[The second part of a three-part posting that begins here]
1977 (Home from college):
Me: Frankly, I’m glad the North won the Civil War. They were right and we were wrong.
Them: But your grandmama’s grandaddy fought in the War and was killed by Yankees!
Me: He should’ve never been there in the first place.
Them: [Gasps, followed by silence.]
1967 (A day trip with grandparents to ancestral turf around Vincent, AL)
Me: Hey, where are all the plantations and mansions?
Them: What? There’s never been plantations and mansions ‘round here.
Me: Well what about Gone with the Wind?
Them: What about it?
I’m ten years old in a cushiony seat at the ornate Alabama Theater to see Gone with the Wind. Moments before the film starts, the Mighty Wurlitzer emerges magically onto the stage. A slender, bowtie-wearing man flails his arms and legs like a marionette across the organ’s keys and pedals.
Oh I wish I was in the land of cotton! Old times there are not forgotten!
Hundreds of us sing with lusty, amphetamine-level enthusiasm that makes the place pulse.
Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixieland!
Dixie wraps up in a flourish of foot-stomping, standing applause. Yee-hahs explode here and there like firecrackers. A whiff of righteous rage wafts through the house. The Mighty Wurlitzer and the bowtie man descend now beneath the floor as, above, plush velvet curtains part to expose the screen where appears the image a post-hanging sign that reads, “A Selznick International Picture.” Church chimes sound as the camera pans down to reveal the plantation mansion of Tara in all its gleaming glory.
This isn’t merely a re-showing of a 25-year-old film. No. This is an event of indoctrination, a sort of worship service where the Gospel reads “This is our past. This is what the Yankees did to us.”
Only it isn’t.
I’m a fifth-generation Alabaman. Follow the tatters of my ancestry back to the 1750s, and, while you’ll find more than a few closeted skeletons, what you’ll not find is money. My people crossed the Atlantic hungry and empty-pocketed. Having been an economic burden on England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, they were in that mass of poor folks lured away by promises of wealth in the New World. In other words, they were a bit like today’s urban panhandlers who cause city councils and business leaders to scheme ways to shove them outside city limits.
The American roots of the Confederate soldier Nevil, my grandmother’s grandfather, of whom I wrote in the last post, trace back to around 1750 when it appears that his grandfather arrived in Charleston, South Carolina. From an 1840 census, we know that by 1836, when Nevil was born, his father had arrived in what’s now Shelby County, Alabama. We also know by oral history related to and from my grandparents that these ancestors were dirt farmers. They lived hand to mouth on what they could eke out of increasingly depleted soil.
I’ve also learned from copious reading and chatting with others that most multi-generation Alabamans have a similar family history. They may root back to continental Europe instead of the British Isles, but their people were also dirt poor when they crossed the ocean and drifted into Alabama. And here they also struggled to stay alive for several generations.
They were still struggling on January 11, 1861, when the Alabama legislature voted 61-39 to become the fourth state to divorce itself from the United States of America. At that time, barely 35 percent of Alabama families owned slaves. But a betting man who wagered that those 61 winning votes would be cast by legislators from the slave-owning 35 percent would’ve won his bet.
The argument that the Civil War was about states’ rights and not slavery turns out to be half right and half wrong. The truth: The war was about states’ rights to uphold slavery. You don’t believe me? Well, here’s another Stephens (no relation, I’m sure, as he was loaded with money and therefore with slaves) to prove my point. Destined to become Vice-President of the Confederate States of America, Alexander Stephens writes,
“The new [Confederate] constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us, the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the ‘rock upon which the old Union would split.’ He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. [Our] foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” [Source]
Did you catch that line? “This was the immediate cause of the late rupture.” Confederate President Jefferson Davis voiced similar sentiments, as did other politicians from the well-heeled, plantation-owning minority of Southerners. Folks, no getting around it: The Civil War was about protecting slavery. And this would make it “a rich man’s war, but a poor man’s fight.”
In the South disenfranchised people—first and foremost the slaves, and then folks like my poor white ancestors—were working and/or fighting to prop up an economy that actively suppressed upward mobility. All of the rich, good soil was taken and seemingly forever occupied by a plantation-owning elite. The hard-scrabble land was tossed to our ancestors. Obviously, for the slaves, there was no escape from this closed economy. And there was little, if any, escape for the dirt farmers, too. God wasn’t manufacturing more and better land. And the good stuff was taken.
Very strange, because, as Americans, we claim to hold sacred the values of free enterprise and entrepreneurship. We point to these values as the cause of American abundance. But these values were not welcomed by the slave-owning elite because the upward mobility of slaves and poor whites would have destroyed the plantation owners’ closed economy (as it eventually did). To protect what amounted to a country club of aristocrats, the elite incited the poor against the North by demonizing the industrial revolution in which entrepreneurialism was flourishing and providing Northern poor with jobs leading to upward mobility and self-improvement. Here’s an 1856 segment penned by an Alabama newspaper editor in the pocket of the plantation elite:
Free Society! we sicken at the name. What is it but a conglomeration of greasy mechanics, filthy operatives, small-fisted farmers, and moon-struck theorists? All the Northern men and especially the New England States are devoid of society fitted for well-bred gentlemen. The prevailing class one meet with is that of mechanics struggling to be genteel, and small farmers who do their own drudgery, and yet are hardly fit for association with a Southern gentleman’s body servant. This is your free society which Northern hordes are trying to extend into Kansas. [Source]
The aristocracy sowed the seeds of this fake news among the poor, including my ancestors. And, apparently it worked. For on April 11, 1861, when Confederate cannons opened fire on Ft. Sumter, a great many poor white Southerners believed they were under attack and needed to enlist in the Confederate Army. (Dare I mention the well-documented fact that plantation owners enjoyed the option of paying to have their sons exempted from military service.)
So Nevil, my grandmother’s grandfather, laid down his life to protect the lifestyle of men who sipped single-malt scotch, puffed expensive cigars, and called him “white trash.” And somehow they had found the audacity to persuade him to charge onto battlefields—all to protect their wealth.
Poor Nevil. He should’ve never been there in the first place.
[This series will conclude in my next blog post.]