Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Radical Reconstruction, Insurgencies, and the Concept of Dau Tranh

Posted in African Americans, Memory by Andy Hall on February 1, 2012

Atlantic commenter XinJeisan flags an interview with Ohio State University historian Mark Grimsley, conducted by Mike Few for the Small Wars Journal. It’s an interesting piece, because it effectively summarizes the course of Reconstruction in the former Confederacy, and also because it puts that struggle over political power in the context of other insurgencies in world history. Here, Grimsley argues that the level of violence in the South, while low compared to the wholesale slaughter that preceded it, was nonetheless one that today would be considered a war:

A more clunky response, since you mention social scientists, would be to point to the Correlates of War Study, which defines a war as any event that results in a thousand or more battlefield deaths each year.  If you substitute “deaths from political violence” for “battlefield deaths,” then several years during Reconstruction would come close to meeting this standard.  In Louisiana alone, for example, an estimated 2,500 people perished between 1865 and 1876.

My own state, Texas, provides another example. Grimsley notes that a disproportionate number of Federal troops posted in the old Confederacy during Reconstruction were in Texas, in part to guard the border with Mexico. Nonetheless, violence against African Americans and whites believed to be aligned with the Reconstruction government was commonplace. Even officers of the Freedmen’s Bureau were targets. I blogged recently about NARA’s “Discovering the Civil War” exhibition, currently at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, and the inclusion of a bound volume of incidents recorded by Freedmen’s Bureau officers, “Criminal Offenses Committed in the State of Texas, 1865-68.” According to the companion book to the exhibition, the three volumes of the set record some 2,000 separate incidents of white-on-black violence between September 1865 and December 1868, ranging in scope from simple assault to torture to murder. Many are clearly linked to the economic and social turbulence of Reconstruction — several incidents on this page are noted as being brought about by a dispute over wages, for example, while other cases are less clear — but there is no avoiding the conclusion that African Americans were common targets of violence during the period.


One page from the “Criminal Offenses Committed in the State of Texas, 1865-68,” listing reported attacks in September and October 1866. The descriptions of incidents (column 6) include “kicking a woman,” “assault & battery,” “beating woman with quirt on head, face & shoulders,” “cutting with a hatchet,” “shooting,” “fracturing skull” and “homicide.” Three of the twelve victims were women; all but one were black (column 8). All of the alleged perpetrators (column 5) were white. From the companion volume to “Discovering the Civil War.”

Grimsley continues, arguing that white Southerners’ efforts to reclaim power through violence and intimidation was mainly the work of local groups, and that the Klan was more akin to a brand than a top-down, operational structure:

Southern whites never created an insurgency in the Maoist sense of a centrally directed people’s war.  The Invisible Empire of the Ku Klux Klan was a myth.  What you had instead was a complex insurgency of local groups who conducted terrorist campaigns of intimidation and assassination.  These efforts were uncoordinated but had the effect of undermining the Republican state governments.

Some of these groups operated under the guise of the Ku Klux Klan, but in most instances the Klansmen were effective only in curtailing attempts by African American families to assert some degree of economic independence.  Only in South Carolina did the Klan become a major threat to the state government.  The largest and best organized of these groups were the White Leagues in Louisiana, the Rifle Clubs in Mississippi, and the Redshirts in South Carolina.  The latter two succeeded in “redeeming” their respective states.  The first came close to doing so, and would have succeeded had the U.S. government rendered their efforts unnecessary, by abandoning Reconstruction and simply handing them Home Rule.

It’s important to understand that, in saying “the Invisible Empire of the Ku Klux Klan was a myth,” Grimsley’s making a point about the Klan as a unified command structure. Even though the Klan had a national leadership for purposes of recruitment and communication, the individual dens, as they were known, were largely autonomous. And even they comprised only part of the many groups that sprang up across the South to oppose and undermine the process of Reconstruction.

Finally, Grimsley pulls back to look at white Southerners’ response to Radical Reconstruction — terrorism, voter intimidation, political machinations — as part of a unified whole that, in concept, is not at all unique to the American historical experience:

The pattern of the Reconstruction insurgency closely corresponds with dau tranh, a Vietnamese term that literally means “the struggle” but has a much richer connotation. Dau tranh rejects the idea that insurgency should be confined to guerrilla warfare.  Instead it prescribes the exploitation of any and all means to achieve the desired objective.  If given access to the political process by the targeted government—as occurred during Reconstruction—an insurgency following the tenets of dau tranh does not accept the legitimacy of that process (as the targeted government hopes it will), but simply regards such access as an additional tool by which to undermine and overthrow the government.  Dau tranh employs social measures (in the context of Reconstruction, the ostracism of white southerners who supported or tolerated the Republican order), economic measures (the discharge of black laborers and boycotts aimed at uncooperative white merchants and planters), agitation and propaganda (the Democratic press), and paramilitary measures (intimidation and violence).  As one of its foremost interpreters has explained, “the basic objective in dau tranh strategy is to put armed conflict into the context of political dissidence. Thus, while armed and political dau tranh may designate separate clusters of activities, conceptually they cannot be separated. Dau tranh is a seamless web.”

