Friday, July 4, 2008

The Emasculated Postwar South

April 1865, the end of the Civil War, must have been an unfathomable blow for many Confederates. I think we may underestimate the psychological impact of defeat on the Confederate soldier (particularly Jason Phillips' young "diehards"). Not only had they lost the war that they had been fighting and dying in for four years, but their society was in ruins. Sure, there was physical destruction, but their social worlds were turned upside down as well. Slavery, which had brought with it both economic success and social stability, was torn out from under the white South. White Southern soldiers had been whipped on the battlefield, their efforts to protect home and fireside had come to naught, and they had failed to defend their way of life. Bertram Wyatt-Brown notes the shame and dishonor that this failure brought down on the heads of Confederates. What's more, slavery's end meant that citizenship, and the manhood that came with it in the 19th c., was open to African Americans. As Confederate soldiers returned home, found themselves no longer in control of their local political (and racial) structures, unable to make a decent living for their families, and insulted by their former slaves' assertions of citizenship and the rights of men, 1865 was a psychological crisis for Southern males.

All of this came flooding back when I was in Nashville on a research trip earlier this week. In the War Memorial Plaza near the capital sits a 1926 monument to the women of the Confederacy. The monument depicts
"Fame supporting the wounded and exhausted Confederate soldier with her left arm while with her right hand she is placing a wreath upon the head of the Southern Woman, whose every nerve is vibrating with love and sympathy for the soldier and his cause, as expressed by the palm she is trying to place upon his breast, thoroughly unconscious that as her reward a crown is being placed upon her own head."(1) Alright, but aside from the fama gloriaque patriae, I was most struck by the unusual tip of the flag being drug down by the defeated soldier. Good God, it's limp!

Indeed, cutting through all the neo-classicism here, there is indeed a powerful statement on how the white South saw the end of the war. As Anne Sarah Rubin points out, the white South was a poltically, economically, and socially shattered nation The Confederacy's fall was an irrecoverable blow to the honor, pride, and manhood of some who slid into alcoholism, fled to Brazil or Egypt, or sank into deep depressions for the rest of their lives. The language of Reconstruction and Redemption is couched in terms of manhood lost, manhood asserted, and manhood reclaimed. Former Confederates lost that claim to masculinity when they were shut out of the political process, blacks claimed a share of that manhood themselves when they first began serving in the Union Army during the war and began to vote after it. Whites lashed out against this assertion of masculinity, too. Kuklux night riders at times castrated lynching victims, and often used accusations of rape (a decidedly masculine crime) as pretext for racial violence. In my own work on post-Fifteenth Amendment racial violence in Kentucky, we see organized anti-black militia activity in the state began as blacks began to vote, amid exaggerated rumors of a "Negro Kuklux" that was to fight back against the white Klan's own excesses, essentially challenging white men's role of "defenders" of the community. In reasserting control of their own communities during the era of Redemption, southern white males successfully reclaimed their shattered -- even limp -- manhood as well.

The UCV, who approved the design, apparently remembered that stinging shame of emasculation well, even in the 20th century. Yet again, beneath the veneer of Lost Cause glorification lurks some nuggets of the raw reality of the war years.

1 comment:

Peter Carmichael said...

Hi Patrick:

I don't believe we have met before but I read your profile and am very interested in your dissertation for a series that I edit with Bill Link and Michele Gillespie. Could you email me at