The Race Card, circa 1871

by John Holbo on January 19, 2015

Jon Chait has an interesting column about the origins of ‘waving the bloody shirt’, which means (if you are unfamiliar with the phrase) demagogically inflaming resentment about past wrongs. The utility of such flames consisting, in part, in the generation of a smokescreen obscuring present circumstances the speaker finds it inconvenient to address in a more reasonable manner.

Chait just read a book – The Bloody Shirt: Terror After the Civil War, by Stephen Budiansky – alleging we have it almost backwards. The bloody shirt that birthed a notion didn’t belong to some dead Union soldier. That is, ‘waving the bloody shirt’ wasn’t functionally a smear against post-Civil War Democrats, turning every debate about post-war issues into a re-commencement of old hostilities. Rather,

the phrase was used to describe contemporaneous post–Civil War violence. In 1871, Klansmen in Mississippi accosted Allen Huggins, a northerner who had helped educate freed slaves, thrashed him within an inch of his life, and threatened to kill him unless he left the state. The bloody shirt was Huggins’s, allegedly waved by Republican Benjamin Butler on the House floor just a few weeks later. It was not the relic of an ancient feud but evidence of an ongoing epidemic of rampant violence.

And, apparently, Butler might not have even done it. No evidence survives, according to Budiansky (so says Chait). So maybe ‘the bloody shirt’ was pure Democratic propaganda, not Republican propaganda at all. It was, right from the start, the double-reverse ‘bloody shirt’ gambit. False flag. An attempt to generate a smokescreen to conceal present violence, by falsely alleging that the people drawing attention to present violence were merely trying to inflame people regarding past violence.

I obviously have no evidence beyond Chait’s report; not being a historian of the Reconstruction period myself.

But if this is right, then ‘waving the bloody shirt’ is the rhetorical equivalent of saying, today, that your opponent is ‘playing the race card’. That is, it’s the original ‘playing the race card card’.

In fact, I would be surprised if there weren’t a bit of truth on both sides. In 1871, post-Civil War Republicans were squaring off against “New Departure” Democrats with an interest in not talking about the war, or even openly opposing Reconstruction. Republicans could hardly refrain from getting rhetorical mileage out of the fact that their opponents were, until quite recently, a bunch of traitors (though, of course, this wouldn’t play so well in the South.) Democrats would, therefore, need a stock term for that sort of unfair attack, condensing a sense of the fallacy of assuming nothing has changed, and doing double-duty as a fallacious excuse for ignoring present evidence that, indeed, nothing has changed. (As the man said: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” If you have a personal interest in misunderstanding what he meant, I suggest you focus on ‘never’. That’s a fallacy! The Faulkner fallacy!)

Think of how weird it is that the Democratic attitude, which evolved ‘waving the bloody shirt’ as a rhetorical defense mechanism, was probably something like this: ‘I do not oppose Reconstruction, but of course that does not mean that I do oppose the near-murder of any carpetbagger who would educate former slaves!’

Chait’s point is that, in this case, a propaganda talking point won, becoming proverbial historical wisdom. It would be as if historians, a hundred years from now, characterized racial tensions in the US, in 2014, like so: ‘Democrats played the race card of historical grievance, from Florida, to Missouri, to New York.’ And left it at that, without mentioning what current events in these locations might have had something to do with it.

It’s worth thinking what sorts of circumstances enable this sort of error. I can easily imagine it (although a priori history is a bit dicey. So maybe I should read a book on the subject.) We would be, ahem, very skeptical today of KKK rhetoric from 1871. We wouldn’t swallow it straight. But since our skepticism is of comparatively recent vintage, it would be easy for KKK-brand common wisdom to have passed into common currency after 1871, but before – say – 1964. The Reconstruction Era is still a sore spot for so many reasons.



Steve Sailer 01.19.15 at 1:56 am

History isn’t necessarily written by the winners, it’s written by the writers of history.

