Thursday, March 6, 2014

Just Finished Reading - Yankee Town, Southern City

Over the last several years I have grown to really enjoy reading local historical studies. Luckily, many communities have retained excellent primary source records that allow a vivid reconstruction of their pasts.

A great example of the excellent local studies that are being produced is Steven Elliott Tripp's Yankee Town, Southern City: Race and Class Relations in Civil War Lynchburg. In this fascinating look at race and caste in "Tobacco City" Tripp marshals a wide variety of sources to reconstruct Lynchburg's antebellum and secession, Civil War, emancipation, and Reconstruction history.

Here are the stories of the wealthy and numerous tobacco families, the black factory-working slaves, the white artisans and laborers, and native and immigrant men and women who lived their lives and labored in this James River town. Tripp's focus on how these diverse populations interacted or avoided interaction with one another make this book especially insightful.

The book gets its main title from a visitor that commented on Lynchburg's focus on industrial trades and which reminded that traveler of a Yankee town. Lynchburg's industry focused mainly on tobacco, plug chewing tobacco to be more specific. In the town's many factories slaves cut and stemmed tobacco leaves, flavored the weed, and pressed the plant into blocks that were shipped worldwide. In addition to tobacco, Lynchburg was a significant railroad hub. Rail lines ran to East Tennessee, Richmond, and Petersburg. These rails carried the rich resources of salt, iron, copper, coal, and gypsum from southwest Virginia to distant markets.

Lynchburg had wealthy sections of town where the tobacco factory owners lived with their families, as well as poorer sections, like "Buzzard's Roost," where poor white unskilled laborers and hired slave factory workers sought recreations and pleasures of a baser sort. Many of Lynchburg's factory working slaves lived a quasi-free existence. They were hired out by their owners, often negotiated their own wages, which they sometimes got to keep a portion of, and were allowed a more "loose" life than traditional plantation agricultural slaves. Many tobacco factory slaves were allowed to do overwork and retain those wages with which they bought property and rented places to live.

The Civil War drastically altered life in Lynchburg. The resulting confusion of mobilization and the loss of white manpower created chaos and disorder. Economic disruptions created stressed the town had only experienced rarely in the antebellum years. Emancipation and Reconstruction also brought racial and class strains to surface. Freed blacks attempted to exert a determination over their life and labor that had ultimately been in others' hands before the disruption of war. Violence was all too often a product of these troublesome times.

One source that Tripp readily tapped to get a historic pulse on Lynchburg was newsman Charles Button's comments. Button wrote for the Lynchburg Virginian and commented often on the sights he observed in and around the town. Button's written thoughts provides an excellent white point of view.

Books like Yankee Town, Southern City, which examine large issues in small places have become a favorite of mine. I think that anyone who enjoys reading Southern history will find this particular book both entertaining and educational. It is written in a easy and flowing style yet does not compromise on rigorous historical research. I give Yankee Town, Southern City a 4.75 on a 5 point scale.  

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