The Record of Murders and Outrages

Racial Violence and the Fight over Truth at the Dawn of Reconstruction

By William A. Blair

184 pp., 5.5 x 8.5, 4 tables, notes, index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-6345-6
    Published: September 2021
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-6344-9
    Published: September 2021
  • eBook ISBN: 978-1-4696-6346-3
    Published: September 2021

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After the Civil War's end, reports surged of violence by Southern whites against Union troops and Black men, women, and children. While some in Washington, D.C., sought to downplay the growing evidence of atrocities, in September 1866, Freedmen’s Bureau commissioner O. O. Howard requested that assistant commissioners in the readmitted states compile reports of "murders and outrages" to catalog the extent of violence, to prove that the reports of a peaceful South were wrong, and to argue in Congress for the necessity of martial law. What ensued was one of the most fascinating and least understood fights of the Reconstruction era—a political and analytical fight over information and its validity, with implications that dealt in life and death. 


Here William A. Blair takes the full measure of the bureau’s attempt to document and deploy hard information about the reality of the violence that Black communities endured in the wake of Emancipation. Blair uses the accounts of far-flung Freedmen's Bureau agents to ask questions about the early days of Reconstruction, which are surprisingly resonant with the present day: How do you prove something happened in a highly partisan atmosphere where the credibility of information is constantly challenged? And what form should that information take to be considered as fact?

About the Author

William A. Blair is the Walter L. and Helen P. Ferree Professor Emeritus of Middle American History at Penn State University.
For more information about William A. Blair, visit the Author Page.


“William A. Blair has uncovered a treasure trove of documentation from the records of the Freedmen’s Bureau...Fake news and alternative realities thrive in an atmosphere where facts are discounted and truth-debased. The proof of what really happened during the turbulent years of Reconstruction lies, in part, in The Record of Murders and Outrages.”--Civil War Times

“Absorbing. . . [A]n in-depth look at a divisive and deadly period in our history when political calculus too often trumped humanity.” --America's Civil War

"This book is a gem. Blair offers a deep, engrossing analysis of exactly why and how a specific bit of information, whatever its truth, can fail to gain traction on the ground."—Stephen Berry, University of Georgia

“William Blair has always defied the familiar boundaries of Civil War–era history writing. Combining the social and political with the military, he has asked searching questions that have long been ignored or overlooked and has challenged us to confront them. Here, with deep archival research, he explores history and truth telling at a convulsive moment of transformation. Blair's book could not be more timely.”—Steven Hahn, author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning A Nation Under Our Feet