After the Civil War, the North invested in railroads and factories, while the South invested disproportionately in historians.


Palindrome 01.19.15 at 3:20 am

As David Blight demonstrates, once Reconstruction had become a dead letter, it became politically inconvenient for both southern and northern whites to remember that the war had really been about slavery. Whites throughout the country were now okay with disenfranchising blacks and instating a slavery-lite sharecropping system, or at least they were unwilling to do anything about it. But if we were going back to a social system not so very far from the status quo ante bellum, why did over 600,000 people have to die? The circle could only be squared if whites in both sections now agreed that the late unpleasantness was “really” about states’ rights, and that since all were friends again now, who cared about black people? Northern and southern whites could embrace and forget their quarrels, while standing over the bodies of prostrate former slaves.

So it wasn’t just southern historians who perpetuated this myth. Northern elites were clearly complicit.


BubbaDave 01.19.15 at 3:50 am

Hmmm… Steve, that’s actually a very good point. To the extent that the Southern upper classes avoided trade as incompatible with their idea of refinement, I wonder whether they tended to be overrepresented in academia and the educated professions?


Steve Sailer 01.19.15 at 4:15 am

The South tended to be relatively good at elite higher education in the liberal arts, while the North was far better at mass literacy and technical education. For example, the Morrill Act for land-grant colleges that would teach practical things like agronomy didn’t pass Congress until most of the Southerners were gone in 1862.


Peter T 01.19.15 at 4:20 am

Of marginal relevance: in several Norse, Irish and Anglo-Saxon revenge stories, the bloody shirt of the slain hero is kept, and then hauled out at the appropriate time to remind the son of his filial duty, usually by his mother.


Meredith 01.19.15 at 5:47 am

Peter T,
Add Afghanistan traditions and Joan of Arc. (Let’s not forget Iphigenia.) The best blood to wave aloft is the blood of a virgin female.
Also, what Palindrome said.


Harald K 01.19.15 at 7:54 am

I read in an analysis of a medieval ballad that sending a bloody shirt is about blood feuds, declaring one or demanding one.

In the Norwegian medieval ballad “Olav og Kari” (known in Sweden as “Herren BÃ¥ld”) Kari, who has been mortally wounded by her husband, asks him to take her bloody shirt and wash it clean before sending it to her mother. They said that means she requests that her family pursue a blood feud, but considering Kari is otherwise portrayed as a saint and she asks him to wash it clean, maybe she asks for there not to be a blood feud.

Anyway, it seems the use of bloody garments to incite fervour for revenge is quite a bit older that the US civil war.


Palindrome 01.19.15 at 8:57 am

Not to harp on you, Steve Sailer, but the South of the mid-19th C definitely did not have an advantage in elite education. Southern elites in the 1850s routinely complained that their children had to travel north for an education (and possibly anti-slavery indoctrination), which led to efforts to correct this perceived problem. There were fewer elite academies in the south in this period, and they were less prestigious than those found in New England. Susan Dunn wrote a great book about how Virginia (for example) fell behind during the decades from the revolution until the Civil War, and why efforts to reform the education system were unsuccessful.


Salem 01.19.15 at 10:03 am

In Arabic, the stock phrase “waving the bloody shirt” originates with Muawiyah I waving the (literal) bloody shirt of his cousin, Uthman, after the latter had been assassinated in a coup. Similar to the use in English, the implication is that someone “waving the bloody shirt” is dredging up the past in a gauche and self-interested way. Similar to Budiansky’s story, Muawiyah wasn’t dredging up the past but was reacting immediately (in his case, not only because the rebels had murdered his kinsman but also because they were seizing power).

It’s interesting the way the phrase has come to mean the same thing in two different languages, despite very different origins – and seemingly, despite being the opposite of the historical truth in both cases.


mdc 01.19.15 at 12:22 pm

“That is, it’s the original ‘playing the race card card’.”

