Category Archives: Southern History

“Christian Cavalier” 101

It never ceases to amaze me, but every year I get the same questions when my classes study the Civil War.  Yesterday it was, “Is it true that Grant was a butcher?”  Luckily I get to address that one head on today.  In one of my other classes a student asked if it was true that Confederates were more religious than their Northern opponents.  That I am asked these same questions every year reflects the attractiveness of these assumptions.  It doesn’t take much of an imagination to figure out why these ideas remain so popular.  To the left is painter John Paul Strain’s “Battlefield Prayer,” which includes Lee, Jackson, and Stuart, though it  looks more like a bad impersonation of James Longstreet by Tom Berringer.  Why all three, along with a “Johnny Clem-type” flag bearer, are in the woods alone praying is beyond me.  To the right is my all-time favorite.  This is a painting by Mort Kunstler that shows Lee and Jackson engaged in intense prayer along with two unknown children.  I guess it doesn’t matter who the kids are, but I’m not sure I would leave them in the hands of strangers – even if they are “Christian Cavaliers.”  You can also see these assumptions at work in a number of recent books written by people who have apparently no training in the process of writing history.  Here is an example:

J.E.B. Stuart, The Christian Cavalier: For non-believers, death is often considered the end of all things, but, to Christians, it represents a new beginning. Our time here on Earth is short compared to eternity in Heaven, and what we do with this time determines our reward in the afterlife. Unfortunately, many people today waste their precious time focusing on self-fulfillment. Sadly, few leave behind a meaningful legacy. A legacy is the memory of who we were and the ways in which we touched the lives of others. History has recorded countless men who served their time on Earth in such an inspirational way. Their legacy continues to live on, years and years after their death. Such is the story of J.E.B. Stuart: soldier, servant, and Southern hero. In the end, it was far more than the service record, personal items, horses, and other accoutrements that Stuart left behind. It was the deep spiritual roots and patriotism that he had instilled in his children and his men. These are the memories that have truly made his story unforgettable.

Captain R. E. Frayser, from Stuart’s staff recalled the impact that his beloved commander had on all who knew him when he wrote, “In this short period of thirty-one years, four months and twelve days, he won a glorious and imperishable name, and one that posterity will delight to cherish and honor.”

The emphasis is my own and I did so to highlight the broad strokes that typically accompany these kinds of “studies.”  Does this characterization of Stuart have any basis in the history?  According to Stuart biographer Emory Thomas the answer is no: “During his first year at Emory & Henry a campus religious revival swept James into the Methodist Church.  At home at Laurel Hill, James’s mother had been an Episcopalian, his father was probably Presbyterian; but apart from Elizabeth Stuart’s moral strictures, James had not had much religious education or background.  And even after his revival experience at Emory & Henry, his letters to family and friends contain few, if any, religious references. (p. 13)  Thomas goes on to mention that many of his military orders did contain references to “Divine Providence.”  I quote Thomas not to challenge the idea that Stuart was not a religious man, but to suggest that the subject is much more complicated than these so-called Christian authors admit.  The biggest problem for many of these studies is the failure to seriously consider the rich secondary literature that addresses the place of religion in nineteenth-century America.  During a recent visit to my local bookstore I noticed a couple copies of Stonewall Jackson: The Black Man’s Friend by Richard Williams, which makes constant reference to his religion as evidence of his paternalism towards his slaves.  I spent a few minutes going through the bibliography and was not surprised by the almost complete absence of the relevant secondary literature that covers religion in the antebellum South.

The other problem is the failure to see the role of conditions in the postwar South that reinforced this belief in the myth of the Christian Cavalier.  This is very important because if you are not aware of the political, social, and economic conditions that shaped the way Americans – and in this case white Southerners – chose to remember their leaders than you will not be able to fully interpret the source material.  Historian Peter Carmichael makes this very clear in an essay on Turner Ashby, who many would argue fits neatly into this Christian Warrior category.  [To the right is John P. Strain's "Black Knight]

