The Bloody Shirt Myth

Jonathan ChaitI recently read Stephen Budiansky’s The Bloody Shirt, a history of Reconstruction-era violence. Now, if you remember your high-school history, you know what the “bloody shirt” means. It describes how post–Civil War Republican politicians whipped up their supporters by associating the Democratic Party with bygone misdeeds. The phrase itself lives on in the political lexicon as an epithet for any demagogue who whips up old hatreds.

I had always believed the bloody shirt was the garment of a slain Union soldier, held aloft years later. In fact, Budiansky points out, 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. That the bloody shirt came to stand for unfair denunciations of violence rather than the violence itself was a triumph of southern propaganda.

What’s more, Budiansky reports, there is no evidence that Butler ever waved the bloody shirt at all. That vivid detail was a figment of white supremacists’ imagined victimization.

—Jonathan Chait
Obama and the Unfairness of History

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