Should read: “That is, it’s the original playing the ‘playing the race card’ card.”



DavidtheK 01.19.15 at 3:11 pm

Palindrome #8 makes a great point. The confederacy began to close intellectually in the decades leading up to the civil war. The University of the South was founded in order to encourage southern students not to go north for an education. The Citadel was founded to give an alternative to West Point. And I believe some time in the 1840’s or 1850’s William and Mary stopped hiring faculty from the North and also stopped admitting Northern students.


Piquoiseau 01.19.15 at 8:38 pm

I don’t think the South actually produced more historians than the north. It’s just that historians from the South wanted to do work on the Civil War and its aftermath — to vindicate their region’s honor –, while northern historians didn’t want to touch it, for reasons articulated by Palindrome. So we got nearly a century of white supremacist partisanship masquerading as unvarnished historical truth, much of which passed quietly into the conventional wisdom.


cm 01.19.15 at 10:40 pm

When did the war stop being “The War of the Rebellion” as it was referred to in the c. 1890 U.S. history text my parents had on their bookshelves when I was younger and become “The Civil War?” Even the War Dept’s official history called it “The War of the Rebellion” as late as 1901. Seems that the history professors of the North had the upper hand until at least then. Perhaps “The Civil War” was the genteel compromise between calling it “The War of the Rebellion” in the North and “The War of Northern Aggression” in the South after the passions of those who had actually fought the battles had died off.


ZM 01.20.15 at 2:33 am

“Democrats would, therefore, need a stock term for that sort of unfair attack, condensing a sense of the fallacy of assuming nothing has changed, and doing double-duty as a fallacious excuse for ignoring present evidence that, indeed, nothing has changed. (As the man said: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” If you have a personal interest in misunderstanding what he meant, I suggest you focus on ‘never’. That’s a fallacy! The Faulkner fallacy!)”

I have not heard of this blood shirt idea before.We did have a controversy last year where our hotheaded Prime Minister stated he would “shirtfront” Vladmir Putin at the G20 in Brisbane , happily no one got a bloody shirt because our Prime Minister had calmed down by then so his threat only lived to occasion some laughter.

Thinking to quite some time back in the days when I read a lot of Faulkner , I think you might consider The Unvanquished as an apposite text for this OP being about the civil war and immediate reconstruction period – there is the killing of “carpetbaggers” , and stolen election, and then Aunt Jenny and the son talk of “no bloody moon” as SPOILERS they move to stop the cycle of violence.

I looked for a relevant quote, and it is a very sad book I must say; I only read it the once then a friend’s dog ate it so I forgot just how sad it is til looking for a quote just now. I could not find such a pithy quote as above – this is from when the father (who has killed a lot including the “carpetbaggers” but becomes “tired of killing men, no matter what the necessity nor the end”) has been killed by his ex-rail-road-line partner (they both stand for the Legislature) and Ringo , the son’s African American boyhood friend /slave/”boy” (“They ain’t no more niggers, in Jefferson nor nowhere else… . This war ain’t over…. Used to be when you seed a Yankee you knower him… Now you don’t even know him and stir of the gun he got a clutch of this stuff in one hand and a clutch of nigger voting tickets in the yuther”), has just brought word to the household where the son/narrator is :

“We shook hands; I knew [Professor Wilkins] believed he was touching flesh which might not be alive tomorrow night and I thought for a second how if I told him what I was going to do, since we had talked about it, about how if there was anything at all in the Book, anything of hope and peace for His blind and bewildered spawn which he had chosen above all others to offer immortality, Thou shalt not kill must be it, since maybe he even believed he had taught it to me except that he had not, nobody had, not even myself since it went further than just having been learned. But I did not tell him. He was too old to be forced so, to condone even in principle such a decision; he was too old to have to stick to principle in the face of blood and raising and background, to be faced without warning and made to deliver like by a highwayman out of the dark : only the young could do that…”