Until recently every generation of white southerners since the war has learned, like some catechism, that all Confederates were gallant and moral, that they fought for a Christian nation, and that they protected the honor of their women against barbaric Yankee hordes.  Those who strayed from this dogma often became social outcasts.  Postwar southerners, consequently, came to rely on chivalry as an explanatory device to give meaning to and understanding of the Confederate cause.  No matter how poor their region had become after the Civil War, or how repressive against black people,white southerners could tell themselves that they came from a noble breed….If postwar southerners had examined Ashby as a rural leader who engaged in brutal partisan warfare, they would have overthrown the cavalier tradition and the basic tenets of the Lost Cause.  Few people are capable of stepping outside their experience and critiquing the assumptions of their world.  Over time, however, it should be easier to move away from the mythical Ashby [not to mention Stuart, Jackson, Lee, etc.], to look at his military career within the social context of the Shenandoah Valley, and to see through the romantic haze of the past.  By doing so, one finds a much different war in Virginia, a place where white society was badly divided, where fighting was uncivilized, and where Confederate leaders lived not as saints but as regular people who possessed the virtues and faults of all humans. ["Turner Ashby's Appeal in The Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862 ed. Gary W. Gallagher (pp. 167-69; in addition to Carmichael's article, see Paul C. Anderson's excellent book, Blood Image: Turner Ashby in the Civil War and Southern Mind]

I find these so-called Christian biographies to be dangerous because they perpetuate the kinds of myths that divide. The authors may not intend to do this, but the upshot is a reinforcement of stereotypes and divisions that have little if anything to do with history.  When is the last time you came across a book on the Christian virtues of Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman?  I guess we’re satisfied to think of Grant in the voice of Jason Robards.  I know some of my readers are going to conclude that this is evidence of some kind of religious bias.  Well, it’s not.  I am fascinated by the history of nineteenth-century America and especially the South, and religion is an important component to understanding Americans on both sides of the Potomac.  It’s too important to leave to individuals with no real interest or training in the writing of history.  There are plenty of excellent studies that focus specifically on religion; they may not be as exciting as the colorful stories contained in many of these Christian biographies and they may not be personally inspiring.  That said, if you do need inspiration don’t go to the world of historical fantasy, perhaps you should browse the Self-Help section of your local bookstore.

Civil War Memory 101

Since this site has experienced a very sharp increase in the number of visitors over the last few weeks I thought it might be helpful to introduce the overall focus of this blog with a series of questions that I am preoccupied with.

Robert Penn Warren: “When one is happy in forgetfulness, facts get forgotten.”

1. How have Americans at different times chosen to remember the Civil War and how has that collective memory been shaped by a need to forget certain aspects of the war?

2. What are the important lessons to be learned about our Civil War and how should those lessons be taught in our schools and other public spaces?

3. Why might it be important to step back and analyze the way nations have chosen to remember their history?

4. What is the relationship between history and political power?

5. What is it about the Civil War that explains its continued presence in our culture and its strong tug on our imaginations?

6. What was the Civil War’s most significant result?

7. What explains the continued popularity of Lost Cause themes throughout the country?

Eric H. Walther’s Yancey

William Lowndes Yancey and the Coming of the Civil
War
. By Eric H. Walther. (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2006. xi, 477 pp.
Acknowledgments, introduction, legacy, bibliography, index. Cloth $39.95, ISBN 0-8078-3027-5).  This review is slated for publication in the journal Louisiana History.

With the 1993 publication of The Fire Eaters (LSU Press) Eric H. Walther established himself as one of the leading historians of the most radical sect of southern political leaders of the 1850’s. That earlier study included William L. Yancey who is the subject of his most recent biography. Yancey, along with Robert B. Rhett, Edmund Ruffin, and Louis T. Wigfall and others stood out owing to their adherence to secession as a means to securing Southern liberty, honor and ultimately the protection of slavery, and not simply as a way to gain concessions from the North. In drawing these discussions Walther demonstrated that not all Southern radicals could properly be classified as fire-eaters; however, the latter camp did represent the interests of many white
Southerners and their views were met with widespread support. The fire-eaters were a diverse group that did not always agree with one another, but their agreement that the federal government constituted a threat to Southern society suggests that secession was not a conspiracy, but a reflection of a deeply embedded commitment to defend the interests of a slave society.

