Tag Archives: The South

Rethinking southern exceptionalism in the Revolutionary War

I just read (and enjoyed) Captives of Liberty: Prisoners of War and the Politics of Vengeance in the American Revolution by T. Cole Jones.  Like Holger Hoock’s Scars of Independence, Jones’s book challenges the popular view of the Revolution as a restrained, limited war waged according to high-minded ideals.  While prominent Revolutionaries did indeed envision a humane, restrained war, reports of the mistreatment of American prisoners and British atrocities (whether exaggerated or not) led many Patriots to embrace a more vindictive war of retribution.  This had profound and very unfortunate effects for British and Tory prisoners who fell into American hands.

We usually associate the idea of a vindictive, retributive war with the Revolutionary South, and especially the southern backcountry.  After the British invasion of South Carolina in 1780, Whigs and Tories engaged in an eye-for-an-eye struggle marked by lynchings, denial of quarter, and other bloody acts of retaliation fueled by a desire for revenge.

Many writers tend to treat this internecine conflict in the backcountry South as an exceptionally nasty deviation from the war as a whole.  Jones interprets it differently.  “While not denying the violence of the southern campaigns,” he writes, “viewing the treatment of enemy prisoners in the South within the context of prior British and American practice reveals more continuity than disjuncture.  Through this lens, the war in the South emerges not as a drastic departure from a limited European-style conflict but as the intense culmination of a process of escalating violence that had begun in the summer of 1776” (p. 189).

Nor were southerners and backcountry settlers the only Americans to mete out impromptu, retributive violence against Tories.  “Southern militias were not alone in their practice of terrorizing, torturing, and executing loyalists; northern revolutionaries committed similar acts of vengeance,” Jones writes.  “Wherever British forces could project enough power to support loyalist resistance, revolutionary militias and crowds responded with terror and violence” (p. 207).

The work of Jones and Hoock suggests that we need to rethink the ways we write about the Revolution in the South.  Maybe it’s time for us to stop asking why the southern experience of the Revolution was so violent and start asking ourselves whether there was really anything exceptional about it.  And perhaps the selective nature of American memory about the Revolution’s ferocity illustrates the ways we use regionalization to compartmentalize the past’s unsavory aspects.

The Battle of Waxhaws, from the New York Public Library via Wikimedia Commons

Leave a comment

Filed under American Revolution

Edward Ayers will deliver 2018 Jackson Lecture at UTK

One of the big highlights of the academic year for the University of Tennessee’s Department of History is the annual Charles O. Jackson Memorial Lecture.  This year’s talk should be especially notable.  Dr. Edward Ayers, a bona fide academic superstar and a stellar historian, will present “Southern Journey: The Story of the South in Movement.”

Dr. Ayers is Tucker-Boatwright Professor of the Humanities and President Emeritus at the University of Richmond.  He is a recipient of the Bancroft Prize, the National Humanities Medal, and the Lincoln Prize, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. He has also been named National Professor of the Year. His books include In the Presence of Mine Enemies: The Civil War in the Heart of America, 1859-1863; The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America; The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction; and Southern Crossing: A History of the American South, 1877-1906. He is a co-host of the history podcast BackStory.

The 2018 Jackson Lecture will be at the East Tennessee Historical Society‘s headquarters in downtown Knoxville at 5:00 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 20.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

More alternate Civil War histories? Look away!

I assume we’ve all heard that the guys behind Game of Thrones are doing an alt-history series where the Confederacy survives into the present day, and that the entire Twittersphere ripped HBO a new one over it.

We don’t yet know how well the show would grapple with the subject matter, but that interview in which one of the GoT guys seemed to have difficulty recalling the name of the Battle of Antietam doesn’t inspire confidence, does it?

Setting aside questions of historical sensibility or whether a series about modern-day legal slavery would be in good taste, one of the reasons it strikes me as a dumb idea is the fact that we’ve seen the whole Confederacy-wins-the-war premise done So. Many. Times.  The only alt-history scenario that’s more worn-out is the notion of an Axis victory in WWII.  There are so many novels based on the idea that you could build your own Fort Sumter using only the ones written by Harry Turtledove.  In fact, a Civil War setting for alternative history of any kind is pretty stale; it’s got its own Wikipedia page, for crying out loud.

