Monthly Archives: August 2013

The Age of Violence Continues?

Dead soldiers litter the killing fields of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, July 1863.

Dead soldiers litter the killing fields of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, July 1863.

Is the human race predestined to off itself in a vicious orgy of mass violence? Lawrence Wittner, professor of History at SUNY/Albany, thinks so. In a post for the History News Network’s blog, Wittner ruminates on the continued popularity of mass violence in the form of warfare throughout the modern world. Citing the over a hundred million deaths resulting from the two World Wars of the 20th century, the continued persistence of 21st century warfare in the Developing World, and the trillions spent on military buildup in the so-called First World, Wittner sees a dreary pattern of death and destruction that may spell the end of humankind in the near future. He’s particularly worried about the human propensity towards mass violence in a world where many nations continue to proliferate their nuclear arsenals. Wittner observes that:

Resorting to violence is a long-term, deeply-ingrained habit in human history, and is not easily discarded. To shake it probably requires less attention to a royal childbirth or the latest sex scandal and more attention to the dangers of mass violence in an age of modern weaponry and war. This was certainly what the French writer, Albert Camus, meant when, in the immediate aftermath of World War II and the first use of nuclear weapons, he offered a simple but powerful challenge: “All I ask is that, in the midst of a murderous world, we agree to reflect on murder and to make a choice.”

Wittner’s concerns are certainly valid, but in questioning whether or not humans can ever curb their lust for conflict, he’s hitting on a debate that is as old as human society itself. Wittner’s conclusions, for example, contradict Steven Pinker’s claims in his best-selling book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined. Pinker argues that in terms of the broader historical arch of human history, violence is actually on the decrease, and that the 21st century is the most peaceful century ever. Pinker’s book has proven rather controversial, especially in a contemporary world beset by economic downturns, social instability, and understandable mass cynicism about world politicians’ ability to deal with such pressing problems. Americans in particular are inclined to be resigned towards accepting violence as an inevitable reality of modern life. In an article for Global Research, for example, John Cozy thinks that violence infiltrates most aspects of American life:

The United States of America was conceived and nurtured by violence. The Europeans who colonized America were neither tolerant or enlightened; they were the dregs of society, and they even despised each other. The totally impure Puritans of Massachusetts despised the Quakers of Pennsylvania and the Catholics of Maryland. In the Pequot War, English colonists commanded by John Mason, launched a night attack on a large Pequot village on the Mystic River and burned the inhabitants in their homes and killed all survivors. By conservative estimates, the population of the United states prior to European colonization was greater than 12 million. Four centuries later, the count has been reduced to 237,000. Four centuries of continuous violence against native Americans, and the violence persists.

I could easily accuse Cozy of hyperbole, of which he is certainly guilty to a point, but he rightfully identifies the prevalence of violence in American culture that has been an issue since the founding generation first decided to stick a massive splinter in King George’s posterior. That said, Cozy nonetheless overemphasizes the United States’ uniqueness in terms of its violent history in the modern era. In fact, most of the world is still living in the midst of the great Age of Violence that began in the 18th century, intensified in the 19th century, and exploded into the 20th century’s ultra-violent conflicts. Four major trends underlay outbreaks of mass violence throughout the world in the modern era: race/ethnicity, nationalism, economics, and religion. No violent conflict embodies the potent stew of these factors better than the American Civil War.

Beginning in the 18th century, the great European mercantilist powers began competing for territorial and economic control of North America. In such bloody conflicts as the French and Indian War and the American Revolution, these great powers unleashed a new nationalist movement that eventually bore fruit in the formation of the United States. Conceived as a secular republic without a state religion, the U.S., like many of the European powers of the time, enshrined nationalism as new type of civic religion to which citizens owed their devotion. The “last full measure of devotion,” in Abraham Lincoln’s immortal words, was to give one’s life for one’s country, a form of modern bodily sacrifice in which mortals sanctified the national spirit with an offering of blood, so that the nation might live on in the face of threat’s to its very existence.

