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We tend to 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 created to mask a political agenda. Military officers led by Ulysses S. Grant and Oliver Otis Howard led an effort by Freedmen’s Bureau officers to document that Black Americans faced little justice for atrocities committed against them. In doing so, they leaked information to Congress that embarrassed the president, their commander, as a concern for civil rights overrode constitutional norms. The resulting Record of Murders and Outrages helped justify military occupation of the South, exposed the rise of the Klan, and shined a light on voter suppression through terrorism that otherwise may have gone unreported.
Dr. William A. Blair is the Walter L. and Helen P. Ferree Professor Emeritus of Middle American History at Penn State University. He is the author of several books on the Civil War era, including Cities of the Dead: Contesting the Memory of the Civil War in the South, 1865–1914; With Malice toward Some: Treason and Loyalty in the Civil War Era; Virginia's Private War: Feeding Body and Soul in the Confederacy, 1861–1865; and The Record of Murders and Outrages: Racial Violence and the Fight over Truth at the Dawn of Reconstruction.
The content and opinions expressed in these presentations are solely those of the speaker and not necessarily of the Virginia Museum of History & Culture.
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