Saturday, May 9, 2009

White Southerners and Reconstruction: Perspective

Studying post-Civil War Reconstruction can sometimes be painful. This era was filled with so much contention, strife, and violence that, like watching an exciting movie, I often feel emotionally drained after reading about some of the events in this period. But, just like other time periods, it is important to view Reconstruction with different perspectives in mind.

Historiographically, Reconstruction has experienced some tremendous changes over the 140 years since it happened. Early historians of Reconstruction, probably still infected with a degree of racism and the ideas of Social Darwinism, interpreted this era as tragic, not for the freedmen; but for the white Southerners who experienced it. Other than W.E.B. Dubois and a handful of other African American writers, it wasn't until the 1950s and 1960s that a revisionist history of Reconstruction emerged. These stories provided us students with a clearer and more truthful picture of the "tragic era." Still, many of these revisionist works left out the perspective of the white Southerner in the attempt to tell others' (i.e. African Americans') stories. I suppose it is difficult to balance both and not show some level of bias, however small it may be.

So, what motivated white Southerners to try to protect their white supremacist world? Why did they try to hold on to the "old ways" so tightly? I think it largely has to do with one simple word; fear. Many white Southerners were uncertain of what life would be like after the war when slaves, previously held in bondage, were now loosed upon the landscape. Would the freedmen work to make a living? Would they steal and kill to survive? Would these former slaves become the whites' political masters in areas with black majority populations? Fear is a strong motivating factor and one that often leads to backlash violence. When pushed beyond what is thought normal and necessary, to a point of perceived extremity, desperation and unfamiliarity, terrible things can occur. Due to largely to fear, the antebellum South was not a "freedom of speech" environment. Any talk or printing of abolitionist or anti-slavery talk was suppressed by violence and intimidation. This was done mainly because their was dread concern that the South would turn into Haitian Revolution north without slavery as the social controlling factor for almost 4 million African American slaves.

I am not sure why this topic fascinates me so much, but it does. I have the deepest passion to learn more about these different perspectives of the past. I guess I have convinced myself that that is the only way to get at a complete picture of what was really going on. I will leave you with a song that came out just after the Civil War and written by a ex-Confederate. They lyrics go a long way toward expressing the feeling many white Southerners felt during Reconstruction.

I'm A Good Old Rebel

Oh, I'm a good old rebel, now that's just what I am,
And for this Yankee nation I do not care a damn.
I'm glad I fought against it, I only wish we'd won,
I ain't asked no pardon for anything I've done.

I hates the Yankee nation and everything they do,
I hates the Declaration of Independence too.
I hates the glorious Union 'tis dripping with our blood,
I hates the striped banner, I fought it all I could.

I hates the Constitution, this great Republic too,
I hates the Freedmen's Bureau, in uniforms of blue.
I hates the nasty eagle with all his brag and fuss,
The lyin', thievin' Yankees, I hates' em worse and worse.

I rode with old Marse Robert for three long years about,
Got wounded in four places and I starved at Point Lookout.
I caught the rheumatism a campin' in the snow
I killed a chance of Yankees and I'd like to kill some more.

Three hundred thousand Yankees is stiff in Southern dust.
We got three hundred thousand before they conquered us.
They died of Southern fever and Southern steel and shot,
I wish they was three million instead of what we got.

I can't take up my musket and fight 'em now no more,
But I ain't a-gonna to love 'em now that is certain sure.
And I don't want no pardon for what I was and am
I won't be reconstructed and I don't give a damn.

Oh, I'm a good old rebel, now that's just what I am
And for this Yankee nation I do not care a damn.
I'm glad I fought against 'er I only wish we'd won
I ain't asked no pardon for anything I've done.
No, I ain't asked no pardon for anything I've done...

1 comment:

  1. My Great-Grandfather, a Confederate LtColonel, 1st Mississippi Calvary was born 1-1-1839. On 1-1-1939 I was born. He passed 4-10-1951. The poem sums up my feelings for the last near 78 years. We lost but look at the result today.
    Life member S.O.C.