When combined with the Market Revolution’s unleashing of a dynamic capitalist economy in the early 19th century, part of which saw the expansion of the southern system of racial slavery that fueled widening sectional divisions, splitting North and South along economic, religious, political, and nationalistic lines, the idea of the “last full measure of devotion”  resulted in the most violent conflict to ever erupt on American soil. The Civil War, like other wars of the time, was a war in the name of the new civic religion of nationalism. It legitimized mass violence by amassing two competing armies that acted in the name of their respective Union and Confederate nation-states. These armies proceeded to cut each other to pieces in Hellish killing fields like Vicksburg, Chattanooga, Gettysburg, and Shiloh.

Beyond nationalism, each side claimed divine sanction for their mass violence: the Confederates insisted that they represented a uniquely Christian nation, while the Union saw itself as leading God’s heavenly march to bring freedom to all the world against the tyranny of the great Southern Slave Power. And slavery, of course, was the issue. The debate over slavery encompassed the intertwined issues of nationalism, race, economics, and religion during the Civil War era. The South attempted to protect a slave investment that, as historian James Huston notes, represented 3 billion dollars of investment, more than the combined value of northern railroads and other industries. The South decided to protect slavery by establishing an independent nation that claimed to be the world’s first powerful, pro-slavery republic, a republic built on white supremacy and sanctioned by the Christian God. While the North shared the concept of white supremacy with the Confederacy, it rejected the right of secession, which Lincoln characterized as the “essence of anarchy,” and depicted itself as the only potential vanquisher of the anti-democratic Slave Power that corrupted republican institutions with the sin of human bondage.

John Steuart Curry's mural "Tragic Prelude" (1938-1940), at the Kansas State House depicts radical Abolitionist John Brown as a symbol of how the combined issues of nationalism, racial slavery, and religious fanaticism resulted in the Civil War.

John Steuart Curry’s mural “Tragic Prelude” (1938-1940), at the Kansas State House depicts radical Abolitionist John Brown as a symbol of how the combined issues of nationalism, racial slavery, and religious fanaticism resulted in the Civil War.

We know how this conflict ended, of course, because we are still living with its legacy in the 21st century. Not just the United States, but the entire world is largely organized around the social-political lines established during the 19th Century Age of Violence. Large, secular nation-states are now the principal form of human political organization, and they still seek independence and power, and they do so by constructing mass armies that hold a monopoly on violence to defend their national interests. Further, while legal slavery has been abolished (illegal slavery is thriving in the world at a sickening rate), the continued growth of globalized capitalism over the past 150 years has spurred an even greater demand for resources to feed the world-wide marketplace’s insatiable hunger for greater and greater wealth. Religion, of course, has not stood spectator to this process. The U.S., for example, continues to inject religion into all of its major foreign and domestic issues, while even greater mass violence has erupted in former Western colonies in Asia and the Middle East, as largely Islamic religious fundamentalists invoke hard-line belief systems as antidotes to the perceived corruptions of the modern globalized world.

Its no surprise, then, that mass violence should still be common in the world today. The modern world as we know it was born and baptized in violence. Whether or not the contemporary world is more or less violent than in the past remains a controversial, and likely unsettled, question, but focusing too narrowly on that question tends to miss the more obvious problem: building societies around multiple competing nationalistic, economic, racial, and religious factions is a recipe for continued violence. So what’s the alternative? Damn if I know, but there’s certainly no harm in thinking about new forms of human organization if doing so has the chance to decrease violence. After all, what to we have to lose, except possibly our lives?


The Battle of Canfield That Wasn’t

Union Army Civil War Reenactors Prepare an Infantry Assault at Argus Park, Canfield, Ohio

Union Army Civil War Reenactors Prepare an Infantry Assault at Argus Park, Canfield, Ohio

A few years back — I think it was 2009 — I took a summer trip back home to the Youngstown, Ohio area after having endured my first few months of graduate school in Calgary, Alberta. While back home, I went to a biannual local event, the kind that attracts a certain breed of generally harmless miscreants: a Civil War reenactment. Granted, there are lamer ways to spend your time, but not many, and since I’m a historian who focuses on the Civil War era, viewing one of the more popular modern manifestations of the war in contemporary culture seemed like a good way to spend an afternoon.

