Lincoln’s Thinking Bayonets: the Myth of Southern Exceptionalism?

Written on:May 17, 2011
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Thomas McCormick Walker, 111th Regiment Pennsylvania Vet. Volunteers, noted what he found in the way of Southern culture and society in 1865 after his several years of fighting in the South:

After my journey is over I sum up my Southern Experiences in no very flattering terms to the Country or its people. I cannot but despise a people who have the effrontery to claim that they are the Chivalry of the land, yet descend to be the Hucksters of Lemonade and small cakes to those who were coercing them, as I have seen the elite, the Cream of the Cities of Savannah and Richmond do. These people have always been entitled to the privilege of starving to death, as we who have not boasted would have preferred. [read more]

Walker’s comments are not unusual, they are the norm for most Northern soldiers. Time and again what Union soldiers encountered in the South was contrary to what they understood as “Southern Chivalry” and exceptionalism. If anything it reinforced their pre-war concpetions of the wealthy elite leading the majority of poor whites into a needless war.

James M. McPherson’s Drawn with the sword: reflections on the American Civil War was my first encounter with the idea that the so-called “exceptionalism” title lies more with the Northern region than the South. This became readily clear to those soldiers who descended into Dixie, whether it was the Army of the Tennessee or of the Potomac. Northern soldiers began to develop their own sense of “exceptionalism” as they encountered Southern culture.

This is perhaps best represented in their encounters with Southern women who were consistently referred to as “she devils.” Southern women were unapologetic and unforgiving, and certainly their indignant behavior to Northern soldiers was at first a shock. The South, to most Union soldiers, was occupied by the poor and destitute and what they determined to be ignorant Southerners. Some would conclude that many Southern poor whites had little knowledge of their cause. Certainly platitudes and hyperbole, to a certain extent, as by 1865 Union soldiers were guilty of over-stating their interpretation of Southern culture, or maye not?

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