Buster Keaton Points the Way

275pxtredegar_iron_worksI find it interesting that in Keaton’s short cinematic interpretation of the Civil War it is the locomotive – a popular symbol of the antebellum and post-bellum north – that saves the day as Confederate troops retreat in the face of advancing Federals.  It would be a mistake to over-interpret his use of the locomotive beyond the fact that they tend to make for first-rate comedy.  Given that the production and release of "The General" took place well after the height of the Industrial Revolution in this country it is unlikely that Keaton would have acknowledged the still lingering sectional split over how to differentiate between the antebellum north and south. 

From a certain perspective Keaton’s linking of an popular symbol of industry with "the South" and the Confederacy anticipates a great deal of recent research.  We are wedded to certain beliefs that are picked up at various points in our lives and held to tightly.  In the case of the American history one of the most popular is the distinction between an agrarian South and industrial North.  The two regions were not simply different in degree, but in kind.  We hold to these distinctions as if they are sacred and rarely look beyond the surface to better understand the extent to which they help us understand the past.  Part of the problem is the implicit moral assumptions that lay just below the surface of these beliefs many of which are culled directly from travel reports from such notables as Frederick Law Olmsted and George Fitzhugh.  Many of us identify with these ideas as a way to defend or vindicate the past. 

I’ve commented quite a bit about Peter Carmichael’s recent study of young Virginians who matured in the 1850s and who eagerly went off to war in 1861.  Carmichael demonstrates that these young Virginians from slaveowning families were quite progressive in their call for internal improvements and other steps to "industrialize" the commonwealth.  These young men clearly did acknowledge a distinction between themselves and their neighbors to the north, but that stance was much more complicated and not drawn along a strict industrial v. agrarian line.  I am currently making my way through Charles Dew’s wonderful study Ironmaker to the Confederacy: Joseph Reid Anderson and the Tredegar Iron Works [first published in 1966 and re-published in 1999 by the Library of Virginia].  I found the following passage where Dew describes Anderson’s appointment to assistant state engineer to the Valley Turnpike in 1837 to be quite interesting:

Anderson found is new job attractive for a number of reasons.  It got him out of the army, of course, and it took him back to his native Shenandoah Valley.  But it also offered him the chance to do something tangible to further the economic development of the state.  While still at West Point, he had compared the bustling commerce of New York with the languid pace of economic activity in Virginia and decided that internal improvements lay behind Yankee prosperity.  "The immense profits of the New York Canals are enriching the state," he noted in 1834.  "Every day numberless vessels are seen wafting on the waters of the Hudson to the great city of New York the inexhaustible resources which these very improvements have increased or developed."  It was time for Virginians to wake from their economic slumber, start digging canals and building turnpikes, and secure their share of trade and wealth.  After settling in Staunton, he supported various canal and railroad projects intended to improve transportation between the Valley and the Tidewater.  This interest in internal improvements led him first into the Whig party and then into the Southern commercial convention movement, which was just beginning in Virginia in the late 1830s.

Dew is very careful in the way he analyzes Anderson’s correspondence.  According to Dew, Anderson did not compare an agrarian/pre-industrial south with the north, but acknowledged a nation on the move and a region that stood to benefit from continued and expanded economic development.  Anderson’s story serves to remind us that our own deeply-held assumptions about the past may tell us more about ourselves than anything having to do with serious history.

2 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin Dec 10, 2007 @ 16:36

    Tim, — You should definitely pick up Carmichael’s book and you may also want to look at the recent book by Frank Towers which explores the urban/industrial South. As I understand it Anderson and other white southerners did not see a conflict between the preservation of slavery and a racial hierarchy with a progressive-economic outlook. In fact, William Link shows in his recent book, _Roots of Secession_ that slaves were increasingly being used in the more urban centers of Richmond and Petersburg in the years leading up to the war. Carmichael’s young Virginians clearly did not see a conflict between slavery and internal improvements; in fact, they viewed the economic development of their state as a way to regain a leadership position on the national stage that their fathers and grandfathers lost.

  • Tim Lacy Dec 10, 2007 @ 16:13

    I confess that I’ve never before encountered this kind of progressive-sounding language from Southerners.

    Kevin, I’m not sure where you’re going with this post, but here’s my reader reaction:

    But then why did they—meaning men like J.R. Anderson—fight to support a non-progressive cause, to protect a way of life that kept them from enjoying more of the fruits of modernity?

    Is Dew implying that Anderson only wanted a “more efficient slave system” (I feel the irony in writing that) through better infrastructure? In that case, then we’re back to slavery, not the agrarian/industrial problem.

    Are those who argue hard about the agrarian/industrial (false) dichotomy simply trying too hard to make the North/South tension more complicated than it was? Doesn’t this throw us back onto the shores of slavery?

    – TL

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