Now, I didn’t hightail it over to Gettysburg, or Antietam, or any one of the other major battlefields in the eastern theater. No, I went to a little green space with a pavilion and some adjacent woods known as Argus Park, located in the somewhat upper-class Youngstown suburb of Canfield, Ohio. Every two years, Civil War reenactors from various “lodges” in Ohio and surrounding states gather at Argus Park to recreate the bloody Battle of Canfield. Okay, that’s not quite true. In fact, this little slice of the Western Reserve in Northeastern Ohio did not host any fighting between Union and Confederate armies during the war, though it did supply plenty of Union soldiers who fought in the South. There was no “Battle of Canfield.” Rather, the Argus Park reenactors put on a sort of generic Civil War battle, with some nods to the 1863 Gettysburg battle in Pennsylvania and the 1864 Battle of the Crater in Petersburg, Virginia.

In addition to the fighting, the event included recreated army camps and a pavilion-style cook out. Spectators also had a chance to peruse the merchandise tents of local trinket dealers who hawked their wares, which included various types of toy cap guns, a bunch of Civil War-related chachkies, and some period costumes — among other treasures. There was also a food stand where you could purchase a pickle-on-a-stick and root beer, and if you were brave enough, you could chat up “Abraham Lincoln” and “Robert E. Lee” as they wandered the park. Somehow, I never worked up the gonads to ask these two historical luminaries if they shared a car on the way over.

Argus T-Shirt

The “battle” itself was fairly entertaining: its big draw was the firing of a couple small cannons which were loud as hell and sent a hefty steel orb into the air before it landed with a rather unceremonious “thud.” As a general history dork, I enjoyed the afternoon at Argus Park, but attending  Civil War reenactments on a regular basis, let alone actually participating in them, is not something I’ll probably ever do. The whole event, however, has remained in my brain for a few years now, and periodically makes me raise the question of what exactly people “get” from Civil War reenactments. Hell, what did I get from going to this thing? Well, I’m obviously interested in the Civil War, but it’s not like I really learned anything there. Plus, as I noted earlier, there were no battles in Canfield, Ohio, so myself and the other attendees didn’t go to witness a recreation of a local historical event. So what’s the draw of reenactments?

In his excellent book Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War, journalist Tony Horwitz spent time with a bunch of reenactors. “Hardcore” reenactors obsessed over getting every period detail right and intentionally starved themselves while laying in tick-ridden fields to get a “period rush” by recreating the generally miserable experience of the average Confederate infantryman. Less dedicated “weekend” reenactors, whom the “hardcores” derided as “farbs” (a generally nonsensical, all-purpose term of disdain) for their mercurial commitment to reenacting, filled up the majority of the “armies” and “civilian camps.” One woman remarked that the appeal of reenacting lay in the chance to, however fleetingly, escape the twentieth century, if only for a weekend, by going back to a simpler time.

We Americans— me included sometimes— are suckers for this type of disengaged-from-reality nostalgia. For a good many folks fed up with the soul-devouring office-based doldrums of the modern world, a “trip” back to the nineteenth century offers simple pleasures: camp fires, slow-cooked food, no electricity, the warmth of family around hearth and home, rolling, freshly tilled farm fields, a cultural environment unspoiled by the inane jabbering of 24 hour media, and, oh yeah: a cataclysmic war that killed 600,000 people.

That last one’s the stickler, and it represents the general problem with nostalgia: it’s not reality-based. While I admit there’s an appeal to the idea of a “simpler time,” the nineteenth century wasn’t really a “simpler time.” And the Civil War wasn’t a simple gathering of folks in a pretty field. Rather, it was a brutal taste of Hell-on-earth. Tens-of-thousands suffered physical and mental anguish in the form of shrapnel and bullet wounds, amputations, shell-shock, gangrene, imprisonment, dead family members, horrible illnesses ranging from cholera to typhoid, and untold psychological anguish. Add to all that the fact that the war was fought over the right for one group of people to enslave another group, and you get an overall moment in time that was fascinating and horrifying, but not something you’d really want to authentically recreate.

On the surface, there’s certainly nothing wrong with Civil War reenactments. Hell, I might even go to another one someday, but there is something curiously unsettling about the way Americans yearn for that “simpler time” that was never all that simple. That many Americans in particular have chosen the Civil War as a point of reference for historical nostalgia has always struck me as a bit unfortunate.

Reenactors like to say that they are “honoring” those who fought in the war by recreating their heroism, but by substituting real violence for mock-violence, I think we lose a certain level of appreciation for just how horrible this war was and why it’s not something of which we should be proud. The war happened. And if it was going to happen, it’s good that the right side won. But by choosing to recreate decapitated bodies and battlefields strewn with bloated horse carcasses via the bloodless miming of actual battle, Civil War reenactments tend to make the war into yet another American stage play devoid of the nastiness of actual history.

