July 19, 2007
July 21 marks the 146th anniversary of the beginning of the First Manassas (or First Bull Run, in Yankese). On that day, Washington citizens went out to the battlefield a-picnicking, to watch the onslaught of the Confederates under General Beauregard. While it was a victory for the South, a number of considerations (including the exhaustion of his men, and the early Confederate delusion that merely expelling all Federals from the soil of their new country would secure victory) Beauregard did not cross the Potomac and end the war.
Tactical and strategic considerations aside, however, this anniversary brings the Sunny South to my mind, in all her splendor and tragedy. To be sure, I have never lived down there; but more than a few turns in the South (to steal a phrase from V.S. Naipaul) have lost my heart to her (although her Summer weather has freed her from the spectre of my ever taking up residence within her boundaries). Just where do those boundaries lie? For the purposes of this article, she”ll take in the border states of Delaware , Maryland , West Virginia , Kentucky , and Missouri , as well as Texas and Oklahoma . Even New Mexico and Arizona were considered a territory of the CSA, for all that the Confederate hold on Santa Fe was brief, and Tucson even briefer. But Kansas just missed becoming Southern, thanks to a bloody civil war before the Civil War; even Los Angeles was carried by Breckenridge in the election of 1860, and suburban El Monte (about ten miles from where I am writing this) flew the stars and bars over their city hall every time news arrived out here of a Confederate victory. Those who have been to Wilmington , Baltimore , Kansas City, or Tulsa may dispute my assignation of those areas to Dixie , but travel a bit deeper into the countryside, and the reason for their allocation will become obvious.
Responding to a recent article of mine on New England in this venue, a number of commentators cited the masterful Albion’s Seed as an introduction to understanding the cultural differences already at play in the settling of New England , as well as the Middle and Southern Colonies. I would cite two others as well, both by renegade Republican Kevin Phillips: The Cousins” Wars and his much earlier work, The Emerging Republican Majority. While the latter book covers a time that has come and gone, its analysis of the religious, cultural, and ethnic influence on voting was prescient, and Phillips used the same methodology in his brilliant, later tome. These all-important factors are too often left out of consideration of American history and politics, and nowhere are they more crucial to understanding an area than they are in considering the South.
For one thing, the settlement of the Southern colonies was layered, from Maryland to Georgia : English (with pockets of Scots) and their black slaves in the Tidewater; Germans in the Piedmont ; and Ulster Scots (or Scotch-Irish as they came to be called) in the mountains. As Americans pushed West and Southward after the Revolution, these patterns retained a certain amount of influence. Those who have noted the cultural similarities between the Appalachians and the Ozarks will hardly be surprised to find out that the settlement roots of the latter lie in the former.
There was another difference from the North, however. As the South expanded, it encountered pre-existent Spanish and French settlements that were as old as anything on the Atlantic Coast (in the case of St. Augustine, Florida, much older), and were far more populous than similar sites in the Old Northwest. Florida , the Mississippi-Alabama Gulf Coast, Louisiana, and Texas were all affected by the encounter between the old, Catholic, Latin cultures and the new Anglo-American one. As Appalachia settled the Ozarks, Catholic sections of Maryland seeded central Kentucky (called even today the “Holy Land,” and boasting villages with names like “Holy Cross” and “Loretto.”) The French Revolution and the slave risings in Haiti sent French refugees of both colors not only to Louisiana , but to such ports as Savannah, Charleston, and Norfolk, where they had a large effect on the local culture (Gone with the Wind readers will recall that Scarlet O”Hara’s maternal grandparents were among these). German and Irish immigrants were important locally, though not on the scale of their brethren up north. The “Irish Channel” in New Orleans earned its name honestly, and it was said that were it not for Yellow Fever, the Crescent City would have been as Irish as it was French. Even so, the urban blue-collar accent spoken there (popularly called “Yat”) which sounds so much like Brooklynese apparently owes its origins to the same Irish-German mix that produced the New York version. Immigrant Germans would play a big role as well in Texas and Missouri.
Added to this diversity among Europeans was of course the African presence. Coming as they did from different parts of Africa, partly melted together in the crucible of slavery, and soon deprived of their native languages, these unwilling newcomers were no more uniform than their masters. Differing attitudes toward color on the part of the French and Spanish led to the rise of a mixed-race aristocracy in the Gulf States, many of whom owned plantations and slaves of their own, as well as boasting French educations (there was a similar but distinct Spanish-based group in Pensacola). In a sense, American blacks are the most American of us all (save the Indians); for the most part they have no really identifiable ties to their specific homelands, other than biology. What cultural traits they did retain have become our common property, as fans of Elvis Presley, the Blues, and the Rolling Stones must admit.
Nor may we forget the natives. The Five Civilized Tribes are well-known indeed, as is the tragic tale of their expulsion to Oklahoma . But not all left, and those that did remained loyal to the South—and seceded with her. But there were and are other, smaller, broken tribes in out-of-the-way places. Produced by remnants of these, runaway slaves, and outcast whites, here and there in the South arose such groups as the Moors of Delaware and the Melungeons of the Appaclachians, whom the anthropologists dub “Tri-Racial Isolates.”