Now comes news that Amazon is developing its own alternative offering—an alt-alt-history, I suppose you could call it—which “focuses on freed slaves who form their own country, New Colonia, out of the states of Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, given to them as reparations for the country’s original sin.”  At least that’s a somewhat original twist.

If you ask me, though, storytellers need to start thinking outside the box when it comes to alt-history settings.  They’ve got centuries of the human past to play with.  Give the 1860s and 1940s a rest.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Civil War, History and Memory

When does it count as “American history”?

Here’s an excerpt from a post by Erin Bartram that really hit home for me:

To put it bluntly, I’ve observed the following patterns in how we casually talk and write about individuals in the past.

  • men tell us about “America,” women tell us about women
  • New Englanders tell us about “America,” Southerners and Westerners tell us about regional culture
  • Protestants tell us about “America,” Catholics tell us about Catholicism and maybe also the Irish
  • white Americans tell us about “America,” non-white people tell us about…a variety of things, but rarely America

It’s obviously not as simple as that, but I think when we’re confronted with a dominant versus a non-dominant group, our analytical brains go in different directions; for the dominant group, we go broad, and for the non-dominant group, we go narrow.

Bingo.  I think we all have a tendency to think of “American history” as having a sort of default setting, and that default setting is basically the history of white guys on the northeastern seaboard.  If you’re not white, not a guy, and not a resident of the northeastern seaboard, then we assume that your history is a part of American history, but it’s not really synonymous with “American history.”  Instead, we assume that it’s some particularized subset of history: women’s history, black history, regional history, gender history, Western history, etc.

In terms of race and sex, I’m a member of two dominant groups.  One of the few senses in which I’m historiographically non-dominant is in terms of geography.  I’m from southern Appalachia, so I tend to notice this sort of unconscious “default setting” for American history when it bears on region.  I think even people who are used to thinking about history in a sophisticated fashion tend to assume that Appalachian history is strictly regional history; it doesn’t really count as “American history.”  And yet when you see how extensive Appalachia really is…

By Jax42 at en.wikipedia (http://www.arc.gov/images/regionmap.gif) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Jax42 at en.wikipedia (http://www.arc.gov/images/regionmap.gif) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

…it’s hard to justify the assumption that the history of this region doesn’t speak to American history as a whole.  It’s a pretty good-sized chunk of the country.

Same thing goes for Western history.  Think about the last college survey text you looked at.  Was material on the West more or less limited to chapters on the trans-Mississippi frontier and Populism?  Did the more general chapters on large-scale developments and eras in “American history” take the West into account?  They certainly should have, because once you exclude what we dismissively call “the West”…

By Grayshi, Roke (Own work, File:BlankMap-USA-states.PNG) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Grayshi, Roke (Own work, File:BlankMap-USA-states.PNG) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

…”America” suddenly looks a whole lot smaller.

The issue isn’t that there are concerns that are rightly specific to or more pronounced in Appalachian history, Western history, women’s history, black history, Catholic history, and so on.  Any discipline will develop specializations, and historians who specialize will inevitably engage in scholarly conversations that will be of particular interest to others in the same sub-field.  The issue, rather, is our tendency to see certain sub-fields as nothing but sub-fields while turning others into stand-ins for the discipline as a whole.  “American history” isn’t synonymous with the history of white Protestant guys in the northeastern U.S.  And the best way to drive that point home, I think, is for everyone who works on the history of non-dominant groups to be as bold and daring as they can when it comes to thinking about how their projects speak to the entire discipline of American history.  Don’t think of yourself as a scholar of a marginalized subject; think of your subject as a vehicle to approach American history from a different perspective.

Leave a comment

Filed under Appalachian History, Historiography, History and Memory

Will ‘Free State of Jones’ change any popular notions of the Civil War?

The trailer for Free State of Jones is out.  In case you haven’t seen it, here you go.

It’ll be interesting to see if this movie has any effect on popular notions of the Civil War, the South, and the Confederacy.  People have a tendency to equate the “Civil War South” with the Confederacy.  Using “the South” as shorthand for “the Confederacy” in the context of the Civil War is something we all do from time to time, but it’s important to remind ourselves that the two weren’t synonymous.