All that said, I enjoyed the reenactment at Argus Park. Perhaps that makes me a hypocrite, but if that’s the case, I’ll just say I went for the pickle-on-a-stick.


(Still) Fear of a Black Planet

Racial Propaganda Cartoon, Demonstrating White Fear of "Negro Rule," North Carolina, 1900.

Racial Propaganda Cartoon, Demonstrating White Fear of “Negro Rule,” North Carolina, 1900.

In American history, everything is about race. Even when an issue has nothing to do with race, Americans of certain stripes will find a way to make it about race. A case in point is the August 16, 2013 murder of Australian national Christopher Lane by three teenagers in Duncan, Oklahoma. An outraged Australian press seized on the incident to criticize the widespread availability of guns in the United States, which allegedly resulted in a cold-blooded slaying by three kids who were “bored and didn’t have anything to do.” Meanwhile, as Adam Serwer observes, the various American right-wing media propaganda outlets, who specialize in stoking a completely fabricated persecution complex among the country’s privileged, white, Ralph Kramden clones seized on Australian reports that erroneously identified the three suspects as black to claim that Lane was gunned down by blacks specifically because he was white.

As Serwer notes, no evidence has yet surfaced indicating that this was a racially motivated killing, though one of the suspects, James Francis Edwards, has been accused of posting “anti-white” tweets via his Twitter account. Moreover, it turns out that one of the suspects is white, contrary to early Australian reports that identified all three as black. Whatever the motive, the conservative outrage machine started overheating pretty quickly, with various charges that the Lane murder was the reverse of the infamous Trayvon Martin case — but without any accompanying popular outrage against the suspects. As usual, among the loudest of the outrage merchants was radio sinkhole, Rush Limbaugh. As Serwer writes:

Even after learning that one of the suspects was white, conservative media insisted the killing must have been motivated by anti-white racism. “They got bored and said, ‘Let’s go shoot a white guy!’ Folks, I gotta tell you, there’s something else about this. This is Trayvon Martin in reverse, only worse,” Rush Limbaugh told listeners Wednesday. “No matter where you look in the media, it’s not a racial event. Nothing about it is racist. This is the epitome of media irresponsibility.”

Limbaugh’s sarcastic claim that “Nothing about it is racist” speaks to a long-held fear among many white Americans of black male-violence directed towards innocent whites. This fear has deep roots that reach back to antebellum society, especially in the South, where racial paranoia in the form of alleged slave insurrections fueled a constant vigilance against slaves and free blacks alike. Among the worst crackdowns by white vigilance committees occurred in 1861 in the Second Creek neighborhood outside of Natchez, Mississippi. Following rumors that slaves in the area plotted to violently revolt against whites, lynch mobs arrested and executed over 200 slaves by 1863. Historians now believe that no plot actually existed; slave confessions were elicited through torture, which in turn fueled already rampant white paranoia that justified a mass lynching.

During the Jim Crow era, continued fears of “wayward” and “vicious” blacks seeking to impose racial dominance over whites gave rise to an epidemic of extralegal violence in the form of brutal lynchings in both the North and the South. Especially in the South, the charge of murdering a white person practically guaranteed that an African-American would meet his or her end at the hands of a lynch mob. Although the number of lynchings dropped with each decade into the twentieth century, the ugly specter of white racial fears of black violence remains a potent element in contemporary American culture.

Particularly within the vast conservative media complex that feeds its recipients a constant stream of unearned daily grievances, fears of black-on-white violence are invoked to rally support for laxer gun laws, tougher prison sentences, redlining, and the intimidation — or outright suppression — of minority voters. Of course, having the first black president occupy the White House provides a handy supreme leader towards which the right can direct its claims of caucasian victimization. Any perusal through the comments section on stories about the Lane murder invokes images of a secret army of black criminals acting on direct orders from the president himself.

Such claims are, of course, absurd on their face, but they exist because there is a long and deeply entrenched historical proclivity towards fears of “negro rule” among a large element of the white American population. This racial fear has existed for hundreds of years. Before the Civil War, it surfaced every time some poor white southern dirt farmer repeated rumors of slave insurrection. After the war, it emerged whenever some pasty American good ole’ boy felt slighted by the black person in his midst.

