Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Volume 109 / Number 3 - Review
The Shaping of Southern Culture: Honor, Grace and War, 1760s–1880s. By Betram Wyatt-Brown.
Chapel Hill: Univesity of North Carolina Press, 2001. xx, 412 pp. $55.00 cloth; $19.95 paper.
Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. By David W. Blight. Cambridge, Mass., and London: Belknap
Press of Harvard University Press, 2001. xii, 512 pp. $29.95.
The easiest conclusion to draw about these two volumes is that there should be room for both on any historian's bookshelf.
Both join familiar stories with new points to create exciting and original scholarship, and both are long, complex, and full of
wisdom about how nineteenth-century Americans, northern and southern, black and white, understood themselves.
The difficulty lies in comparing works whose authors have fundamental differences about how the past affected people
in the nineteenth century. For David Blight, all sorts of things happened in the Civil War years, and people from 1865 into
the 1910s could pick and choose among them to construct their own understandings of the past. People in Blight's book
are not really liars or cynical manipulators of the past, but many are close to it, as different groups looked to use the
death and drama of the Civil War to form a compelling and politically appealing basis for their own agendas. For Bertram
Wyatt-Brown, people in the nineteenth-century South were not interpreting, dramatizing, or recasting the past for political
purposes. They were living its often complex and contradictory lessons because that is who they were. People felt the
weight of history so strongly that they often did not name it or explain it; instead, they not so simply lived its various
lessons. Comparing the two books begins with this point: people in Blight's book are more creative and more manipulative,
while people in Wyatt-Brown's book are more troubled.
The Shaping of Southern Culture continues and elaborates on the project Wyatt-Brown began in 1982 with Southern
Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South. The new book consists of new and revised essays on three topics ranging
from the revolutionary period through the late 1800s, and its goal is to explore ways that honor was complicated. To
oversimplify, honor meant not doing what anybody told you to do, for to take orders meant being a dependent and even
a slave. Honor also meant doing what rules of behavior, inherited from generations of tradition and also the Bible, told
people to do. So the honor-bound had to understand the code and live up to it, but they had to resist daily, individual
affronts to their ability to control their own actions.
Wyatt-Brown's book explores how politics and evangelical religion complicated honor by demanding either compromise
or by offering a different set of rules, and how military defeat challenged honor directly. An essay on the American Revolution
argues that colonials rejected a sense of indignity in English attempts to dismiss their demands. Americans, basically, challenged
England to a duel. An attractive essay on Andrew Jackson portrays his honor as both worried and ruthless, as he dealt with
his own shortcomings and unlikely background by rejecting the right of anyone to challenge his judgment or family. As Wyatt
-Brown suggests, there could be no small challenges to honor.
The chapters on evangelical religion are broad, thoughtful, and sometimes frustrating. Wyatt-Brown traces the relationships
between honor and religion from a traditional ethos of aggressive command through the rise of evangelicalism, with its demands
for, among other things, sobriety and self-control. By the late antebellum period, "Church power had developed to a point
that the rule of honor was jeopardized" (p. 101). But the relationship continued for decades, sometimes in tension, sometimes
in balance, sometimes even mutually supporting. A powerful chapter on Primitive Baptists shows how that group upheld
notions of honor: belief in ancient understandings of ritual and male domination, rejection of external authority, shame within
a small communal setting. An exploration of pro-slavery Christianity parses the "double tradition in which the precepts of
honor have prominence along with the familiar doctrines of love and God-centeredness" (p. 145), and shows the increasing
attractiveness of tradition-bound patriarchalism. Those two points--the ease with which Christianity supported a slave
society and the willingness of many church groups to reject outside power and criticism--merged to help many evangelicals
support the Confederacy.
Nothing ever works easily for the people Wyatt-Brown analyzes. Most of his characters seem a "commonwealth" like
Faulkner's Quentin Compson. And if it was difficult for people to be in charge, it was far harder for them to go to war
and lose. Short chapters on secession, battle, and defeat give a sense of a region-wide depression that many white southerners
tried to treat through violence. By the century's end, "the cause of honor" survived "largely in the language of a belligerent
racism and an assertion of manhood over effeminacy and even over women in general. Lost were some of the ancient foundations
of the ethic--notably its roots in ascriptive hierarchy" (p. 293). So, they fought on, in lynching, in rhetoric, and in everyday life,
because they were carrying on their own versions of an old ethic that demanded violence against any challenge or disrespect.
