The Burden of Southern History

This is the first guest post in a series of reviews written by students who are currently enrolled in Prof. Peter Carmichael’s graduate seminar at West Virginia University.  Students will contribute 300-500 word reviews of Civil War classics.  Click here for more information on this series.  This review of Woodward’s classic collection of essays was written by Ashley M. Whitehead.  Comments are strongly encouraged.  Read other posts in this series.

Debates concerning the origins and nature of southern distinctiveness have occurred since the antebellum era.  Southerners themselves initially cited their region’s political system, which was deeply rooted in the “peculiar institution” of slavery and state-based government, as the South’s most distinctive feature.  Historians and southerners writing after the Civil War, including proponents of the Lost Cause, argued that the South’s “innocence, traditionalism, virtuousness, and purity” separated the South from a more modern, “aggressive,” and industrialized North—a proposition that held sway up through the middle of the twentieth century.

However, as C. Vann Woodward notes in his seminal work, The Burden of Southern History, northerners were equally complicit in fostering such views of “southern distinctiveness.”  Woodward argues that, beginning with the Lost Cause and sectional reconciliation era of the 1880s, northerners joined the South in celebrations of its regional culture and that they further embraced the idea of southern distinctiveness by portraying the South as a haven and refuge from the disconcerting corruption and rapid modernization of the post-war North.

During the early and mid-twentieth century, Woodward writes, the notion of southern distinctiveness acquired new meaning as Americans began to embrace and promote the idea of “American exceptionalism” on a truly global scale.  This so-called “national myth” portrayed America as a global leader that had never known defeat and whose foundations rested upon an eternal commitment to liberty and morality.  Woodward argues that, in order to justify this “national myth,” Americans used the South as its scapegoat for its previous moral and political failures, including slavery, civil war, and periodic economic troubles.  By “dumping” its historical and moral burdens on the South, Americans thus were able to purge their own (perceived) triumphant national history of its historical baggage; such efforts, in turn, resulted in the increasing differentiation between “mainstream” America and the South and in the perpetuation of the myth of southern distinctiveness.  Therefore Woodward argues, in reality, the South is not as inherently unique as we, as a nation, have come to believe; rather, it is the South’s experiences—of defeat and of an imagined separatism—that have made it seem so distinct.

Woodward’s numerous later additions to his original version of The Burden of Southern History provide insightful commentary on how and why our more recent perceptions of the South have changed over time.  Woodward writes that, in light of the devastating Vietnam War era, Americans have come to see the South as somehow “less distinct,” and its experiences of failure, moral dilemmas, and economic/political troubles as “more American.”  Woodward’s observation is astute, as it reflects the influence that contemporary political issues and national identity crises play in our history as a whole, and our view of the South in particular:  The idea of southern distinctiveness surged when America’s burdens became viewed as strictly “the South’s burdens.” Similarly, the South became less distinct and “more American,” (or America, more “southern”) when America began to experience the same “burdens” that previously had been associated strictly with southern history.

Woodward’s  brilliant analysis of the South’s history, identity and place in American memory shows that southern history is “messy,” ironic, paradoxical, and a complex mix of “lived” experience, myth, and imagination. Woodward writes that truth and meaning from the emotionally-charged historical debates over the South’s contested history is perhaps best found in the work of the poet or an author such as William Faulkner who might better understand the relationship of myth and reality.   Woodward proves himself more than worthy as a conveyor of such truth and meaning.  Indeed, Woodward serves as a sort of poet-historian who understands, far better than most writers, the burden of the past on the present, and vice versa.

Future historians might enrich Woodward’s analysis of the nation’s original literary consciousness of the South through further engagement with literature produced in or about the South in both the antebellum and post-bellum years.  Such studies would help to clarify the depth and regional breadth of nineteenth-century popular opinion concerning the cultural distinctiveness of the South.  Additional scholarship on the differences between geographical and ideological conceptions of “the South” also would help to clarify what, exactly, historians—and the American public—mean when they refer to “the South” and would help to explain how and why those definitions have evolved over time. Finally, historians would contribute significantly to our understanding of the close relationship of history, memory and the perpetuation of what Woodward has called “historical burden” by continuing to evaluate how and why current events and cultural trends have further altered (or not altered) our present-day perceptions of the South.

Civil War Memory has moved to Substack! Don’t miss a single post. Subscribe below.

