Southerners and Southern History: Not Just the Confederate Experience

Twenty-one years ago next month I came out to Arizona State University to interview for a assistant professorship.  The position called for someone who could teach the Civil War and Reconstruction, military history, and southern history.  I could indeed teach all three of these courses: for the most part, I had been unable to teach those subjects at Wofford College, where I was then employed, although in retrospect this was a blessing in disguise, because it meant that I had to teach other subjects (diplomatic history, cultural and intellectual history, women’s history, and, of course, western civ) that have stood me in good stead in being an American historian.  Of the three areas cited in the ASU advertisement, the one that caused me to think the most was southern history.  True, I had spent ten years in the South (Virginia, Tennessee, and South Carolina), and I had studied much history that usually fell under the umbrella of southern history.  My diverse experiences had cautioned me against accepting any simple stereotype of the South.  My greatest concern was that people in the Southwest might not find the history of the Southeast very compelling, especially unless I linked it to race relations.  Even then when I taught such a course, it did not draw large numbers.  As I redefined my areas of specialization to comport more correctly with my interests (something that comes with tenure), I left southern history behind as an independent course, although my understanding of southern history is evident in my current areas of interest (as is my interest in the history of the Northeast, but that’s a subject for another day).

When I lived in the South, the Civil War loomed large in the minds of many white southerners, but by no means could southern history be confused with the history of the Confederacy.  At the University of Virginia I learned far more about Jefferson and Madison than about Davis and Lee; Tennesseans took at least as much pride in Andrew Jackson and James Polk as they did in Andrew Johnson, and folks in East Tennessee held a different perspective on the Civil War in any case.  And, as much as the early history of Wofford College was shaped by two decisions (investing in Confederate war bonds as well as driving away to Duke, Vanderbilt, and other places individuals who could have contributed to Wofford’s early development), I was more conscious of Reconstruction than the war itself (Spartanburg County was the center of KKK activity in 1870-71, and it was in the upcountry that President Ulysses S. Grant suspended the writ of habeas corpus and went after the terrorists).

This background offers a long introduction to something I’ve seen more clearly since I’ve come out west and become more involved in discussions about history and the American Civil War: the tendency of some white southerners to confuse “southern history” and “the South” with “Civil War history” and “the Confederacy.”  One can add to that the commonplace blurring of the terms “southerner” and “white southerner,” as well as the assumption in some quarters that most (white) southerners embrace Confederate heritage.  I’m not the only person to note this, of course, although I rarely see it discussed deliberately outside the blogosphere.  But southern history is as much about Jamestown and Williamsburg and Washington and Jefferson as it is about secession and war (although it might also be a good idea to remember that southern history is also more than the history of Virginia), and that Martin Luther King, Jr., is as much part of southern history as is Robert E. Lee.  Yes, race relations are a central theme in southern history, but there are other themes as well, including the changing demography of the region (especially in migration patterns in and out).  The term “southerner” should include all southerners, regardless of race or ancestry, and there are southerners who have no connection to the Civil War.

Here’s my question: why don’t more self-identified southerners make this point?  Some do, and that’s important, but one still sees “southern heritage” confused with “Confederate heritage.”  One of the most interesting aspects of the debate over the “secession ball” in South Carolina was that there were southerners who made it clear that they objected to “southerner” being reduced to being a few white folks who like to raise a rebel yell and celebrate a war against the United States while proclaiming their American patriotism.  This evidence of diversity and identity is important.  It would be a shame if people outside the South who know little about the South reduced the region and its people to a set of cardboard stereotypes (usually crafted with an eye toward making the observer feel self-satisfied and smug, even virtuous and superior).  But it is up to southerners themselves to testify to their diversity, their inclusiveness, and their refusal to be reduced to such stereotypes, especially when people who largely fit those stereotypes claim to speak for “the real South” and conflate “southern heritage” with the Confederacy.  Then you won’t have Yankees such as me holding forth on these issues.  🙂

I look with fondness upon my years in the South(east).  I have by no means ruled out a return to the area.  We’ll see.  But, while I don’t claim to be a southerner, I am reminded daily of my southern connections.  I hope that southerners choose to play their part in the battle for southern identity and southern history with the same fervor as did those people who once claimed to fight for southern rights.

