The extremest condition of humanity
Nash, Steven Eugene
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Reconstruction in western North Carolina brings into great relief the disconnection between national policy and local reality that has become a driving force in American historians’ study of their nation’s reconstruction following the Civil War. This project is part of a growing trend that examines southern Reconstruction at the local level. It explores the transformation of western North Carolina’s political culture from a localized emphasis on community autonomy to a blending of local rule by elites mixed with external sources of power. It reveals the complexity beneath the surface of the overarching interpretation of Reconstruction as dominated by the struggle over black freedom. Race and the redefinition of African Americans’ place within the region, the state, and the nation were vital components of the mountain region’s Reconstruction, but due to the smaller black presence it was not the dominating issue. Western North Carolina’s similarities and differences with the plantation belt underscore the diversity and complexity of the postwar period throughout the South. Reconstruction in western Carolina forces scholars to recognize the broader issues of loyalty, industrial development and market integration, and reunification that played critical roles in restoring the United States after the war. At the heart of these issues was the exercise of power of the national state over local communities, white over black highlanders, and between different classes of white mountaineers. The political culture of the western counties changed because of the expansion of federal power in the form of tax collectors, soldiers, and conscription officials during the Civil War. Union victory intensified this tension between national and local power. Occupation troops, Freedmen’s Bureau agents, and other officials expanded the reach of the federal government into communities accustomed to exercising complete control over their local affairs. The political culture that expanded to include federal power in the 1860s and 1870s also opened the door to outside investors and further integration into the national market economy.