12 comments… add one
  • Ashley Mar 2, 2010 @ 21:02

    I agree with you that the “South as backward and anti-modern” school is rapidly growing obsolete; the South was making significant advancements toward industrialization in several cities–Richmond, with Tredegar Iron Works–being one of the most significant. Additionally, you are right that slavery wasn't necessarily “incompatible” with modern technology or industrialization because many slaves worked in these iron foundries and factories.
    Where I do think the South was distinct in this way was the pace at which it was industrializing, in comparison with the rest of the world; in this category it lagged behind….or, as McPherson would say, the North and parts of Europe were simply “far ahead.”
    I do question a few of Woodward's statements about southerners viewing themselves as “knightly Cavaliers.” While many of them cited cultural distinctiveness and “purity” as chief reasons for secession, many of them–especially the youths–thought of themselves as progressive, highly “modern” individuals.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 3, 2010 @ 0:41


      Thanks for taking the time to respond. I think few people would disagree that the South lagged behind the North as well as other industrial centers in Europe. I agree that the younger generation that came of age in the 1850s seemed to identify less with that cavalier image. Again, Prof. Carmichael's work is instructive when it comes to young Virginians.

      • Ashley Mar 6, 2010 @ 20:01

        I also think Dr. Carmichael's work makes huge strides toward helping to “unpack” the myth of the southern cavalier image. I wonder, however, about whether there was a gender division among the “last generation” when it came to perpetuating the cavalier image–for instance, the cultivation of Richmond's “belles” during the war seems to suggest that women who were coming of age during the war still very much identified with that “old cavalier” image and its implications for women. I'd be curious to know your thoughts, as well as those of any other commentators, about gendered notions of “the Old South.”

        • Kevin Levin Mar 7, 2010 @ 23:03

          I can't speak to what extent young women of the slaveholding class identified with the cavalier image, but recent scholarship suggests they fell in line with the “last generation” of Carmichael's study. You may want to check out Victoria E. Ott's _Confederate Daughters: Coming of Age during the Civil War_ Southern Illinois University Press (2003) as well as Caroline Janney's _Burying the Dead But Not the Past_ University of North Carolina Press, (2008).

  • Jonathan Dresner Mar 2, 2010 @ 16:39

    This is a wonderful start to the series. As a non-Americanist, I'm going to learn a great deal about the historiography that I've only seen hinted at by current scholarship.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 2, 2010 @ 16:53

      There should be somewhere around 10-12 posts in total. I hope it introduces my readers to Civil War historiography as well as some of these graduate students to the possibilities related to blogging. Now all we need are the students themselves to respond to the comments that have been posted.

      Where are you guys?

  • jh Feb 28, 2010 @ 18:09

    What an excellent post. I tend to side with a more distinct South but I think there are important points here. I go into that in my own amateur way.

    That being said I would like to know his views on what he thinks the whole Scot Irish ethnic issue that is the background and still comes up it appears in a variety of ways.

    Second as I mentioned I do think we should have after a good many decades of migration to the New South to seesome clues about “who affected who” more if at all.

  • mitchkachun Feb 28, 2010 @ 12:31

    As part of a lecture series sponsored by the History department at Western Michigan University, Prof. Frank Towers, of the University of Calgary, recently outlined a reconceptualization of the historiography of the “Old South.” Frank presented convincing evidence as he unpacked the “myth” of the Old South as backward, anti-modern, tradition-bound, and therefore “exceptional.” I may be behind the curve in seeing this as a completely “new” interpretation, but in any case I see it as an important step toward a fuller understanding of how the popular image of an anti-modern antebellum South to a large extent conflicts with the reality of what he calls a “proslavery modernity”–citing (among other things) the region's urban growth, economic power, industrial output, railroad construction, and other developments that may have lagged behind the North, but which look pretty advanced and “modern” when placed in a global context.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 28, 2010 @ 13:14

      Thanks for the comment. If I remember correctly, Ed Ayers once suggested that if you consider the South as a nation it would be the 4th most industrial nation on the planet by the eve of the Civil War. I find this area of focus to be quite interesting and it has helped me to move beyond the standard stories of two regions that fell on opposite ends of the industrial/modern spectrum. Frank's book on the urban south is well worth considering on this issue:… I also highly recommend John Majewski's _Modernizing a Slave Economy_… which focuses on steps to modernize agriculture through government intervention. Majewski ultimately ends up suggesting that the Confederate government was intended, in part, to continue the push toward a more modern/industrial region within a slave-based system. Finally, Peter Carmichael's analysis of young Virginians from the slaveowning class suggests that they believed a more progressive/modern economy would open up opportunity and guaranteed the future of slavery.

      • Raffi Feb 28, 2010 @ 16:38

        Kevin, I believe Ed Ayers says that about the Confederacy, not the South. It's important not to blur the two; one is clearly defined, the other is much more ambiguous.

        • Kevin Levin Feb 28, 2010 @ 16:57

          Yes, yes, of course. Thanks Raffi. It's a distinction that I almost always acknowledge. That's what happens when you respond at 5:30am. 😀

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *