Friday, March 13, 2015

Hyde, ed.: "THE ENIGMATIC SOUTH: Toward Civil War and Its Legacies"

[The Enigmatic South: Toward Civil War and Its Legacies edited by Samuel C. Hyde, Jr. (Louisiana State University Press, 2014). Hardcover, notes. 254 pp. ISBN:978-0-8071-5694-0 $42.50]

Measurable cracks in the foundations of many widely held views attached to nineteenth century southern history have emerged in recent decades but that hasn't stopped the persistent expression of those views in both popular writing and academic scholarship. Such stubborn misconceptions are the subject of several chapters in the aptly titled The Enigmatic South: Toward Civil War and Its Legacies, a new collection of original essays edited by historian Samuel Hyde.

Christopher Childers's opening essay is a crash course in the southern section's Old Republican pro-slavery politics. He cites the passage of the Missouri Compromise of 1820 as the first serious wakeup call to the institution's most ardent defenders. These politicians came to regret acts of compromise and previous wielding of federal power for their own ends as tacit admissions of a constitutional power to legislate slavery from Washington. With the growing sectional influence of a new interventionist generation of northerners, the ideological descendents of southern Old Republicans fought desperately to reframe the restrictive powers of the federal government, attempting to turn back the clock by rerooting slavery in organic law and reviving popular sovereignty as the means of deciding whether new territories and states would be slave or free.  Unfortunately for them, such strategies were bound to fail given the South's fast diminishing demographic representation within the Union and its poisoned relations with northern allies.

In discussing education in the Gulf States of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, Sarah Hyde opens with a shot across the bow of her colleagues, whose "opinions of political conditions, social structure, and relative wealth are often influenced more by generalities based on prevailing political trends of popular culture than by fact..." (pg. 24). Far from devaluing formal education and crassly seeking to bolster the prevailing class structure by restricting school access, these states from the beginning financially supported and promoted educational institutions. She also finds that the home schooling that dominated the 1820s and 1830s in those areas where the low population density made it necessary could be far more rigorous than many scholars are willing to concede.  Hyde cites the education establishment in New Orleans as a successful public school system model, one that spread to states beyond Louisiana. While direct comparisons with New England's achievements in extending learning to the masses are beyond the article's scope, the documented explosion of public schools in the Gulf States in the decades preceding the Civil War nevertheless offers a powerful counterpoint to the popular view of a Deep South not meaningfully invested in educating its young people.

Julia Nguyen's essay examines the preaching of pro-slavery politics, and later secession, from the New Orleans pulpit in response to decades of increasingly activist abolition movements in northern churches that demolished popularly recognized barriers between politics and sermons. While preaching secession had popular support in the city, considerable unease remained and even some strongly pro-secession newspapers decried the intrusion of politics into churches. Nguyen concludes that the object of most sermons was not about leading the South into secession but rather in fulfilling an important need for moral support during a time of great turmoil and uncertainty.

George Rable's contribution looks at the Confederacy's aloof relationship with Ohio Democratic politician Clement Vallandigham. While Vallandigham's strident public opposition to the Lincoln administration was appreciated in the South, Rable notes that southerners had concerns of their own. Lacking the means of assessing the true scale of Vallandigham's influence on the northern public, they did not know what to make of him and distrusted his goals given that the Ohioan wanted both peace and reunion.

Though many recent local and regional studies have produced convincing evidence to the contrary, the "rich man's war, poor man's fight" interpretation remains strong in both popular history and scholarly literature. Paul Paskoff's rigorously quantitative [attached tables and an extensive appendix helpfully explain his data gathering and methodology] study of military service in Mississippi is an important contribution to this revisionist line of inquiry. According to his research, two-thirds of upper class young men served in the army. Taking into account rates of service among the general population, this figure places the wealthiest cohort near the top. In addition to their very high participation rate, nearly all of the individuals in the sample fought in front line Confederate units, not local defense forces. The result of Paskoff's research into the last five antebellum graduating classes of the University of Mississippi is similarly illuminating. The discovery that 93% of graduates served in uniform bolsters further the writer's claim that military participation among wealthy Mississippi families was at least as great as those of the middle and lower classes.