The Civil War divided Southerners just as it divided the nation as a whole.  This wasn’t just true in the sense that some states in the South never seceded; it was also true of many people living within Confederate territory.  For many Southerners faced with conscription, shortages, home guards, and requisitions of goods, the idea of rallying around the Confederate flag became more and more distasteful as the war dragged on.  And, of course, some Southerners in Confederate-held territory were never crazy about secession to begin with, as was the case for many people here in East Tennessee.

It’s also noteworthy to see a movie depicting blacks and whites engaged in anti-Confederate resistance.  The point here is not to fashion some myth of interracial amity in the nineteenth-century South.  The point, rather, is to consider black Southerners as Southerners—in other words, as real people with some degree of agency living in the South, rather than an inert mass simply awaiting the war’s outcome.  In other words, when we speak of a divided Civil War South, it’s easy to forget that white Southerners weren’t the only potential source of anti-Confederate dissent within the region.

I think a cinematic reminder of these Southern divisions in the Civil War would do us all some good, whatever region of the country we hail from.  A lot of neo-Confederates equate critiques of the C.S.A. with attacks on the South as a whole.  I can heartily agree with them that a lot of Americans carry unjustified and pernicious prejudices regarding this region, but remembering that “the Confederacy” and “the South” weren’t synonymous might help us all examine the C.S.A. a little more dispassionately.  Conversely, folks from the North who let the darker aspects of the South’s history determine their attitudes toward the region and its people might rethink those attitudes after seeing Newt Knight’s story.  Even in the 1860s, there were Southerners doing unexpected things.

1 Comment

Filed under Civil War, History and Memory

Battle flag backlash?

Something really unusual happened this afternoon.  I was headed back to my apartment when I met a pickup truck going the other direction with two ginormous banners fluttering from its back: Old Glory and a Confederate battle flag.  I’ve been running around Knoxville for a few decades now, but that was a first.

Come to think of it, I’ve basically spent my entire life in the South, and that was probably only the second or third pickup truck flying a ginormous Confederate flag I’ve ever seen, period.  People whose knowledge of the South is limited to pop culture and what they get from the news probably assume that pickup trucks flying big Confederate flags are ubiquitous down here, but my experience has been otherwise.  Pickups decked out with Confederate flag bumper stickers, novelty plates, decals, and the the like aren’t that uncommon, I guess, but huge, in-your-face flags on poles mounted in the bed are another matter entirely, especially in an urban setting like Knoxville.  Yet today somebody was driving around town with a pretty big Confederate flag flapping in the wind, in the midst of a national debate over that flag’s display.

Of course, one such sighting doesn’t amount to much, but there are other indications that the Confederate flag is becoming really popular all of a sudden.  I’ve always said that most southerners I know are neither strongly in favor of nor strongly opposed to the flag.  It’s just not the sort of thing that comes up in the day-to-day lives of most people.  It would therefore be really ironic if the recent groundswell of support for taking the flag down only ended up prompting a backlash, reversing what would have otherwise been the continuation of a long, slow, gradual decline in regional attachment to Confederate iconography.

Or maybe the uptick in sales noted in the article linked above is just so much statistical noise against a general backdrop of indifference or hostility to the flag on a regional or national scale.  Your guess is as good as mine.

In any case, my question for people who are suddenly rushing to defend southern heritage by buying Confederate flag merch is the same as it was a few days ago.  Wouldn’t southern heritage be better served if you devoted that energy and money to preserving historic sites and objects?

11 Comments

Filed under Civil War, History and Memory

North Koreans love Gone With the Wind

Pyongyang is just about the last place in the world you’d expect to find GWTW fans, but apparently you can’t swing a dead cat there without hitting one.

Maybe the notion of a society devastated by war and famine is especially resonant in North Korea.  Or maybe it appeals to some aspect of East Asian culture in general; Tony Horwtiz mentioned GWTW‘s popularity among Japanese visitors to Atlanta in Confederates in the Attic.

Personally, I think the explanation is pretty simple: Margaret Mitchell was a master storyteller who knew how to create remarkable characters.  Sure, her portrayal of the Old South was mythical—but holy cow, what a myth she managed to build.

1 Comment

Filed under Civil War, History and Memory

Did the plantation aristocrats ruin America?

Over at Salon.com, Sara Robinson claims that the Southern aristocracy’s values—or lack thereof—have become the dominant ones among the governing class. This, she believes, is sending us all to hell in a handcart.  I stumble across similar editorials from time to time, in which a pundit flies into hysterics over the ascendancy of Southern and/or conservative and/or evangelical forces with the same horror of a Roman patrician watching the Goths pour across the border.

Robinson started losing me right at the outset.  She argues that the Yankee elite had a sense of noblesse oblige, whereas Southern planters always displayed an “utter lack of civic interest.”  From a purely historical standpoint, this is simply asinine.  Noblesse oblige was an integral part of the worldview of colonial Tidewater planters.  Anyone who’s read anything substantial on early Virginia society should know this.

Equally bizarre is her inclusion of Woodrow Wilson as one of the “nerdy, wonky intellectuals who, for all their faults, at least took the business of good government seriously.”  It’s true that Wilson was a reformer.  And yet Wilson was also a Southern Democrat, the son of a Celtic father who migrated from Ohio to the South before the Civil War and enthusiastically embraced the Confederacy. Robinson decries the Southern aristocracy’s belief in inequality; she should recall that Wilson held firmly to that belief, and allowed his cabinet members to segregate their departments’ offices.  In fact, Wilson is one of many examples one might cite to demonstrate the extent of Robinson’s drastic over-generalization; neither Southernness nor a belief in racial inequality have been incompatible with the reformist spirit over the course of American history.

3 Comments

Filed under History and Memory

This is why we can’t have nice things

The much-anticipated Appomattox branch of the Museum of the Confederacy is opening soon, and this occasion offers all of us an opportunity for substantial and sober reflection about a host of important topics, such as the challenge of interpreting complex and emotionally charged subjects through exhibits, the proper stewardship of collections at a multi-facility institution, the place of military history in public history as a whole, and the relationship between scholarship and popular memory.

So naturally, instead of considering any of these issues, we’re going to get up in arms over what sort of flags they’re flying in front of the building.

Appomattox, VA – A new battle is brewing around the Museum of The Confederacy in Appomattox. Southern Heritage groups are calling on people to boycott the museum because the Confederate Flag will not fly outside.

All of this is surrounding 15 flag poles outside of the building, called the Reunification Promenade.

It will display state flags in order of their secession leading up to the U.S. flag.

Virginia Flaggers says they’ve offered to pay to add the Confederate Flag to the display, but the museum isn’t interested.

The museum’s president notes that the outdoor flag display is actually intended to illustrate the relationship of the seceded states to the rest of the country, which accounts for the Confederate flag’s otherwise conspicuous absence. Furthermore, the museum will include the biggest exhibit of Confederate flags anywhere in the history of mankind, which suggests that keeping said flag under wraps isn’t exactly a priority for the MOC.  But this isn’t enough to assuage the concern of people who are evidently more concerned about the museum’s front porch than they are about the actual content of the exhibits.

If questions about outdoor vexillology aren’t enough to convince you that nefarious anti-Southron forces are at work here, then consider the assertion that the facility’s location is, and I quote, “evidence that Yankee interests have invested the museum.”

Is the first opening in the lovely Shenandoah where Jackson beat three Union armies in one campaign?  No.  Oh I know, it’s off Interstate 95 at Chancellorsville, the site of Lee’s greatest victory!  NO.  OK, maybe up closer to Washington, D.C. on the Manassas battlefield where the Confederacy won two major battles?  Nope.  So where?

Appomattox, the place where General Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia.   You are kidding!  For a Southerner, only Andersonville could be a worse location!

And bear in mind that while these folks are complaining about encroaching Yankeefication at the MOC, another critic is denouncing the institution as a Confederate shrine.

Make up your minds, guys.  If I’m supposed to go with a knee-jerk reaction, at least let me know which direction.

1 Comment

Filed under Civil War, History and Memory, History on the Web, Museums and Historic Sites

Old times there are forgotten more often than you’d think

Glenn LaFantasie is taking on the SCV’s effort to create Kentucky license plates bearing a picture of Jefferson Davis and the Confederate battle flag.  His editorial condemns those who would try to divorce the flag from its historical contexts—both its nineteenth-century context as a symbol of a slaveholders’ republic and its twentieth-century context as a symbol of segregation.  He argues that the desire to return to some mythical “Old South” is misplaced.  So far so good; I’m with him on these points.

But there is one matter in LaFantasie’s piece with which I would take issue, and it’s something that tends to pop up quite frequently in discussions of the “ongoing Civil War” type.  It’s the notion that all the attitudes we generally associate with Lost Cause-ism are somehow shared by white southerners as a whole, and that the idea of the Old South is a universal touchstone for modern southerners:

The same can be said of the South and the SCV, which is hell-bent on making sure that the Confederate flag, which it claims is a symbol of “heritage, not hate,” is always visible, if not on flag staffs, then at the very least on license plates. Of course, the national debate over the Confederate battle flag is nothing new, but white Southerners — who prefer their “history” to adhere to the melancholic tenets of the Lost Cause (on the insidious nature of the “Lost Cause,” see the recent Salon essay by historian Joan Waugh) — seem determined to argue falsely that the flag only honors the courage of the Southern soldiers who fought for the Confederacy; in the South, most whites still erroneously believe, no matter what historians say, that the Cause stood for states’ rights alone and not slavery.

I simply don’t think this kind of over-generalization is warranted.  The mindset of the SCV or various fringe neo-Confederate groups simply isn’t that of most white southerners.  For one thing, I think it’s safe to say that most of my fellow white southerners nowadays are pretty well aware of the connection between slavery and the war.  But even more important than what we do or don’t think about the war Down Here is the fact that most of us don’t really think about it at all.

In fact, I think LaFantasie has actually let the SCV and similar groups get the better of him.  These groups claim to speak for the South and her heritage, and he seems to have taken them at their word.  But their claiming to speak for all of us doesn’t make it so.

This is one of the problems I had with Confederates in the Attic.  I thoroughly enjoyed the book as a piece of travel reportage, and it’s one of those volumes that I find myself dipping into often to re-visit certain passages.  It’s a wonderful quick fix when I’d like to be on the road hitting historic sites myself, since Horwitz has a remarkable gift for setting a scene and evoking the feeling of a place.  But like many travel writers, Horwitz went looking for the distinctive, the odd, and the notable—and he found it in spades.  Confederates in the Attic is a fine read, but it doesn’t reflect the totality of the southern mind.

Most white southerners just don’t cling longingly to the memories of what was or mourn for what might have been.  We’re too busy worrying about the same things northerners, westerners, and easterners worry about—going to the office, the price of gas, the kids’ soccer practice, the light bill, Brad and Angelina.  The concerns of the average working- or middle-class American are, by and large, also the concerns of the average southerner in the same socioeconomic position.

All this is even more true of young southerners.  I look at my students, the overwhelming majority of whom are from rural southern areas, and I don’t see much to distinguish them from their peers in other parts of the country.  They wear the same clothes, listen to the same music, watch the same movies, use the same slang, and buy the same gadgets as the college-aged people from New York and L.A. that you see on TV.  If it weren’t for their accents, you wouldn’t have any indication that they were from a particular place.  (And even those accents aren’t as distinguishable as they used to be; it’s amazing how diluted they’ve become in only a generation or two.)  Global, Americanized, modern pop culture is as ubiquitous here in Dixie as it is everywhere else.  The symbol that towers over the landscape isn’t the crossed bars of the rebel flag; it’s the golden arches.

LaFantasie indicates that many of his neighbors don’t share his political proclivities. Perhaps they don’t.  There are indeed such things as regional voting and religious patterns, but I think President Obama’s unpopularity in Kentucky is due to other factors besides a war that ended almost 150 years ago.  (His vocal opposition to the coal industry, for example.)

I used to teach week-long courses on the Civil War for a college program aimed at retired adults. A lady in one of these classes asked me if I’d read Confederates in the Attic.  When I told her that I had, she asked me, a little hesitantly, whether “people down here are really like that.”  I assured her that many of the characters in the book would seem as outlandish to other southerners (and history buffs) as they did to her, and she seemed almost physically relieved to hear it.

She needn’t have worried.  Those dedicated Confederates who live in the South are visible and vocal, but they’re a decided minority.  The notion of the “war that’s still going on” is no more true for most of us than it is for those living north of the Mason-Dixon line.  You guys should really get down here more often.

7 Comments

Filed under Civil War, History and Memory