June Read of the Month: “Damn Yankees,” by George C. Rable

George C. Rable

George C. Rable

Reviewed by Joshua S. Fullman

From cinematic accounts alone, one might be tempted to conclude that the American Civil War brought out the better angels of our nature instead of our devils. Indeed, one does not need to go all the way back to Selznick’s Gone With the Wind to find romantic portraits of nineteenth-century humanity: Spielberg’s Lincoln, Zwick’s Glory, and Maxwell’s trilogy all depict the Civil War as primarily a conflict of ideals and not people. It is someone like Scorsese in Gangs of New York who violently portrays the dark side that the historians and filmgoers occasionally tend to forget. George C. Rable joins the chorus of the realists in his recent book Damn Yankees! Demonization and Defiance in the Confederate South, which explores the views the average Southern held toward—or perhaps we should say, against—their Northern counterparts.

Like many Civil War histories, this book covers the antebellum regional conflicts all the way through and just after Appomattox. It demonstrates how Southerners perceived themselves as distinct from the North, which is not too surprising in a period when people were Virginians or New Yorkers before they were Americans. It traces the divisions exacerbated by the press and by preachers and charts convictions of hatred held by the most humble of women. And it records the terrors expressed at the war’s conclusion by politicians and the people of how reconstruction would undoubtedly become subjugation.

In the minds of many, if not most, the South would be conquered by a callous, hypocritical enemy who shared a history, but not a love of tradition and culture. When later generations debate the perennial question of what they fought for, Rable answers that for Southerners, “the Yankees embodied nearly every contemptible characteristic in the human imagination” and must be stopped to avoid the overthrow of all civilization. Such projections are unavoidable in war—and to a lesser extent, may even be desirable. But among his research is recorded nearly unspeakable malevolence that few Southerners held against speaking.

What makes this project unique from other histories is that the author attempts to cast a wider net of firsthand accounts, beyond merely the letters and journals of 200 soldiers. The author also includes 140 civilians, drawing heavily from female defenders of the hearth and pulpit defenders of the faith. Many of Rable’s sources are made of the invective of newspapers, so one might be tempted to see only the histrionics of the media. Yet the historian draws deeply from contemporary correspondence, and while soldiers and civilians were no doubt influenced by the Southern press, it is clear they drank from the same well of cultural dialogue and communed with mutual representations of the North.

Among Rable’s research, perhaps what is most fascinating is that the Yankees were frequently labeled as an entirely separate race, which had the effect “in a most race-conscious society” of making “sectional differences both wider and irreconcilable.” The North had embraced a kind of radical, democratic equality, while the South viewed itself as preserving the republican institutions of the Founding Fathers; here too even their governmental structures are conceived differently. Further, Northerners are often denounced as Puritans, an epithet that connotes their meddlesome ways in the affairs of others, with Oliver Cromwell invoked as that supreme, self-righteous meddler.

Given the South’s aristocratic view of itself as a protector of agrarian, traditional high culture and of the North as a group of unfeeling, urban industrialists, one hears echoes of Max Weber’s thesis. If Northern culture retained strong vestiges of pious British Puritanism with all of its pecuniary-soteriological interests, Southern culture perhaps failed to recognize in its own Franco influences the cognitive dissonance between its aristocratic and republican ideals. The effect presented in this book is not of a people constructing the enemy from the pathos of propaganda but of a culture curiously unaware of its own contradictions.

Perhaps we judge too harshly of our forebears. Rable confesses that he presents only the inflammatory rhetoric of the South; rare are the kinder, self-reflective pictures of their enemy, though to his credit he includes several moments of contemplative, Christian sentiment toward the Northern foe. Nearly each quote in this book, however, comprises an “orthodox denunciation of the Yankee enemy, based on broad themes found in newspapers, speeches, and private musings of committed Confederates.” Indeed, it would be a profitable study to follow up this volume with the collective perspectives of Northerners and their detestations of all “sesech” traitors.

History is often one-sided, as we know. Yet the fact that much of the war was fought on Southern soil, and lost by Southern people, makes such a sequel not only more difficult to write but also perhaps less illuminating than we might suppose. Sociology may carry us far down the road toward understanding ourselves, but it can only carry so far as history has already traveled.

The philosophical conundrum that perception shares in common with reality is drawn in striking colors. Rable offers little in the way of personal supposition for why the Rebels were so categorically hateful of the North, though the language he transcribes is certainly evocative of a culture enamored with its own Romanticism, its aristocratic virtues, and its religious zeal. More a chronicler than an analyst, he provides direct quotes and accounts (sometimes repetitively) to synthesize a cultural symphonic tone against the “universal Yankee nation.”

Rable adequately depicts Southern odium, but what seems to me to unite such odium underneath the outward confidence is fear. Fear of the Other, of rapine, of death, to be sure. But perhaps more it was the fear of the annihilation of life, liberty, and property, those values that defined not only what it meant to be Southern but what it meant to be American.

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