We watched Gone With the Wind on Turner Classic Movies a couple of nights ago. I had seen that movie several times, but the last time was probably 20 or 25 tears ago. I, of course, remembered the general story, but many of the details and nuances I had forgotten. I decided, once again, that this an excellent movie on several levels. But I was reminded of several things which my parents had to told me about the old south growing up. Some of these may not be politically correct today, but that doesn’t mean they are not true. Historians, like the rest of us, pay attention and are inclined to report those things that support their paradigms, points of view and conclusions, and ignore the rest. My parents may have been no different.
A couple of other observations are probably in order before I get to the specifics of the movie and the recollections that it spawned. First, generalizations which we all tend to make, always have exceptions even if they are accurate on summary level. Sometimes it’s difficult to determine whether what is reported is the exception or the general rule. That is true for making generalizations about today’s world, but is probably even more true of things that happened 150 years ago. It doesn’t help that a lot of things that get documented in the news and elsewhere are the exceptions. Frequently it’s only the bad things that get reported and it’s often difficult to get much of a sense of balance. Secondly, my parents were among the most hard-working, honest and honorable people who I have ever known. They were both southerners although my Mother was born in Syracuse, NY. Her father was from New York, but her mother’s family were from Knoxville, Tennessee which is where she mostly grew up. My paternal grandfather moved to Florida from North Carolina at the turn of the last century when central Florida was still largely unsettled. I have never heard any of these people try to defend slavery or say anything bad about Blacks. In fact, growing up, I saw them be-friend and help people in the Black community on many occasions.
So where am I going with all this? There were several things in Margaret Mitchel’s story that reminded me of things I remember being told growing up.
- Black slaves were not treated badly by plantation owners: Many of the splitting of families and mistreatment was done by slave traders, most of whom were not Southerners, but New England seamen. By the mid – 1800s, most of the slave trade had ended (for example; the English banned slavery in South Africa in 1833). Once these people were on a family plantation in the South, the treatment wasn’t bad. They had to work, but they were cared for and, as the movie implied, often became almost a part of the family. That there were plantation where mistreatment happened I have no doubt, but my experience with human nature and common sense would seem to support the better treatment story as being the likely general case. People tend to care for assets which support their well-being and life style. It is not necessary to believe in the mis-treatment story to believe that slavery is wrong.
- The war was fought for states rights: When I was a boy, I learned a lesson from an Aunt that has stuck with me to this day. She had two sons, one a year older than I was and one a year or so younger. One day they got into a very heated argument and I tried to intervene in the hope of restoring peace. When I did, they both turned on me. I was successful I guess in the sense that they were not arguing between themselves anymore. But I was being heatedly attacked by both. My Aunt who witnessed this, said to me, “If you’re not family, don’t try to intervene between brothers – no matter whose side you might take or how well-meaning you are, they won’t like outside interference”.
There were people in the South who didn’t believe slavery to be moral or right thing to do. In fact some had all ready freed their slaves. In the movie, Ashley Wilkes said he would have freed the 12 Oaks slaves if the war had not come. Ashley and others went to war as part of the Confederate Army. I don’t believe they were fighting for slavery, but rather for the right to determine the way that their state deal with the issue without the interference from Northerners who at that point had no vested interest in when or how slavery was abolished. Slave trading was no longer an economic or social issue for the North, and many in the South must have felt that they should have the right to resolve this issue themselves. There were no doubt people in the South who did not want slavery abolished for a variety of reasons, but absent the states rights issue, there might not have been a war. And I believe that slavery would have been eventually abolished in any event and perhaps with less residual bitterness. I have also been told that Lincoln wanted the war to “save the union”. I have no doubt that he believed that slavery was wrong, but the idea that saving the union might have been his primary motivation is supported by the fact that the Emancipation Proclamation was not made until 1863 – 2 years into the war which many thought would be over in six months. (It’s also interesting that the proclamation only applied to the States that had rebelled.) It gave him the moral high ground at a time when people were beginning to tire of the conflict.
- Lincoln was not a “bad guy”: I was also told that Abraham Lincoln was viewed by many in the South as a good and reasonable man. Had he lived, the story goes, a lot of the reprisals against the South and Southerners which took place during reconstruction would never had happened. His aim had been to “save the union”, and did not think that reprisals and punishment of the participants after the war were necessary or appropriate.
- Reconstruction was the problem: Much of the bitterness in the South after the war was attributed to the “Reconstruction” period which lasted from the end of the war untill 1877. For much of that time the south was occupied territory by Federal Troops, and the educated white leadership universally disenfranchised. In human history, the winners of wars have tended to oppress the losers, and apparently the American Civil War was no exception. The two stories I remember hearing growing up were of Reconstruction and Sherman’s “March to the Sea”. Southerners believed the destruction and scorched earth actions that his Army did against the Civilian population were totally unnecessary since by then the outcome of the war a foregone conclusion. The stories that I heard growing up confirmed what the movie portrayed about the Southern aristocracy – they were an educated and honorable lot. Much of the resentment of the Blacks, it was thought, came from “the poor white trash”. It is likely, I think, that there may have been more physical mistreatment of Blacks after reconstruction than ever happened during the period of slavery.
After more than 100 years, its difficult to know exactly the predominate motivation and circumstances of events. It’s also impossible to know what would have happened if life changing decisions had not been made the way they were. It’s likely that period in history fits the second of my three important facts of life: “Things are never as simple as they seem”. One would like to think that after over 100 years some things wouldn’t matter anymore – that we should be able to “let it go and move on”. But a month or so ago the Tulsa World ran an opinion piece that said that “there is no question that the civil war was not about ‘state’s rights’, but about ending slavery”. In truth, it was probably about both. But when we will we be able to let the past go and move on?