Mark Field 01.20.15 at 2:36 am


Palindrome 01.20.15 at 3:27 am

I just heard Eric Foner on the radio today, and he relayed a marvelous quote by W.E.B. Du Bois about the writing of history in his day (1935):

“One fact and one alone explains the attitude of most recent writers of the history of Reconstruction; they cannot conceive Negroes as men … Suppose the slaves of 1860 had been white folk. … Ignorance and poverty would easily have been explained by history, and the demand for land and the franchise would have been justified as the birthright of natural free men!” [emphasis added]
-Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America


DCA 01.20.15 at 3:52 am

Re Palindrome #8: another example is the founding, in 1870, by a former Confederate officer, of the Webb School (there are several, this is the one in Bell Buckle TN) as a college prep school to emulate those in the North.


Aaron Lercher 01.20.15 at 4:50 pm

Peter Novick’s “That Noble Dream” argues that after World War I, progressive “objective” historiography, as represented by the Beard’s “Rise of American Civilization” represented the US Civil War as an inevitable product of morally neutral social forces. From that perspective, moral appeals seemed beside the point, allowing a convergence in which progressive historiography could be used to “vindicate the Confederacy” (236).
I’m not a historian, so I’m able to judge Novick’s argument very well. But this odd convergence seems to me to explain some ways the Civil War continues to be misrepresented.


Skip Intro 01.23.15 at 4:44 pm

@Palindrome, #2

“So it wasn’t just southern historians who perpetuated this myth. Northern elites were clearly complicit.”

Cobb’s “Away Down South”, which is an awesome history of Southern identity, demonstrates this in compelling detail.


Chris J 01.24.15 at 1:35 am

I was taught in my college American history course (way back in 1973) that, in some key ways, the South won the Civil War by framing the narrative. They foisted their opinion of themselves on the rest of us. Gone With The Wind is an example of that.


Ze Kraggash 01.25.15 at 5:15 pm

“the South won the Civil War by framing the narrative”

The South lost the war. The Yanks invaded and conquered it; that’s the narrative, that’s the context. Plenty of people have been, and will always see everything else through this prism. As long as we don’t have computer chips embedded in our brains, I don’t think there is any way to convince everyone that it didn’t happen, or that it was but a minor episode in a bigger drama. For them, understandably, that was the drama.


J Thomas 01.25.15 at 7:17 pm

The South lost the war. The Yanks invaded and conquered it; that’s the narrative, that’s the context.

Compare to the Boer war. The Boers lost the war. But the British did spend some money on reconstruction, and they allowed the Boers local self-government, and in less than 50 years the Boers were pretty decisively running their country by themselves and for themselves.

One big difference was that in the Boer war both sides were careful not to arm blacks. Whoever won, after the war they didn’t want to deal with that problem.

And in the US South slavery was ended. To argue that they didn’t decisively lose you’d have to deny that was the main thing they were fighting for.

But in both cases after they lost the war, after awhile basicly the same people wound up running the conquered lands as before. It was different from, say, the Mongol invasions or the Norman Conquest.


Ze Kraggash 01.25.15 at 11:00 pm

I know many English, and, if I can generalize a bit, they are nothing like the Yanks. In the context of their former colonial enterprise, they are aware, they know that people hate it, and hate them – to the extent that they represent it. And they, the English, accept it as normal, natural, well-deserved. They are cynical. Of course there was The White Man’s Burden, but that was a long time ago. Shooting an Elephant tells it like it is.

The Yanks are different: they kill, and burn, and subjugate, and yet they must be the Good Guys. Like in this recent American Sniper movie. Like The Quiet American. They have some weird perverse sense of innocence. They are idealistic.

‘What’s wrong with them; why oh why do they hate us?’ Well, perhaps it’s because, even though today you might be teaching former slaves to read, you, as a general case, are a ruthless psycho SOB.

This is just a gross generalization, of course. But I believe there is something to it.

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