In contemporary America, the fear of “negro rule” comes up whenever a black person is accused of committing violence against a white person. For the outrage peddlers on the right, the mere fact that a crime suspect is black is evidence of racially motivated violence. The three suspects who allegedly murdered Christopher Lane may or may not have had racial motivations, and if found guilty, they should be punished accordingly for what appears to be a cold-blooded murder. But the mob of manufactured conservative opinion has verbally lynched them without trial, proving once again how astonishingly difficult it is to have an intelligent public discussion about American racial issues. When it comes to race in America, it’s apparently better to be safe than sorry.

Jeff Davis’ Big Cannon Balls and Music as American Motivator


Over at the Slate Vault historical blog, Rebecca Onion has published an epic musical broadside ballad printed by Union partisans during the Civil War. The song and others like it mocked the foolish attempts of Confederate President Jefferson Davis to give the United States of America a proper smack-down, even as he used “big cannon balls” to “put in big licks.” Titled “Jeff Davis and His Uncle,” the song details a hapless Davis who “tried to whip his Uncle,” but failed miserably since “He hadn’t the courage for to Root Hog or Die.” Onion explains the “roots” of the ladder phrase as such:

The “Uncle” in the title of this ballad is “Uncle Sam,” a man who Davis “tried to whip, but found it wouldn’t pay.” “Root, hog, or die,” an expression that recurs in this song but that’s now largely forgotten (save, perhaps, by fans of June Carter Cash), derived from the farmer’s practice of turning pigs loose to forage for their own food. In the  19th century, Americans used the idiom to tell others to be self-reliant and strong or suffer the consequences.

This was just one of an endless series of popular song broadsides that circulated during the war. Partisans on both sides published wartime propaganda tunes of varying degrees of quality and classiness designed to stoke the passions of soldiers and civilians, politicians and officers alike. In a thoroughly informative new study of music during the Civil War, Christian McWhirter details the ways music served as a vehicle for patriotic expression, as a form of political protest, especially against the draft, and as a source of aural inspiration to get soldiers in the field to fight with more passion and vigor and civilians on the home front to sacrifice everything to the cause.

A somewhat less-violent modern-day equivalent of the use of music to inspire passion for your “side” is the ubiquitous presence of such overplayed anthems like Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” Europe’s existential masterpiece with the synth line that will NEVER leave your head, “The Final Countdown,” and Metallica’s ode to nighttime beach-soil delivery, “Enter Sandman” at major American sporting events. Music at sporting events serves to rally the respective partisans of both teams to cheer more enthusiastically for their side and make repeat visits to beer stands for $8 cups of Miller Lite. Much in the way Civil War era music inspired Union and Confederate partisans to fight on, sports anthems help modern Americans rally behind something larger than themselves, even if the national stakes aren’t quite as high as they were in the 1860s.

But this doesn’t mean that songs aimed at political figures like presidents have ever vanished from the American popular landscape. During his two terms in office, President George W. Bush inspired songs of loathing and loving, like Bright Eyes’ trite, if heartfelt critique of Bushism, “When the President Talks to God” and Pro-Dubya anthems like Darryl Worley’s even triter Bush endorsement, “Have You Forgotten?”

President Barack Obama has also received his fair share of support and loathing through music. Hank Williams Jr., who in the not-so-distant past was a country artist worth your attention, released a scathing anti-Obama anthem called “Keep the Change” that is about as subtle as a kick in the groin, while Bruce Springsteen performed his folky dirge anthem “Forward” at several Obama 2012 campaign rallies.

Music has always been a fixture on the American popular landscape. It has served as entertainment, artistic and political expression, and as an excuse to root for a bunch of guys in helmets crashing into each-other on a Sunday afternoon. As the above anti-Jeff Davis broadside and various pro and anti Bush and Obama tunes demonstrate, as long as Americans have had opinions about stuff, there has also been music created to spread those opinions. Go Cleveland Indians.

American “Patriotic Shopping” and Mississippi’s Rebel Women Consumers

The United States has always had an uneasy relationship between capitalism and patriotism. As residents of the world’s preeminent materialist, consumer-driven society, Americans have often bent over backward to sanctify the act of consumption as a badge of honor and even American identity. After all, what could be more American than scoring a completely necessary 10 gallon tub of processed, imitation mayonnaise from Sam’s Club for the always low price of $15.95? Lets see some communist bread-line society compete with that kind of freedom!