It’s telling that dau tranh (or đấu tranh) has the same meaning as jihad in Arabic — “the struggle.” In Arabic, jihad has a wider meaning that’s not limited to violent conflict, as it is commonly misunderstood in the West. Further, Grimsley’s characterization of the Reconstruction-era Klan — “a complex insurgency of local groups who conducted terrorist campaigns of intimidation and assassination. . . operated under the guise of the Ku Klux Klan” — is not unlike a description of al Qaeda, Arabic for “the base.” Al Qaeda is a very real, and still very dangerous organization, but much of the violence committed in its name, particularly in the Middle East, is done by small groups acting on their own, with little or no involvement by the larger organization. The horrific London bombings in 2005 were inspired by al Qaeda and violent Islamist rhetoric, but the conception, planning and execution of the attack were carried out by terrorists acting on their own initiative within the United Kingdom. International inspiration, but local action. Take Grimsley’s quote from earlier in this paragraph (“a complex insurgency of local groups. . .”), swap out the name of the Klan for al Qaeda, and you’ve got a fair description of the organizational structure of international terrorism over the last decade.

I don’t want to overstate this narrow analogy between modern, Islamist terrorism and the Reconstruction-era violence in the former Confederacy. But Grimsley’s observations are enlightening when it comes to viewing white Southerners’ efforts to push back against Radical Reconstruction. Political agitation, intimidation, violence and murder were all used, in concert and in parallel, to restore something akin to the status quo antebellum. In that sense, it’s remarkable how much the insurgency of white Southerners against the policies and supporters of Reconstruction resembles insurgencies elsewhere. As Mark Twain purportedly said, history doesn’t actually repeat itself, but sometimes it does rhyme.

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Image: Thomas Nast’s depiction of the driving forces behind the Democratic candidate in the 1868 presidential election, Horatio Seymour. The standing figures are (from left) a caricatured, cudgel-wielding Irish Catholic immigrant street tough, symbolizing the violence of the New York City Draft Riots of 1863; Nathan Bedford Forrest, brandishing a knife labeled “the Lost Cause” and a lapel badge inscribed “Fort Pillow”; and August Belmont, a Manhattan financier who’s shown waving a packet of money marked “Capital for Votes.” All three stand on the body of an African American man, a former Union soldier. Image via HarpWeek.com, which also has more detail on the image.

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5 Responses

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  1. Richard said, on February 4, 2012 at 7:59 am

    Very good and interesting post. Similar events and attitudes existed outside of “radical reconstruction” as well. I’m thinking specifically of Kentucky, which never seceded and therefore was not a part of the reconstruction efforts of the Federal government.

    Post-war (and even some in-war) violence like what occurred in the deeper south was common in Kentucky, including violence against whites who supported or hired African-Americans and just outright robbery and assault.

    Anne Marshall’s “Creating a Confederate Kentucky” has a chapter about this and goes into great detail. It’s an excellent book that I may want to re-read,but, pack to the topic, even this “non-reconstructed” state experienced a lot of violence during this time.

    Even the political situation was similar as Democrats and former Confederates won election to many offices after the war. (Again, since Kentucky was not being reconstructed, there were no restrictions on former Confederates holding office.)

    I realize Kentucky was not part of the “former Confederacy” but it was both geographically and culturally close to some of those states and as Marshall’s book points out, seemed to become closer as the war neared its end and then terminated. Saying Kentucky “seceded after the Civil War” has become almost a cliche, but there is some truth to it, at least in issues like the violence that took place both in Kentucky and in the “official” Confederate states that were under Reconstruction

  2. Lyle Smith said, on February 13, 2012 at 9:24 am

    I think comparisons can be made between white supremacist terrorism and radical Islamist terrorism. There are similarities.

    This should help us to recognize the failures made during Reconstruction and later Jim Crow. The Federal government probably needed to be more violent in executing the laws than it was. Coming around to understanding the grievances of white supremacist ex-Confederates and their later descendants didn’t really help blacks out all that much.

    Of course though, it’s not such a simple comparison. America on the whole was white supremacist and blacks were intimidated by terrorism not only in the South (of course the major problems were in the South being that was where slavery had largely existed and was now abolished), but also the North. I think of the time when Booker T. Washington (I think it was him) in the 1890s was chased down a street in New York city by a white mob that threatened to kill him.

    White supremacist Reconstruction/Jim Crow terrorism was also violence that had been legal antebellum, yet postbellum suddenly it is illegal. The changing of the laws didn’t immediately change the social structure or culture, or how most of white America believed that blacks were inferior to whites.

    It was a different time from now.

    That said, I largely concur… violent Islamism is the Ku Klux Klan of our lifetime.

    • Andy Hall said, on February 13, 2012 at 9:41 am

      My analogy to al Qaeda was intentionally limited, referring to its organizational structure — mostly small, local groups operating on their own initiative under the aegis of the larger one, which often does not have any direct operational control. (9/11, which was coordinated from top of al Qaeda, is the obvious exception.) That’s one of the things that makes both groups hard to defeat.

      • Lyle Smith said, on February 13, 2012 at 10:42 am

        I think you did a good job of limiting the analogy. And yes, I agree, changing culture or cultural behavior (defeating both groups) takes a long time (hard to defeat).

  3. Cincinnatus said, on May 9, 2012 at 4:05 pm

    It was interesting how, in the hardest years of the war on Iraq, defenders of the Cheney/Bush administration’s mismanagement of the conflict pointed to the American Civil War as an example of how “it could take up to ten years or more for reconstruction”. They quickly abandoned that line of argument when reminded of how the hot insurgency under Reconstruction fairly quickly drove out Union troops, and the regional hatreds engendered by mismanagement and corruption under Reconstruction reverberated in violence for another century, including the Federal government even having to send in troops again at Little Rock. By that point in the war on Iraq, no one in America wanted to be told we would probably have to send troops back in to Baghdad in 2094….


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