Saturday, October 29, 2011

100 years ago today: Remind me again -- who was it who won the Civil War?

Trigger Warning: Quotations of language/imagery that is racially offensive

One hundred years ago the American Civil War was "fifty years ago." Just as the New York Times has been running a series of "100 years ago" articles on the events that led up to, and occurred during, the Civil War, fifty ears ago The Times-Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia) was doing the same.

It isn't surprising to the non-American reader that there would be many bitter and lingering memories of Civil War in Richmond Virginia. Virginia itself was one of the states that seceded and become one of the Confederate States. The northwest portion of the state, in turn, seceded from Virginia. This area was then admitted to the Union on June 20, 1863, as the state of West Virginia. Richmond became the capital of the Confederate State of Virginia. Many of the readers of the Times Dispatch were either veterans of the Confederate Army, were relatives of members of the Confederate Army, had lived through the invasion and occupation of their city or had relatives who had lived through the invasion and occupation.

What is surprising is the degree to which the Confederate cause is treated as dominant, triumphant, honoured and powerful throughout this (as well as earlier and later) issues of the newspaper.

Bear in mind that the demographic of the newspaper's circulation was not the poor and disadvantaged of society. It's readership was not primarily made up of those who had been displaced and overthrown by shifts in power after the conclusion of the Civil War. The Times-Dispatch is full of society news and advertisements for pricey goods. In addition to the section to the society pages there was separate section for business and investments. To the left of the banner on the front page is a box with the text "Children's page of T.D.C.C." and to the right a box with the text "Confederate and Geneology." Page 2 is games and puzzles.
On page 3 of the October 29, 1911 edition the reader will find the regular Sunday Our Confederate Column. To the right of the column is the poem The Veterans' Cross of Honor and it is clear from its words that the veterans in the title are of the Confederate Army since they are said to wear the U.D.C. (United Daughters of the Confederacy) cross and the reader is told The wealth of world cannot purchase this emblem/Unless the buyer wore the gray too. The President of the encounter described in the article on the same page GENERAL PENDLETON AND THE PRESIDENT is Jefferson Davis (the first and only president of the Confederacy.)

Page 4 is set aside for cartoons which largely depend on crude and offensive stereotypes of African-Americans for their "humour." The news in the society pages (and that is how they are titled) is of engagements, marriages and debutantes. The descriptions of the events (and the advertisements that accompany them) indicate that much of the readership is at least socially and financially "comfortable" if not more.

The Times-Dispatch had previously run articles about the final fate the great seal of the Confederate States. In this edition they print an "answer" to the question with a long interview with the man who had been Jefferson Davis' "body servant." SECRET OF THE GREAT SEAL OF THE CONFEDERATE STATES: James H. Jones, Body-Servant to President Jefferson Davis, Tells How He Hid It, and Will Never Divulge Place of Concealment. The next page is largely given over to the article Stonewall Jackson--Protest Against Picture as Drawn in "The Long Roll" By His Wife, Mary Anna Jackson, a piece written, as billed, by Jackson's widow to protest and contradict the verbal picture of him and his behaviour in the recently published "The Long Roll."

One might ask "so what?" These are just a group of relatively privileged people who can live with the myth of the glorious south and pen paeans to the gray clad "heroes" of the "War between the states." There are two answers:

First, the Union may have won the war militarily but they have clearly lost it culturally. The society that had grown up in the south since the war did not see slavery as having been a moral wrong. By mythologizing antebellum society they turned any call for civil rights and equal treatment for African-Americans as an attack on the southern society's mores and heroes. African-American were born, grew up and were educated in a society in which the people who had gone to war to deny them their rights were lionized.

Second, in general (except as "faithful body servants") African-Americans are for the most part absent from these pages. It is not in the "news" section of The Times-Dispatch that you read about lynchings. But if you turn to the "Help Wanted" section at the back of the paper you can see just how segregated life was in Richmond, Virginia was in 1911 and how delimited opportunities were on the basis of one's colour or one's gender.

Help Wanted: Male
  • Wanted, White and colored men to work In nursery and on packing grounds
  • WANTED-COLORED MEN WITH references wishing position as sleeping car or train porters, firemen or brakemen

Help Wanted: Female
  • SETTLED WHITE WOMAN OR GIRL wanted as general helper
  • WANTED, AN EXPERIENCED COLORED nurse for children.
  • WANTED. 50 WHITE AND COLORED women, cooks, maids, nurses

The Civil War may have been over but the battle for Civil Rights still remained to be won.


  1. It's been my feeling as an outsider that pressing the issue of slavery, while clearly a short-term good, had poor long-term effects. The slave economy was long-term unsustainable in the face of automation (slaves cannot be used to run fragile and complex machinery, especially if your racial mythology regards them as stupid); if the South had been allowed to go its own way (possibly including secession), I rather suspect that within ten or twenty years there would have been a flood of refugees as its economy fell apart and eventually a reconciliation on northern terms.

    Of course, that wouldn't be so great for the slaves during those twenty years. But neither was the war.

    I think that it is because the South was destroyed before it had a chance to fall apart that it has been mythologised.

  2. Lady Antebellum. Lady Frigging Antebellum.


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