13 thoughts on “Southerners and Southern History: Not Just the Confederate Experience

  1. Sherree January 20, 2011 / 9:21 am

    Brooks,

    I can relate to this post on so many levels. I have personally been in a battle for white southern identity that exceeds the boundaries of the Civil War/ Confederate experience all of my life. You have no idea how much I truly appreciate your refusal to reduce white southerners to caricature.

    I agree with you that it is up to white southerners to define and claim their history and identity. However, that is not always possible. You can bring your voice to the conversation, live your life with the values imparted to you by your white southern not Confederate heritage folks ancestors, but you cannot change an entire culture. Believe me, I know. I have tried. Lasting divisions within my own family come from disagreements over race and religion.

    You live in Arizona now. Can you change the entire culture there? You are doing your part, but are you responsible for the actions of men and women with whom you disagree, and disagree strongly, perhaps, (as I do here in the south with so many who speak so loudly) simply because you live in the same geographical location? Yes, white southerners must speak out against racism and against other white southerners who promote racism and narratives of history that further racism, but by the same token and of equal importance, those who intentionally stereotype white southerners must be taken to task as well, as they are part of the problem and they are filling their own various needs for a variety of reasons. You are not doing this, even though you are obviously continually bombarded by nonsense, as indicated by links you provide to discussion groups for which Marc Ferguson, for even attempting to engage in dialogue the parties involved, deserves a medal. Add to this, Brooks, your understanding of how Indigenous history fits into these larger narratives, and I am not only thankful that you are blogging, but hope that you don’t get worn out with it. We held a lodge last night and I said prayers for your warrior spirit. I hope you don’t mind.

    Stereotyping of any group of people has consequences. This should be apparent, but for some truly unknown reason–unknown to me at least– it is not. How the lives of African American men and women and of Indigenous men and women have been affected by stereotyping is fairly well understood by most people. How the lives of men and women who live in Appalachia have been affected by stereotyping is not as well known. I came across a refreshing post on a blog run by some idealistic young men and women that addresses this very topic, and it truly gave me hope that some day we will actually achieve a society that is equitable and without hatred. I am sending the link. The blog post also addresses what it means to be African American and from Appalachia. Thank you, Brooks, for taking the time to share the knowledge that you have gleaned over a couple of decades.

    The link:

    itsgettinghotinhere.org/…/no-i-dont-find-your-hillbilly-jokes-funny-cultural- stereotyping-the-destruction-of-Appalachia/

      • Amy Ussery January 25, 2011 / 5:18 am

        I think we need to talk about reverse racism in the south. I grew up
        my life in SC and I dealt with reverse racism everyday because ignorant
        black people who weren’t even alive during the civil war were constantly acting like we owe them a free pass because their great, great, great, great-grandfather was a slave. And that’s my fault? That’s every white person alive today’s fault? Come on now they all need to just get over it already!

        • Fredrick October 26, 2017 / 7:48 am

          It is easy to say get over it when you are WHITE in America. A country that was built on racism and is still today a very racist society. It’s easy for you to say get over it when the KKK has traded in their white robes for police uniforms, judge robes and politicians. So it is easy for you to say get over it because you are WHITE in America.

          • Kristoffer October 26, 2017 / 3:00 pm

            Are you from 50 years ago? Back then, the KKK traded in their white robes for the jobs you mentioned, then traded back to the white robes, rinse and repeat.

      • Brooks D. Simpson January 25, 2011 / 8:18 am

        Thanks for sharing your perspective. I am curious, however if those white people who tell black people to get over slavery tell white people to get over the Civil War, the Confederacy, and Reconstruction with the same passion and feeling.