John Sacher's assessment of Jefferson Davis's record on conscription is also contrarian. He points out that the Confederate president's famous clashes with Georgia governor Joseph Brown over States's Rights were the exception rather than the rule and the conscription law was upheld in state courts (there was no Supreme Court of the CSA). According to Sacher, Davis deserves a great deal of credit for mobilizing an astonishingly high percentage of military age males. In response to criticisms of eligibility and exemption rules, the notoriously inflexible Confederate president proved flexible in approving changes to the law that addressed those concerns. Where Sacher finds most fault is in Davis's unwillingness to take his case directly to the people, his rigid belief in never having to explain his executive decisions leading to a missed opportunity for fostering popular home front unity and support for the measure.

The last three essays address issues of continuity and discontinuity between the Old and New South periods. Richard Follett's piece is a study of the annual Louisiana sugar reports of Pierre Champomier, a keen observer who promoted best business practices in the state with the aim of modernizing the industry. The question of the continuity of political and social power of the planter elite in the post-war period is examined by Samuel Hyde using the life story of Mississippi's Judge Edward McGehee. An unquestioned antebellum leader of regional agricultural, railroad, industrial, and political interests, McGehee was impoverished by the war but remained a respected community figure. He recovered economically but projected a more modest image, staying out of politics and becoming a devoted philanthropist. Hyde's portrait of McGehee as both Old and New South representative invites readers to reject simplistic categories and generalizations. Eric Walther's essay investigates the role of biography in shaping Confederate memory, specifically John Witherspoon DuBose's admiring treatment of secessionist William Lowndes Yancey that sought to elevate the Fire-Eater's position among the pantheon of Old South heroes while cutting Jefferson Davis down to size.

This collection may appear to be lacking an overall theme, but its components largely reflect the wide ranging scholarly interests of historian William J. Cooper, for whom the volume is dedicated. The afterword, written by Gaines Foster, is both a personal appreciation of Cooper and a thoughtful essay on the importance of his body of work. The challenging nature of the book's content offers abundant evidence of why so many scholars are drawn to southern history in particular and the convincing manner in which many popular assumptions are tested within and found wanting makes The Enigmatic South highly recommended reading.

More CWBA reviews of LSUP titles:
* Corps Commanders in Blue: Union Major Generals in the Civil War
* Gateway to the Confederacy: New Perspectives on the Chickamauga and Chattanooga Campaigns, 1862-1863
* Emancipation, the Union Army, and the Reelection of Abraham Lincoln
* Greyhound Commander: Confederate General John G. Walker's History of the Civil War West of the Mississippi
* Knights of the Golden Circle: Secret Empire, Southern Secession, Civil War
* Milliken's Bend: A Civil War Battle in History and Memory
* Battle of Stones River: The Forgotten Conflict Between the Confederate Army of Tennessee and the Union Army of the Cumberland
* Granbury's Texas Brigade: Diehard Western Confederates
* The Last Battle of the Civil War: United States Versus Lee, 1861-1883
* Confederate Guerrilla: Champ Ferguson and the Civil War in Appalachia
* Lincoln and Citizens' Rights in Civil War Missouri: Balancing Freedom and Security
* War No More: The Antiwar Impulse in American Literature, 1861-1914
* Isham G. Harris of Tennessee: Confederate Governor and United States Senator
* Executing Daniel Bright: Race, Loyalty, and Guerrilla Violence in a Coastal Carolina Community 1861-1865
* Mosquito Soldiers: Malaria, Yellow Fever, and the Course of the American Civil War
* Homegrown Yankees: Tennessee's Union Cavalry in the Civil War
* John Bankhead Magruder: A Military Reappraisal
* A Wisconsin Yankee in the Confederate Bayou Country: The Civil War Reminiscences of a Union General
* Bleeding Borders: Race, Gender, and Violence in Pre-Civil War Kansas
* Jefferson Davis and the Civil War Era
* Where Men Only Dare to Go Or the Story of a Boy Company, C.S.A.
* Encyclopedia of Civil War Shipwrecks
* Walker’s Texas Division, C.S.A.: Greyhounds of the Trans-Mississippi
* The Confederate Cherokees: John Drew's Regiment of Mounted Rifles
* A Crisis In Confederate Command: Edmund Kirby Smith, Richard Taylor, And The Army Of The Trans-Mississippi
* The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock

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