Yet somehow, the notion that patriotism and freedom can be equated with capitalist consumption has never been wholeheartedly accepted by all Americans. This was especially true in Civil War Mississippi, a state where Confederate civilians and government leaders equated material sacrifice with patriotic devotion. Such an ideal meant making homespun, jarring your own food, and, in general, learning to live without as a way of mirroring the sacrifice of Confederate soldiers who gave their lives for their country on the battlefield. If those left on the home front, especially women, couldn’t give their lives, they could at least sacrifice material luxuries by not shopping at cities like Memphis, Vicksburg, New Orleans, and Natchez. And there was a very particular reason why good Confederate patriots shouldn’t shop at those urban centers: by 1863, all were controlled by the occupying Union forces. Thus, to buy goods at Union lines was colluding with the enemy.

Fast forward a century and the ideals have been reversed: now its seen as patriotic to shop. In fact, it’s so downright American that malls might as well be secular places of worship, where every red-blooded American is baptized with the ring of every cash register and the swipe of every over-maxed credit card. The idea of “patriotic shopping” really took hold after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Heeding President George W. Bush’s urging of Americans to continue shopping lest the terrorists win, publicans like Salon posed the question “Is Shopping the New Patriotism?” In order to bounce back from the attacks, Salon stated, Americans needed to shop:

The question is, how exactly will people bounce back? There is no clearly defined enemy, as in World War II, that can compel citizens to volunteer for the armed forces. There is no pressing need to save every shred of rubber or paper to contribute to the war effort. How can Americans express their patriotic fervor? How will they pull together?

Maybe, by remembering what makes this country’s economy great — shopping. The suggestion may sound facile — but it also carries with it some possibilities for pyschological satisfaction. Resolute Americans can stand tall by refusing to despair, by holding on to their stocks and heading to the mall — by continuing to shop, even in the face of unthinkable terror.

While most Americans seemed all too happy to equate patriotic sacrifice with their inalienable right to super-size their order of six-piece McDonalds’ coagulated chicken globules and update their wardrobes with the latest designer shirts stitched together by non-unionized Third World toddlers, some were nonetheless uneasy about the idea of “patriotic shopping.”  Writing for Mother Jones, Ian Frazier mocked such “all consuming patriotism” as an insult to his patriotic Civil War forebears, especially Union women, who “sewed uniforms, made pillows, held ice-cream sociables to raise money, scraped lint for bandages, emptied their wedding chests of their best linen and donated it all.” In comparison to this type of material sacrifice, Frazier viewed “patriotic shopping” was utterly hollow to the core. Commenting on his photo collection of American “patriotic consumption,” photographer Brian Ulrich similarly mocked the idea that “We need to call on the nation’s best shoppers to fight the terrorists.”

Frazier’s and Ulrich’s concerns about the absolute non-sacrifice of material consumption when measured up against “higher” ideals such as patriotism would have rang true in Civil War Mississippi. In this Union-occupied state, issues of consumerism and sacrifice were a source of intense wartime debate, particularly regarding how good Rebel women should show their Confederate patriotism.

From the moment the Federal army established itself as an occupational force in 1862, Mississippi women traded commodities like cotton at Federal lines in exchange for Union Greenback notes or other consumer items. They did this in defiance of Confederate law that explicitly forbade trading with the Northern enemy. To staunch Confederate nationalists, trading with the Yankees filled the enemy coffers with valuable cotton, but more symbolically, buying and trading at Union lines evidenced an unwillingness to make material sacrifices for the Confederate cause. Put simply: shopping at Union lines meant you weren’t a good Confederate. This was especially true for women, long idealized in popular culture as the true keepers of the South’s patriotic ideals.

Mississippi Governor Charles Clark said as much in his 1863 inaugural address when he told women that  “the spinning wheel is preferred to the harp, and the loom makes a music of loftier patriotism and inspiration than the keys of the piano.” Confederates like Clark wanted women to show their patriotic sacrifice by relying on homespun rather than committing the treasonous act of buying and trading from Union lines. But Mississippi’s women didn’t abide. By 1864, the Daily Clarion newspaper out of Meridian, MS complained that “the rustling of fresh silk, the snowy handkerchiefs, the love of a bonnet, the light tap of prunella boot heels on our pavements” demonstrated women’s refusal to forgo shopping at Union lines in the name of Confederate patriotism.

