“A Musket on His Shoulder and Bullets in his Pocket”: Armed Resistance to White Supremacy in Reconstruction Rutherford County, Tennessee

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Driesenga, Joseph
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Middle Tennessee State University
For decades Reconstruction Historiography has ignored the existence of widespread firearms ownership and usage in the South. Following a Civil War that destroyed the institution of Slavery and sent almost 200,000 African American men to the field in arms, Reconstruction saw the first chance for blacks to make a life for themselves, and prompted a violent backlash from whites bent on maintaining their antebellum racial structure. In response to this violence, many blacks took up arms to defend themselves. This thesis traces out that history within Rutherford County, TN. The area saw considerable violence during the Civil War, from one of the largest battles of the war to dozens of smaller conflicts and skirmishes. It also saw a significant presence of African American troops, a heavy Union occupation, and had heavily depended on enslaved labor prior to the war, all of which bred resentment in the populace that turned to violence after the conflict. In response to this violence, some African Americans in the county took to arming themselves and defending their lives from white supremacists. This action saw mixed success, while it would often allow them to survive the immediate attack, it did not appear to dissuade continued violence through the county. Many took actions ranging from accommodation to flight rather than fighting, and the failure of state and federal policy makers ultimately led to the defeat of any move toward equal rights in the county and may have convinced many of the futility of continued resistance.
Firearms, Race, Reconstruction, Self-Defense, Terrorism, Violence, American history, African American studies, History