David Blight's Race and Reunion is an exciting narrative of three ways to remember and use the memory of the Civil War.
Interweaving the narratives of emancipation, white supremacy, and reconciliation, with all of their tensions and problems, Blight
shows memory as something up for grabs, a result of argument even if many people did not want to recognize the arguments of
their narrative competitors. Using all sorts of public sources--speeches, organizational reports, works of literature and scholarship,
political activism--Blight offers a full picture of the various ways people remembered or chose not to remember the War.
African Americans' memories, rooted in a religious identity as a Chosen People, celebrated soldiers who helped free themselves
and consistently pointed out that emancipation was only one step toward a greater future. Blight shows that America's first
Memorial Day celebrations began in 1865 among Charleston African Americans, who helped spread the idea of pairing the
celebration of Civil War dead with the celebration of emancipation and its potential. Over the following decades, some African
American leaders emphasized emancipation as one point on a long arc rooted in African achievement, while others, like
Booker T. Washington, emphasized new potential for progress in America.
Former Confederates and their family members helped lead the way toward reunion by announcing that their memorials were
about love of home, pride in the valor of soldiers, and not much else. By the 1890s, "The stock Confederate Memorial Day
speech contained four obligatory tributes: to soldiers' valor, women's bravery, slave fidelity, and Southern innocence regarding
slavery" (p. 283). Many Lost Cause speechmakers claimed that white southerners were not responsible for slavery, disliked it,
and were on their way to phasing it out when they were interrupted by self-righteous meddlers, and writers and movie makers
offered portraits of slaves as kindly and often comic recipients of paternalism.
The reconciliationist vision is the hardest of the three to understand, and the most interesting. Some early chapters in Race
and Reunion reads like a cultural complement to Eric Foner's Reconstruction, with its sense that most white northerners
thought only briefly about emancipation and were, by the mid-1870s, ready to stop thinking about the South and the problems
of former slaves. Political and intellectual leaders in the 1860s and 1870s often described the war a fight for freedom, and the
Ku Klux Klan trials were indictments of not only Klansmen but also the racist vision of the war. However, as Blight shows,
Northerners quickly began to modify an interest in emancipation, first blending it with a willingness to forgive their enemies and
eventually leaving it behind. Memories of the war increasingly stressed good stories by apparently good people, with most
discussion concentrating on "passion and heroism immunized from motive" (p. 96). To mangle Emerson's "Concord Hymn,"
the victorious reconciliationist memory celebrated the fact that here once some embattled farmers stood and fired some shots,
for whatever reason.
As Blight concludes, "By 1913, racism in America had become a cultural industry, and twisted history a commodity" (p. 391).
The reconciliationists had won in most public discussions. In politics, education, and most of cultural life, most people said
emancipation had not been the goal of the Civil War. Instead, they celebrated the bravery of combatants, and then the ability
of former combatants to put down their weapons and get along.
Blight's book is full, and it seems unfair to ask for more, but a crucial issue asks for deeper investigation. The achievement
of Race and Reunion is to explain how the reconciliationist vision ultimately won the day, but we need to probe the internal
workings of a bland, apolitical optimism that ignored other people's pain. Perhaps Blight's book could use a bit of Wyatt-Brown's
approach that emphasizes the logic and illogic of people's inner lives. What was going on inside people's minds when they recalled
the war with a perspective that sounds quite a bit like the mantra of today's southern conservatives: "Heritage, Not Hate"?
Likewise, The Shaping of Southern Culture might use a bit more of Blight's narrative approach that studies the approaches
of different groups. With the exception of a chapter on slaves' understandings of honor, Wyatt-Brown stays within the minds
and worries of white southerners, most of them men, sometimes to the detriment of understanding their range of experiences
Over forty years ago, C. Vann Woodward listed attention to the past, pessimism about human potential, and racial guilt as
constitutive parts of the identities of white southerners. He implied that other Americans cared less about the past, tended to
be more optimistic, and were relatively untroubled by questions of race and ethnicity. These books help complicate those
points. Wyatt-Brown's subjects suffer from the burdens of the past, straining to live up to standards that they found burdensome
and we find abhorrent. Blight shows that many white Americans gained their sense of cheerful optimism not by solving problems
of race and the legacies of slavery but by ignoring them.
University of Mississippi