Confederate women were all too happy to acquire good from Federal lines, even as they mouthed pro-Confederate sentiments. In a series of letters to her daughter, Raymond, MS native Eliza Sively berated fellow women who traded with Union forces at Vicksburg for being “crazy about Yankee goods” to the point of ignoring their sacrificial duty to the Confederacy. Yet, Sively apparently saw no hypocrisy at work when in June 1864 she told her daughter, Jane, “I will try and…get you some muslins from Vicksburg, you ought not to wear all your clothes and have them all ruined.” A month later, Sively scored calico dress patterns, shoes, corsets, and “a rite pretty pink muslin” for Jane —all from Yankee lines at Vicksburg and Memphis.

Amanda Worthington, a Washington County, MS planters’ daughter, claimed that “rather than go back into a union” with the Yankees, “I would have every man, woman and child in the Confederacy killed.” Nevertheless, when her sister went shopping in Union-controlled New Orleans, Worthington was overjoyed to get a copy of David Copperfield, photographs, linen dresses, two pairs of shoes, handkerchiefs, stockings, perfume, jewelry, fancy hats, and two custom-made silk dresses.

Natchez, MS resident Louisa Lovell, the hard-line Rebel wife of a Confederate colonel, justified her mass consumption in New Orleans by claiming, “we did a good deal of shopping as our wardrobes needed replacing very badly.” These women remained loyal Confederates, but they didn’t accept the notion that equated patriotism with material sacrifice. They recognized a certain absurdity in the idea that shopping had anything to do at all with patriotic devotion to one’s country, regardless of what blustery Confederate boosters advocated.

In the decades after the Civil War, as the pace of American capitalist development accelerated into the twentieth century, the association of American identity with consumerism only became more entrenched. Contemporary Americans now invoke their right to drink a Big Gulp from a 7 Eleven as evidence of their perceived cultural superiority over other nations. Just as it did for women in Civil War Mississippi, however, the notion of “Patriotic Shopping” still rings hollow — at least a few Americans. What exactly constitutes true patriotism is worthy of discussion, and is something I don’t have any easy answer for, but let’s shelve the idea that buying a discount dress from Macy’s is as much a patriotic duty as it is an act of good ole’ American vanity. Seriously, the terrorists don’t care what you wear.

The Rebel Flag, the Drive-By Truckers, and the Duality of the (not so) Southern Thing

A Republican Party activist sports a Rebel flag license plate in Pennsylvania, a state that did not secede from the Union in 1860-61.

A Republican Party activist sports a Rebel flag license plate in Pennsylvania, a state that did not secede from the Union in 1860-61.

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m crazy about music. Music made by people who care about making good music. So I couldn’t resist combining some good music in this entry with a bit o’ southern history. If you haven’t heard of the Drive-By Truckers before, you need to remedy such an obvious personal cultural deficiency and get some of their albums NOW. That said, the Truckers are, in my not-so-humble opinion, one of the finest American rock and roll bands of this or any other generation.

Hailing from Alabama, they often get tagged under the unfortunate banner of “Southern Rock.” While they do focus on the South in much of their recorded output, and make no bones about being proud of their Dixie heritage, their music goes much deeper than the mere Rebel-flag wavin,’ backwoods lifestyle pimpin,’ Murica’ lovin,’ jingoistic slop that Nashville is currently spewing out like a ruptured hernia. Indeed, the Truckers make uncompromising American, not southern, music, and they speak to a broader issue in American history that is well-worth addressing.

For this post I want to especially emphasize the Rebel flag wavin’ aspect of southern — and, as we’ll see, American culture — that is still an issue in contemporary life within, and outside of, the South. I’m going to do this by addressing what Drive-By Truckers front man Patterson Hood calls “the duality of the Southern thing.”

