrage was never the “manly” inflicting of “well-deserved” punishment on poltroons, only the craven and sniveling whines of the recipients of their wrath. And the outrage was never the violent defense of “honor” by the aristocrat, only the vulgar rabble-rousing by his social inferior. “The only article the North can retain for herself is that white feather which she has won in every skirmish,” declared one Southerner, speaking of the Sumner–Brooks affair. Only a coward would revel in a token of his own defeat.
The bloody shirt captured the inversion of truth that would characterize the distorted memories of Reconstruction that the nation would hold for generations after. The way it made a victim of the bully and a bully of the victim, turned the very blood of their African American victims into an affront against Southern white decency, turned the very act of Southern white violence into wounded Southern innocence; the way it suggested that the real story was never the atrocities white Southerners committed but only the attempt by their political enemies to make political hay out of it. The mere suggestion that a partisan motive was behind the telling of these tales was enough to satisfy most white Southerners that the events never happened, or were exaggerated, or even that they had been conspiratorially engineered by the victims themselves to gain sympathy or political advantage.
So teachers were flogged and lynched, and schoolhouses burned to the ground, as the first wave of terrorism struck the newly freed ex-slave community and their helpers. Douglas R. Egerton, in The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America's Most Progressive Era, describes in detail the key role played in what ensued by the attacks on black education [pp.154-156]:
A handful of former Confederates, either because of their own religious beliefs or due to practical considerations, endorsed the education of black children. ... But those dissenting voices found their way into newspapers precisely because they were atypical. R.D. Harper, the superintendent of education in Alabama, marveled at the progress the [Freedmen's] Bureau had made despite "the prejudice against and the opposition to the education of the freedmen." An educator in Mobile noted that local whites were "displeased that negroes should desire to improve their intellectual condition, and yet more displeased that any white person should be found, perverse enough to encourage these improper aspirations."
The moment they quit their classrooms each day, northern teachers faced a steady barrage of criticism from those raised to believe that black inferiority justified and even necessitated their enslavement. "I do assure you," a white woman snapped at one teach, "you might as well try to teach your horse or mule to read, as to teach these niggers. They can't learn." Just as the Confederate leadership understood that the potential recruitment of black soldiers negated their carefully constructed pro-slavery ideas, the notion that educated blacks might prove to be as clever as whites challenged long-held assumptions. The "country niggers are like monkeys," the woman added. "You can't learn them to come in when it rains."
When it came to dealing with female teachers, southern whites invariably resorted to social ostracism, hoping to make the young women so miserable that they would abandon their crusade. "The teachers are mostly a tabooed class," sighed Bureau agent H.H. Moore. As they walked down the street or shopped for goods, Harriet Greeley wrote, schoolmarms were insulted, told to "go to the devil" and they watched as locals "pass by on the other side because we are associated with the Colored people." Housing was a consistent problem. Single teachers rarely wished to reside with black families, who in any case had little room to spare, and even those white women who desperately needed additional income refused to rent rooms to northern women. When Maria Waterbury of Saratoga, N.Y., took a position in Tennessee, she and three other young teachers were turned away from a nearly empty boardinghouse. "No you can't come into the house," the proprietress snarled. "Nigger teachers, indeed. As though we would disgrace ourselves having them come into the house." ...
Male teachers faced far worse. Reports from around the South told of endless attacks on men employed by Bureau schools. "When a teacher goes to some [Louisiana] village and opens a school for colored children," Tribune editor Lous Charles Roudanez charged, "he is turned out and not seldom beaten, stabbed or killed." Black Republicans in Texas complained that in many cases "violence has been used against both teacher and buildings." ... In Granada, Mississippi, Lieutenant J. B. Blanding, a twenty-five-year-old Bureau agent, was shot three times in the head while out for an evening stroll. The next morning, a "committee of citizens" paid a call on the dying Blanding's captain, warning him that "the teachers must leave, and that if he himself did not leave he would be killed next."
What followed was a true reign of terror at the hands of the most conscienceless population of thugs in American history. And in classic Confederate fashion, reality was inverted on its head -- just as the bloody shirt became a symbol not of the violent outrages committed by Southerners but of the horrible audacity of Northerners to make an issue of them, so to was a postwar regime designed to spread democracy to the impoverished working people of all classes in the South and end slavery somehow transformed into the essence of tyranny itself.
A bald fact: Generations would hear how the South suffered “tyranny” under Reconstruction. Conveniently forgotten was the way that word was universally defined by white Southerners at the time: as a synonym for letting black men vote at all. A “remonstrance” issued by South Carolina’s Democratic Central Committee in 1868, personally signed by the leading native white political figures of the state, declared that there was no greater outrage, no greater despotism, than the provision for universal male suffrage just enacted in the state’s new constitution. There was but one possible consequence: “A superior race is put under the rule of an inferior race.” They offered a stark warning: “We do not mean to threaten resistance by arms. But the white people of our State will never quietly submit to negro rule. This is a duty we owe to the proud Caucasian race, whose sovereignty on earth God has ordained.”Indeed, it's common to hear neo-Confederate agitators -- those folks who are still pushing for modern secession by the South -- describe Lincoln to this day as a "tyrant."
“No free people, ever,” declared a speaker at a convention of the state’s white establishment a few years later, had been subjected to the “domination of their own slaves,” and the applause was thunderous. “This is a white man’s government,” was the phrase echoed over and over in the prints of the Democratic press and the orations of politicians denouncing the “tyranny” to which the “oppressed” South was being subjected.
So saturated is our collective memory with Gone With the Wind stock characters of thieving carpetbaggers, ignorant Negroes, and low scalawags, that it comes as a shock not so much to discover that there were men and women of courage, idealism, rectitude, and vision who risked everything to try to build a new society of equality and justice on the ruins of the Civil War, who fought to give lasting meaning to the sacrifices of that terrible struggle, who gave their fortunes, careers, happiness, and lives to make real the simple and long-delayed American promise that all men were created equal—it comes as a shock not so much to be confronted by their idealism and courage and uprightness as by the realization that they were convinced, up to the very last, that they would succeed. Confident in the rightness of their cause, backed by the military might of the United States government, secure in the ringing declarations, now the supreme law of the land embodied in the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments of the Constitution, that slavery was not only dead but that equality and the right to vote were the patrimony now of all Americans, they could not imagine that their nation could win such a terrible war and lose the ensuing peace.
The idea of being governed by a black president? To many of these people even today, that is itself the essence of tyranny. Indeed, the bloody shirt survives even today, more than 150 years later, as a rhetorical ruse deployed by conservatives as an aggressive form of defense by people like Rush Limbaugh and Donald Trump.
Confederate Heritage Month:
Day 1: Strange Fruit
It Was About Slavery
That Peculiar Institution
How Poor Whites Got Suckered
The First American War Criminals
'The River Was Dyed'
War By Other Means
Carpetbaggers, Scalawags, and the Liars Who Named Them