Walther’s most recent book offers a detailed and sympathetic examination of how William L. Yancey evolved into one of the South’s most vocal fire-eaters of the antebellum period, Confederate senator and commissioner to England. Walther’s Yancey is complex and his personal journey into becoming a radical was anything but pre-determined. In achieving these ends Walther does not shun the categories of psychohistory; in fact, he refers to Yancey’s “search for
order” and a need to find a substitute for his stepfather, the Reverend Nathan Beman, who was both abusive and an ardent abolitionist. “The violence of his youth” writes Walther, “planted the seeds of violent acts later in his life, affairs of honor that won him the respect of many in the South.” (374) Yancey spent his early years in the North and was educated at Williams College before moving to South Carolina where he edited a newspaper and studied law under the direction of Benjamin Perry who argued against John Calhoun’s theory of nullification. Yancey adopted the unionist views of his mentor before moving to Alabama where he was then influenced by his cousin Jesse Beene and Dixon H. Lewis who was one of the leading states’ rights Democrats. In 1841 Yancey was elected t as a congressman.

This drive to maintain order and his fervent defense of his personal values and honor led to both and incident in 1838 where he fatally shot his wife’s uncle and a duel with North Carolina congressman Thomas L. Clingman. Yancey’s outbursts and attacks in congress against some of the more notable northern politicians such as John Q. Adams and Daniel Webster won Yancey much support and influence. However, even with strong statements insupport of the “Alabama Platform” and against the Compromise of 1850, according to Walther, Yancey only moved beyond a need to please political mentors following the death of Calhoun.

Throughout the 1850’s Yancey’s political convictions grew more radical than those of his mentors and became associated with a growing group that viewed the Union only as a means to protecting the interests of white southerners and secession as a viable alternative in case the federal government failed in that
responsibility. In 1859, Yancey urged the calling of a convention by the state of Alabama, in the event of the election of the Republican candidate for president in 1860. At the Democratic convention of 1860, he and other southern extremists withdrew. In March 1861, he was sent by Provisional
President Jefferson Davis as the Confederacy’s first Commissioner to England and France, seeking recognition. Following his return to Alabama in 1862, Yancey was elected to the Senate of the Confederacy, and served until his death on July 27 1863. Walther shows that although Yancey clashed with President Davis over constitutional principles and the growing power of the Confederate government he remained willing to negotiate for the benefit of the country that he helped bring about. Yancey died at the age of forty-nine due to kidney failure.

Eric H. Walther has succeeded in crafting a sympathetic and analytical biography of Yancey that reveals as much about the society and politics of the Deep South as it does about his own complex and controversial public life.

James Longstreet Ain’t Got Nothin’ on William Mahone

Here is a statement made by William Mahone upon leaving the Senate:

"I have stood upon Cemetery Hill and looked down on the scene of the great Crater fight, and wondered in my heart if God could have any forgiveness for those men who led the South into that awful war, and are answerable for the blood, the misery, the ruin that followed.  Yet under their teaching I was one of the most bitter and irreconcilable of all who flew to arms in the cause of the State and the Confederacy, and I never learned my wretched error, the awful blunder of the South, the curse of her institution of slavery and her traditions until I sat in the United States Senate, and day by day had borne in upon me the amazing significance of our form of government, what it meant, on what basis it was founded, how great and grand it was above any previous human effort, what it meant for humanity, and how much greater the nation was than any State."

James Longstreet Ain’t Got Nothin’ on William Mahone

Here is a statement made by William Mahone upon leaving the Senate:

"I have stood upon Cemetery Hill and looked down on the scene of the great Crater fight, and wondered in my heart if God could have any forgiveness for those men who led the South into that awful war, and are answerable for the blood, the misery, the ruin that followed.  Yet under their teaching I was one of the most bitter and irreconcilable of all who flew to arms in the cause of the State and the Confederacy, and I never learned my wretched error, the awful blunder of the South, the curse of her institution of slavery and her traditions until I sat in the United States Senate, and day by day had borne in upon me the amazing significance of our form of government, what it meant, on what basis it was founded, how great and grand it was above any previous human effort, what it meant for humanity, and how much greater the nation was than any State."