As one might guess, despite the popular notion of all antebellum Southerners (the white ones, anyway) living in Tara-like palatial homes, the South in 1860 was extremely diverse. Nor was it uninfluenced by the North, culturally. Many wealthy Southerners sent their scions to study at Princeton (although they had their own perfectly good universities at Williamsburg, Charleston, and elsewhere). Although the Episcopal Church had been the established one in the Southern colonies prior to the Revolution, it was swiftly disestablished after that war (even though most of its Southern members had been on the revolutionary side). The spiritual vacuum in the South was filled primarily by the Methodists and Baptists, in no small part because they required little education in their ministers, and so were able to establish congregations at a prodigious rate. But the latter faith had come to the South directly from New England and Philadelphia in 1727, with the erection of Shiloh Church in Cisco, North Carolina. The area soon mushroomed with similar congregations, but they in turn generally converted to Calvinist or “Particular” Baptistry. We outsiders tend to think of the South as heavily Calvinist. She may well be, but she got it from the North.
This shared heritage did not form ties that bound, however. After 1808, when the importation of slaves from Africa became illegal, thus ending to a great degree the “Triangle Trade” that had made New England seaports wealthy (although some illegal activity of this sort continued; the last Slaver put out of Portland, Maine in 1859), Abolitionism gathered strength in the New England States. Southerners then and now would claim that the Yankees “got religion” on this point when slavery was no longer profitable for them. But however that may be, tensions on both sides rose, and in turn, on this very issue of slavery, the Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists split (the first two would reunite in the 20th century, but the gulf between the latter only gets wider).
So things stood at the election of Abraham Lincoln, when the split of the Democratic Party into three pieces allowed the new Republicans in”and convinced the Southern politicians that abolition was imminent. Oceans of ink have been shed over the rightness or wrongness of secession. It seems to this writer that there are two separate questions here, actually. Is (or was, since we know now that no State will ever be permitted to do so today”whatever provocation she may face) secession morally permissible in the abstract? And, was this particular act of secession, at this point in time, justified?
As regards the first question, one is reminded of the comment of a comedian-friend of Lincoln’s. When the new president asked him what he thought of the Southern States breaking the Union. “Well, Mr. President, if Secession be a valid concept, then my sympathies must lie with the South. If not, then I can only say, “God Bless His Majesty!”” This points up an uneasy truth for a quasi-Calvinist nation like ourselves”if one of our foundational conflicts was moral, the other cannot be. But in any case, the Southerners themselves pointed to the example of their grandfathers” rebellion against the Crown”which is why the coat-of-arms of the Confederacy featured Washington astride a horse. Moreover, since my native State of New York only acceded to the Constitution on the proviso that it could withdraw from that contract should it prove annoying, I myself could hardly condemn the concept. It is interesting to note, however, that, in my lifetime, the attempts at secession I have seen”the unsuccessful ventures of Biafra , Rhodesia , and Katanga , and the rather more victorious efforts of Croatia, Bosnia, Slovenia, Macedonia, and Slovakia”were all opposed to varying degrees by Washington”a town that can’t seem to stand seeing small regions escape the grip of a central government.
But if we admit that secession can be a valid concept, what about this particular case? The immediate issue, of course, Lincoln ‘s election, would perhaps seem a little flimsy, given that he had not actually done anything against the South. But its residents were sure he would. The underlying issues were, of course, slavery and States” Rights. Since 1865, Southern apologists have maintained that slavery was tangential to the issue. But of course, this is belied by the actual declarations of independence of the individual Confederate States. Reading these texts would seem to make an open and shut case. However, there is more to the story. Each of these documents invoke 1776, of course, and as with the conflict that was in progress then, there were divisions of opinion. In the South large areas opposed Secession, to include what became West Virginia, eastern Tennessee (which almost seceded from her home State as well), and smaller areas, like Huey Long’s native place, Winn Parish, Louisiana. But much as these enclaves opposed secession, they did not embrace abolition (although the immigrant Germans of Texas and Missouri did, for the most part). The pro-Southern Copperheads of the North, for the most part, did not support the “Peculiar Institution” either”certainly not ex-President Franklin Pierce, who vocally supported the Confederacy from his New Hampshire home, or Catholic convert James McMaster, whose paper, The Freeman’s Journal, was shut down and himself imprisoned when he accused Lincoln in print of being an enemy of free speech. Indeed, in the prosecution of the War, the president introduced the draft, income tax, and suppression of habeus corpus. He also unwittingly did damage to the English language in this country, since after his victory, the grammatically correct usage “the United States are…” was replaced in most people’s mouths with the illiterate “the United States is….”
One may argue forever (and doubtless people will) over the rights and wrongs of the War Between the States. What cannot be argued is that the War whose tactical commencement we are remembering today in large part created the Southern mystique. The wide vein of Walter Scott-derived Romanticism that flowed through the Southern psyche before the War (giving birth to such as Edgar Allan Poe) poured into the endless tragedy of a battered, defeated, and occupied land. While one may or may not share the politics of the Confederate leadership, one cannot but admit the powerful emotions evoked by the “Lost Cause.” To visit any of the many Confederate memorials around the South”such as the Confederate Memorial Chapels in Richmond and Blandford (Petersburg) Virginia and in Higginsville, Missouri; the Confederate Museum in New Orleans; Beauvoir, Jefferson Davis” last home in Biloxi, Mississippi (the house, heavily damaged in Katrina, will reopen in 2008, while the cemetery, with the tomb of the Unknown Confederate Soldier, is open now); the “White Houses” and Capitols in Richmond and Montgomery; and the Episcopal Churches in those cities where the President and his family worshipped, to name a very few locations”well, whether one considers oneself Blue or Gray, he cannot come away unaffected by the horror that rained down upon the South.
The sadness left behind by that conflict, the feeling of exile in one’s own land, certainly affected Southern writers as different as William Alexander Percy, William Faulkner, and those “Fugitive” poets of Vanderbilt University who morphed into the Southern Agrarians of