The battle for and against Southern Heritage

Posted on August 21, 2013 by


There is a struggle that exists (and thrives) that continues to feed misconceptions, and I can’t help but cringe when I hear either argument.

There are those who say that they defend Southern Heritage… but that is usually limited to a fraction of the heritage that did, in fact, make up the South. Usually, it’s all about four years in the middle of the 19th century.

There are those who say that Southern Heritage is shameful (“villification of Southern Heritage”), and it is something that should not be defended, in any form or fashion… mostly because of the prolonged existence of slavery (beyond the time when the Northern states had abandoned the practice), and… yes (as clearly outlined in some of the ordinances of secession that were generated from the lower South), the interest (as defined by some in their writings and their actions) in defending it.

In both instances, there are strange and annoying lines of thinking. Morsels of information are cherry-picked, and then sculpted, specifically to make the arguments both for and against… and then comes the broad-brush to define 19th century Southerners as a whole.

Ultimately, neither does justice to the history of the (19th century) South. In fact, both sides fail miserably. Small pieces of truths are mingled with fabrications that create opposing “memories”, and neither is right. One side defends only small fractions of the story, while the only rips the whole apart based upon slavery alone.

What I see a need for is to understand (and, even more so… acknowledge) both the good and the bad.

One of the things that I have found, in examining the story of Southern Unionists, is that that story (and the understanding of that story) cannot exist in a vacuum. One also has to understand the shifting mindsets of Southerners… and that the “shifting” was not a single shift, and not shifts to which all subscribed.

Not unlike today, 19th century Southern culture was complex, and to truly appreciate… or at the very least, attempt to truthfully understand it… one has to dig deeper.

For me, I never feel quite satisfied that I have given it enough time. My interests, when they began, were war-centric… the battles, the leaders. That expanded over time to the individual regiments… and eventually to the company level. In that not all wanted to participate in that (both outside the ranks and even inside), looking back, now it seems as if it was only a matter of time before my interests would turn to the civilians, and that, among them, there were differences in sentiment and opinion.

It seems that has now moved to another phase… the origins of those sentiments and opinions. Where did the thinking originate, how did it evolve, and why did different Southerners end-up in so many different pools of thought?

Philip Pendleton Cooke

Philip Pendleton Cooke

For what it’s worth, within the last week or so, I’ve found myself digging into 19th century (actually, more specifically, from the 1830s-1850s) Southern literature, and I’m taking a particular interest (for their poetry and prose) in Philip Pendleton Cooke, and his younger brother, John Esten Cooke (and even John Pendleton Kennedy and prewar works of David Hunter Strother). I’m sure it’s because all four have ties to the lower Shenandoah Valley (and are actually related), and that I’m looking, in their writings, for details that help to better understanding the culture of this area as it existed before the war.

John Pendelton Kennedy

John Pendleton Kennedy

Now, I know… some will cheer, while others will roll their eyes with the mere mention of John Esten Cooke. He is, after all, probably best known for his works in which he focused on the Lost Cause. Yet, much like the two arguments… defending and seeking to topple the imagery that seems to come to mind with “Southern Heritage”… focusing alone on his Lost Cause-centered contributions is a mistake. What of his writings before the war? There is a bigger story there, and it requires further consideration. What, for example, does early to mid 19th century Southern literature tell us about the South? What about if we focus more narrowly… on writers from a specific area… as in the case with these four? Is slavery often part of it? Absolutely. Still, there’s also literature from the period that does not… nor does it focus on the politics of the time. Consider, for example, that Philip Cooke died in 1850, before “current events” (of that next century) started to dominate Southern literature much more than in the two centuries that preceded it.

Is there actually something to be gained from reading their works, and considering them against works of other Southern writers in… say… the Southern Literary Messenger, from that same time, or am I on the trail of something that isn’t actually there?

Could (if either side would so dare… or even be convinced to do so for fear of finding kinks in their arguments) those who make the arguments both for and against Southern Heritage, learn anything from examining the literature before the war? Even if they took time to look and read, would either side be willing to admit that they can see flaws in their respective arguments?