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Dr. Steven Nash authors new book on Reconstruction in North Carolina
Dr. Steven Nash

JOHNSON CITY (May 10, 2016) – Dr. Steven E. Nash says the Civil War is a part of his academic genealogy. Nash, assistant professor of History at East Tennessee State University, traces his deep interest in the war and its aftermath to his undergraduate days at Penn State University.

            When he arrived at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, he began researching the Reconstruction period in that part of the state. His research ultimately led to a Ph.D. in history at the University of Georgia and to his first book, “Reconstruction’s Ragged Edge:  The Politics of Postwar Life in the Southern Mountains,” published in April 2016.

            Whereas East Tennessee, where Nash teaches, was populated by a large percentage of Union sympathizers during the war, Western North Carolina was primarily pro-Confederate. Nash describes the city of Asheville as “a hotbed of secession in the mountains.”

            But loyalties were constantly shifting and unpredictable, Nash writes. A case in point is the life of Virgil Lusk, a Confederate cavalry officer who had a change of heart after the war and prosecuted members of the Ku Klux Klan. For his about-face, Lusk was attacked and beaten by Randolph Shotwell, a Klan leader who founded the Asheville Citizen newspaper.

            “Those shifting loyalties represent the beauty and frustration of post-Civil War politics,” says Nash. “Many citizens simply adapted. They just wanted to survive.”

            Nash dedicates an entire chapter in his new book to the work of the Freedmen’s Bureau and the role it played in the struggle for freedom. He says while some viewed the bureau as paternalistic, others embraced the opportunities it brought, as a stabilizing federal government presence in Western North Carolina.

            Nash describes the bureau as the most important federal entity in the region at the time, particularly prominent in its work to make education available to African American people.

            “One pillar of the African American definition of freedom was the ability to seek education,” Nash says. “What good was freedom without education? What good is freedom if you can’t read a contract? African Americans pursued education with a passion.”

            Nash points out that in several cases, when Freedmen’s Bureau agents went into communities to establish schools, they were surprised and pleased to see that they were already up and running.

            In the wake of the destruction that took place in the region during the war, Nash says there was always the expectation that “the next big thing” was on the horizon for Western North Carolina. For a while, that “big thing” was tobacco, which boomed in the 1870s.

            “Tobacco represented the ‘New South’ story backward,” Nash says. “Tobacco became the means to attract industry.” Warehouses were built, and the region, long without linked railroad service, welcomed the Western North Carolina Railroad as it finally came across the Blue Ridge in 1879, making mountain tobacco accessible to the rest of the country.

            Yet despite the rhetoric of economic prosperity that came with these developments, Nash believes Reconstruction was a lost moment of opportunity.

            “Some Confederates in the immediate aftermath of the war admitted defeat and were willing to move along,” Nash says. “But the Anti-Confederates (which became the Republicans) and others fail to take control of the region. The Freedmen’s Bureau does help build a biracial coalition, and had it survived, that coalition could have mapped out a very different path for the region.

            “The goals of Reconstruction were to bring the South back into the Union and put an infrastructure in place that protected the rights of African Americans.”

            However, Nash says that when the U.S. military and the Freedmen’s Bureau were pulled out of North Carolina, the wartime elite regained power. “The wartime elite went to just about any extent, including Klan violence, to get that power back.”

            According to Dr. Gordon McKinney of Berea College, “This deeply researched study challenges our traditional understanding of Reconstruction. Steven E. Nash demonstrates that a biracial, class-based political alliance was possible in the Appalachian highlands and that the elite could only return to power through economic coercion and violence.”

            “Reconstruction’s Ragged Edge” is published by the University of North Carolina Press.

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