Scarlett O’Hara’s Confederates

“Gone with the wind”, a movie based on a novel by Margaret Mitchell was produced in 1939, before I was born. The protagonist, Scarlett O’hara, was the headstrong daughter of a wealthy plantation owner and slave holder who survived the American Civil War. Some critics say the movie shines a much too favorable light on a slave-holding society, yet my elders who had survived the Battle for Manila could not help but sympathize with Scarlett O’hara. I feel like watching that movie again now that I am learning about that American civil war and how it could happen again.

According to this book I am reading, in February 1861, at the inauguration of the Confederate States of America in Alabama, Pres. Jefferson Davis praised his constituency as “men of one flesh, one bone, one interest, one purpose …” He was a follower of Thomas Jefferson who referred to the people of Virginia as the “true American breed” born of native stock, with shared cultural values that engendered national unity and security.  He always referred to the Northerners as “degenerate sons” of 1776, not heirs of the true founding fathers. Davis often echoed those ideas; he said the Southerners were not the degenerate sons of George Washington but the genuine offsprings with rightful lineage of the first American Republic. Pres. Davis openly denigrated the Union as rotten to the core with absolutely no pedigree, unlike the Southerners. To him, the Northerners were descendants of “bogs and fens” from Ireland and the vagabonds and swamp people of England. A true snob, Davis boasted that no loyal Confederate would ever lower himself to associate with a lesser breed.

The Yankees ( as Southerners called people of the North) were upstarts with no refinements, especially in the New England states. A newspaper in Alabama published an editorial calling them a conglomerate of greasy mechanics, small-fisted farmers, operators, merchants struggling to be genteel, not fit for association even with a southern gentleman’s valet. At worst, they were “moonstruck theorists” who advocated a free society. The North was dismissed as weak because it depended on a class of white menial workers while in the South, white workers had an elevated status because they were considered superior to the Blacks.

In January 1863, at the Confederate capital, Richmond, Pres.  Davis delivered another anti-Union speech.  He declared that during the Revolution, the Southerners fought a “manly foe” (meaning the British) but now they faced an enemy no better than the “offscourings of the earth“, a hideously insulting phrase, a euphemism for excrement and fecal matter.  He compared the Yankees ( the Northerners) to hyenas that “hunted innocent prey in whimpering packs”. The Southerners wanted to form a separate country to preserve America’s true identity so the Northerners accused them of treason.

Be that as it may,  there were divisions within the  Confederacy itself. . The Gulf states based their economy on cotton production and slave labor while Border states were against secession. During the Civil War, 300,000 whites from Border states fought on the side of the Union.

Southerner James H. Hammond, an eminent intellectual,  described the North’s socio-economic system as inferior, a “mudsill” democracy he called it and the Union army was nothing more than a “mudsill” collection of urban ruffians, dirt farmers, unwashed immigrants and insolent free blacks ( alluding to the African American Union Troops).  He argued that in the foundations of all civilized nations one finds a class of “lower order of intellect” that performs the menial duties and drudgeries of life. Advanced societies had to exploit petty laborers, the working poor who wallowed in the mud and only that way could a superior class emerge to the top.  The “creme de la creme” is the true society and the source of civilization. That was why African-descended slaves were kept in the lowest rank; the dark-pigmented were naturally inferior.

The American civil war was a class war.  Southerners were fighting against degenerate “mudsills” who stood for mixing races and classes and redistributing wealth. Slavery was a domestic institution, the cornerstone of the Confederacy so it had to be preserved. In 1864, as defeat loomed in the South, the army had to be replenished so Southern leaders thought of putting slaves in uniform, even if they feared that the Blacks would gain status by joining the army and undermine the racial color coded social system.

As for the Union and Republican politicians, they aimed to pit their army of poor whites against an aristocracy of slave owners, and winning the war would redound to the liberation of  Black slaves,  impoverished non-slave holding families exiled to infertile lands, as well as destitute “white trash”.

Hammond believed that the North had a flawed labor system which corrupted democratic policies and when the “mudsill” whites were given the right to vote, Hammond predicted that being the majority they would become depositories of political power and in a matter of time,   they could orchestrate a class revolution and destroy the Union.  Was Hammond prescient?

( source: Isenberg, Nancy, White Trash, 2016)

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