I have always been interested in the American Civil War. It was a conflict which, in many ways, introduced the industrial warfare that became so deadly in the 20th century. It was for example the first conflict in which a submarine was used successfully in a military engagement. It introduced elements of military strategy and tactics that would be copied and developed in later wars. It saw death and destruction and scorched earth measures – in particular Sherman’s ‘March to the Sea‘ along the Savannah River. But its significance extends far beyond the military events of the 1860s. The war was also a political battleground on which civilisation and culture and rights were contested. There are, I believe, few wars in history that had a greater impact on the world. It ultimately heralded and facilitated the rise of the American era in world affairs.
But it was also a human story. The Civil War gave starring roles to huge personalities such as Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant. But more importantly, it is the canvas on which the stories of thousands upon thousands of ‘ordinary’ people were painted, people who struggled to understand and make sense of the changing environment in which they lived. The most interesting places in which to retrace these stories is now the American South. And that is one of the reasons why I like travelling to the southern states.
This year, for ten days I took a vacation with my family near Augusta in Georgia. Known to many people as a golfing destination, Augusta is a town steeped in history. There are two buildings that, on this visit, attracted my attention in particular. The first was the Redcliffe plantation house, just across the state line in South Carolina. The 19th century house was built for John Henry Hammond, a major politician who became known in particular for his advocacy of slavery. He declared that ‘in all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties.’ In a speech to the US Senate in 1858 he declared that nobody would wage war against the South because ‘cotton is king’. Quite apart from his political views, Hammond was an unpleasant and somewhat cruel man in almost every aspect of his life.
The plantation house, below, is now a museum, and some of the slave cabins have also been preserved.
The second building is in Augusta itself, the Confederate Powderworks. This was built in 1861 to provide a facility in which to manufacture gunpowder for the Confederate army. It was located here because the Savannah River provided convenient transport access. The chimney of the factory, preserved officially as a ‘Confederate Memorial’, has the following inscription on its side:
‘This Obelisk Chimney — sole remnant of the extensive Powder Works here erected under the auspices of the Confederate Government — is by the Confederate Survivors’ Association of Augusta, with the consent of the City Council, conserved in Honor of a fallen Nation, and inscribed to the memory of those who died in the Southern Armies during the War Between the States.’
The complexity and harshness of elements of the Southern culture is also well illustrated in the painting below, entitled ‘The Price of Blood’, by 19th century American artist Thomas Satterwhite Noble that can be seen in the ‘Southern Stories’ section of Augusta’s art gallery. What it depicts is described as follows:
‘This painting … depicts a gentleman farmer transacting the fate of his own bi-racial son. The richly dressed man stares fixedly at the viewer while the sale is conducted. His son, the barefooted young man on the left, appears to be resolved to his fate. Though connected by blood, they are clearly separated by race and all that that difference implies.’
The photograph of the painting was taken by me (without flash) with permission from the gallery staff.
But today’s South, while tending to nurture politicians with rightwing views, isn’t just the place that once hosted slavery. It has its own way of life and its own culture, which even though I usually disagree with the local politics has some attraction for me. Perhaps it’s illustrated by this song, Southern State of Mind, sung by black singer Darius Rucker.