Sunday, November 8, 2009

Southern Recap and Some Postwar Musings

Freshly back from the Southern Historical Association's meeting in Louisville this weekend, I find myself thoroughly refreshed. The last few months have seen me studying for my PhD qualifying examinations in January and estranged from the archives to any meaningful extent. But, the scholarly environment of the Southern has rejuvenated me, and I figure that while I've got this burst of creative energy I could blog a bit, right?

Among the panels I attended was a session on the rise of a professional/middle class in the antebellum South. The standout presentation, in my opinion, coming from Jennifer Green, whose new -- excellent -- book traces the emergence, preservation, and reproduction of the southern middle class through the means of military education. It was my favorite new book this year. She ably used the case of brief Western-Theater-attendee Micah Jenkins to demonstrate the difficulty of distinguishing between middle class men and planters. Jenkins came from a wealthy planting family, but unlike his brothers attended the Citadel, a military school where Green shows he far outranked his classmates in land and slave ownership. After his graduation he both talked of buying land for a new cotton operation and opening a military academy of his own, having a foot in both the world of the planter and the middle class teacher.

Green challenges us to think of military schools not as bastions of Southern landed wealth and privilege as often seen in the late nineteenth- and twentieth centuries, but instead as academies of discipline, order, hard work, and a middling position of both subordination to higher authority and some independent command -- all demanded of both junior officers in the field and of the professional men of the South.

Given this training, I wonder what we might see if we take (if I remember correctly) Ken Noe's suggestion during the Bell Wiley retrospective panel on Saturday afternoon to understand more about the immediate postwar lives of the well-studied Johnny Reb. My own work on Kentucky's Ben Buckner -- though not a Johnny certainly a member of Green's Southern professional class and Kentucky Military Institute alum -- has revealed some interesting things about Blue-Gray reconciliation and cooperation to pick up the pieces of the old order. The formation of the Kuklux in a law office in Pulaski for similar ends might suggest the same. In the wake of the collapse of the plantation system was the county-seat-dwelling professional class all that was left to restore the what was salvageable of the status quo ante bellum? Can the rise of the New South in the latter part of the century be attributed to the leadership of this group, already rising in prominence by the 1850s and still standing in 1865?

Certainly, the post-Appomattox South is a cloudy picture and all these claims can be asterisked, complicated, and expounded upon. But that's no reason not to try to pitch in and find some answers. Please, Civil War public, let's not stop caring about the lives of these soldiers when they take off their uniforms.

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