Perhaps the Truckers’ signature album is their 2001 double-disc rock opera appropriately titled Southern Rock Opera. In a recent essay for the Bitter Southerner blog, Hood ruminates on Southern Rock Opera’s cornerstone song, “The Three Great Alabama Icons.” In spoken-word fashion against the bluesy backdrop of his band-mates, Hood discusses “the duality of the southern thing,” which he defines through the lens of his “love/hate/love relationship with my home region.” Hood finds himself being simultaneously proud of “being from a region that is known for great music and literature and art and something called ‘Southern hospitality,'” but is also ashamed of a South “known for Jim Crow laws, slavery, racism and the Ku Klux Klan.” The three Alabama icons discussed in Hood’s song – segregationist Governor George Wallace, University of Alabama football coach Bear Bryant, and Lynyrd Skynyrd band leader Ronnie Van Zant – all embody this duality.

Wallace was, of course, the symbol of the modern segregationist South who famously stood in an Alabama schoolhouse door to block racial integration. In the song, Hood emphasizes Wallace’s shameless embrace of segregation as a vote-getting strategy that ultimately doomed him to an eternity in Hellfire. Bryant symbolizes the spirit of hard work, determination, and cultural pride that Hood sees as one of the South’s greatest strengths, while Ronnie Van Zant embodies the “newer South” that tries to proudly wave the Rebel flag to honor southern heritage while also trying to distance that flag from its violent and racist Confederate origins.

Each of these characters represents the good and bad aspects of the South — aspects that Hood has dealt with his whole life. For Hood, the more negative aspects of southern culture — especially its reactionary conservative tendencies — have come to influence the social and political divisions “between rural and urban, blue state and red state,” that currently wrack American culture. Thus, Hood sees the less-savory aspects of the southern past as aspects worth expunging because they prevent a more progressive vision of southern culture from emerging. They prevent the “good” side of the southern duality from getting noticed, assuming you equate “goodness” with progressive politics and a vibrant culture of non-corporate arts. I generally do, but let’s move on.

Hood is really addressing an issue that popular culture and historians continue to ponder: is the South different from the rest of the United States? The answer, I think, is yes and no. Let’s tackle this question by considering the role of the Confederate flag in contemporary culture. I grew up in Northeast Ohio, a few miles from the western Pennsylvania border. These two states did not secede from the Union in 1860-61. They instead voted for Abraham Lincoln and sent thousands of soldiers to crush the southern slaveholders’ rebellion. Nonetheless, it’s not uncommon to drive through Ohio and Pennsylvania and see Rebel flags hanging from porches and made into pickup truck license plates. What’s the deal here?

Generally, you’ll see the stars and bars more commonly displayed in rural areas of the Midwest. These areas tend to be politically and culturally conservative. Those sporting the rebel flag outside of Dixie see it as a general symbol of rebellion that stands for broad, highly-subjective ideals like patriotism, tradition, moral values, Christianity — stuff like that. Indeed, few of these folks, even full-on racists, have any dreams of reinstating chattel slavery or forming another separatist republic. But the Rebel flag’s appeal north of the Mason-Dixon line (I’ve even seen it in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, where I went to graduate school) lies in its functioning as a symbol of a general conservative worldview that is not just southern; rather, it is deeply American.

Folks like Patterson Hood, who grew up in the South, and Yankee outsiders like myself tend to look down on the worst aspects of southern culture to make ourselves feel better about our own more progressive cultural backgrounds. This is a legitimate stance, as many aspects of southern history deserve to be criticized and rejected. But, whether we like it or not, everything we don’t like about southern history — slavery, racism, crony politics, segregation, income inequality, its penchant for cheap labor, and yes, the Rebel flag — also existed or still exist outside of the South. These are American, not just southern problems, and although they may have been more historically concentrated in the South, we should be wary of conveniently using the South as a symbolic dumping ground for our own social ills.

The Drive-By Truckers, 2013. Still Alabama ass whuppin.'

The Drive-By Truckers, 2013. Still Alabama ass whuppin.’

What Patterson Hood calls the “duality of the Southern thing” is, in many ways, the duality of the American thing. Both the Southern and the American pasts are mixtures of good and bad, pride and prejudice, honor and shame that continue to influence contemporary culture in positive and negative ways. Maybe if we stop singling out the South, we’ll recognize that although it is unique in many ways, the South is also as American as apple pie, cheap lager beer, and the Drive-By Truckers. This recognition could go a long way to solving some distinctly American problems. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to drink some good sweet tea while campaigning for Sherrod Brown.