  2. Sherree January 20, 2011 / 11:15 am

    You’re welcome. And again, thank you. (wado in Cherokee–the extent of my knowledge of the language)

  3. Al Mackey January 20, 2011 / 8:38 pm

    If we place the beginning of Southern History at the founding of Jamestown (one starting place among several we could use), we’re coming up on 500 years of Southern History, yet so many concentrate on only 4 years of that as if it were the be all and end all of Southern History.

    • Richard McCormick January 21, 2011 / 4:47 pm

      Perhaps this is for another place and time, but at what point did a “Southern” identity come into existence? When did people start thinking of themselves as “Southerners” and feeling it was different than being “Northern?”

      • Brooks D. Simpson January 21, 2011 / 5:00 pm

        You can see evidence of this during the Revolutionary period, and certainly by the 1780s. The more the colonies/states thought in reference to each other, and not just to England, the more they thought in North/South terms, although not with quite the dividing line that later appeared. For one thing, slavery was very much an American institution at the time of the Revolution.

  4. Lyle Smith January 21, 2011 / 12:18 am

    “… but one still sees “southern heritage” confused with “Confederate heritage.””

    This is true with some Southerners, but I think a New South history is ascendant and a Confederate heritage history is descendant with most Southerners. South Carolina for example just inaugurated a new governor by the name of Nimrata Nikki Randhawa Haley. More South Carolinians attended her inauguration events than those who attended the recent private party known as the Secession Ball. And notably, in her inauguration speech, she didn’t make it a point to defend any Confederate heritage arguments about there having been black Confederates. Perhaps she should have, because then at least her inauguration would have made national news. 🙂

    You also make a really good point about your own time in the South… where you didn’t experience a Civil War first kind of history where you were at. My experience of growing up in Louisiana was similar. I grew up just south of where Jefferson Davis spent his childhood in Wilkinson County, Mississippi and I had absolutely no idea of this until I was few years out of college. If Confederate heritage was such the rage, why would I have been ignorant of this? It’s like my parents should have been taking me to where he grew up on a pilgrimage or something — not even a day trip (I jest). The person, in fact, who is celebrated from the antebellum period in my neck of the woods is John James Audubon who lived and worked at a nearby plantation… but wasn’t ever a Confederate. And Audubon is a guy North-South, black-white, every one can love… which I’m guessing is why he gets the local headlines and Jeff Davis doesn’t.

  5. Faye Nobles November 16, 2013 / 5:34 pm

    Although I lived the first 27 years of my life in Rocky Mount, NC before moving to the Midwest, I sometimes feel a stranger. It is a different, almost third world, culture in which too many people decide that getting a government check is better than working for a living. Whites and blacks alike are discouraged and do not get an education. A large number of these people are doing, producing, and/or selling drugs.

    In doing genealogy research over 10 years ago, I discovered that my great, great grandfather owned slaves. I have been reading the Slave Narratives done by the Writers Project back in 1937-38 and find that many former slaves felt that they were better off before they were freed. Many of them still keep in contact with their “white folks” and continue to get money or food from those families. I hope to one day find a slave narrative that will let me know what kind of man Gray Armstrong was and how he treated his slaves. In the meantime I can only believe that along with some very wicked slave owners, there were some kind slave owners.

    I am glad that the government undertook the slave narrative project but wish they had also taken narratives of old Southerners who lived through the war and reconstruction. Maybe we could all learn more than what we read in Gone With The Wind.

  6. Jessica Christine Wells March 18, 2014 / 11:05 pm

    Much of my family originates from the south, Florida & Louisiana. Most of the men on my dad’s side of the family have Davis as a middle or last name. My red hair comes from my southern roots. Beyond that I really know nothing about my heritage. It’s just not something that was ever really discussed.

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