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From Can The South Survive
by Michael Andrew Grissom
It seems fitting to close this chapter’s fleeting glimpse of the South’s ancient history with commentary from two of the authors of the late 19th century. Like others of their class, they described the world from which they had come — the world to which they owed their allegiance and their inscrutable essence. Thomas Nelson Page discusses first the wartime woman of the South, and then his thoughts turn to the vanished society in general.
Thus, when the time came, the class at the South which had been deemed the most supine suddenly appeared as the most efficient and the most indomitable. The courage which the men displayed in battle was wonderful; but it was nothing to what the Southern women exemplified at home. There was, perhaps, not a doubtful woman within the limits of the Confederacy. Whilst their lovers and husbands fought in the field, they performed the harder part of waiting at home. With more than a soldier’s courage they bore more than a soldier’s hardship. For four long years they listened to the noise of the guns, awaiting with blanched faces but undaunted hearts the news of battle after battle; buried their beloved dead with tears, and still amid their tears encouraged the survivors to fight on. It was a force which has not been duly estimated. It was in the blood….
That the social life of the Old South had its faults I am far from denying. What civilization has not? But its virtues far outweighed them; its graces were never equalled. For all its faults, it was, I believe, the purest, sweetest life ever lived. It has been claimed that it was non-productive, that it fostered sterility. Only ignorance or folly could make the assertion. It largely contributed to produce this nation; it led its armies and its navies; it established this government so firmly that not even it could overthrow it; it opened up the great West; it added Louisiana and Texas, and more than trebled our territory; it Christianized the negro race in a little over two centuries, impressed upon it regard for order, and gave it the only civilization it has ever possessed since the dawn of history. It has maintained the supremacy of the Caucasion race, upon which all civilization seems now to depend. It produced a people whose heroic fight against the forces of the world has enriched the annals of the human race, — a people whose fortitude in defeat has been even more splendid than their valor in war. It made men noble, gentle, and brave, and women tender and pure and true. It may have fallen short in material development in its narrower sense, but it abounded in spiritual development; it made the domestice virtues as common as light and air, and filled homes with purity and peace.
It has passed from the earth, but it has left its benignant influence behind it to sweeten and sustain its children. The ivory palaces have been destroyed, but myrrh, aloes, and cassia still breathe amid their dismantled ruins.
And finally, T.W. Caskey, a minister of the gospel who spent most of his life in Mississippi, owning at one time a plantation in that cotton state, describes the way of life in the old-time South, familiar to so many living at that time but lamentably foreign to those in the cacuous society of our age.
For a few years just before the war the South was a land of cotton, negroes, mules and magnificence. Southern planters were among the richest people in the United States. The South was a country of palatial homes and magnificent estates. A well appointed cotton plantation consisted of several thousands of acres of land, from four hundred to a thousand negroes, and as many mules as could be used to advantage, with other property in proportion.
There were no railroads, telegraph lines, telephone companies, land improvement companies or street railway companies for people to invest money in. They spent their money mainly in extravagant living. They clothed themselves in fine raiment and fared sumptuously every day. Every country home had its costly furniture, fine horses, magnificent carriages, expensive shrubbery, silks, satins, diamonds…. A reception at a farm house on a cotton plantation was an affair of state.
Religiously, Southern people, including all classes of society, were firm believers of the Bible. There is but little skepticism among native Southern people to this day…. they never for one moment doubted the inspiration of the Bible.
Education in aristocratic circles always included a course of thorough training in society accomplishments. Life among Southern aristocrats was wholly occupied in one continual round of fashionable gaiety and social enjoyment, and the education of the young people was always designed to fit them for the life that was before them.
Colleges and universities were conducted on the same general plan of lavish extravagance and courtly dignity which characterized the high circles of society. The curriculum in every aristocratic institution of learning included a thorough drill in polite manners and strict social etiquette. The code of etiquette and honor was as rigidly enforced by public sentiment in schools, seminaries, colleges and universities, as in any other department of high society. To fail to act the part of a high-born gentleman according to the accepted standard of deportment, would have expelled a boy from college or university and disgraced him in society….
Southern planters spent much time and money, traveling for pleasure, on Mississippi steamers. To gratify the fastidious tastes of aristocratic travelers, money, time, labor and ingenuity were united to make the old-time steamers of the Mississippi absolutely perfect, as to comfort, confenience and elegance, in the matter of accommodations for passengers. They were nothing less than floating palaces. They furnished every convenience for social enjoyment, such as could be found in the best appointed mansions in the South.
The world has probably never produced anything more extravagant and sumptuous in all of its appointments, in the way of public conveyance, than one of the best-equipped, old-time Mississippi steamers. Kings’ courts have rarely been the scene of more reckless extravagance or regal bearing in general manners of life, than one of the best appointed steamers on the lower Mississippi just before the war. It was simply magnificence gone wild. It was the quintessence of extravagance, dignity, formality, courtesy…. That brief period of Southern wealth, magnificence and aristocracy was an epoch in the history of the world, such as we may never see again.
High society everywhere was fashioned on a courtly scale. Admission to the circle of select society was a guarantee of good character, as measured by the recognized social standards, and implied an obligation to conform to all the requirements of social etiquette. A breach of etiquett was punished by prompt and irrevocable ostracism from the best society.
Men stood upon their honor as unflinchingly as women upon their virtue…. When the code of honor required a man to fight a duel, society enforced the requirement on pain of social ostracism. In such a case man could no more decline to fight a duel than woman could compromise her virtue without exciting the contempt of society….
Southern planters were Statesmen and politicians by the nature and necessities of their business. In the days of Abraham they would have been called kings. In the congress of aristocratic society each planter represented a constituency of no mean proportions. The management of an extensive cotton plantation was practical statesmanship. In those days of rude implements, limited resources and great obstacles in agriculture, it required considerable political and financial ability to successfully manage a cotton plantation.
To love life more than honor was the sin unpardonable. Confidential gossip, which reflected upon the character of any person in good society, was not tolerated. No man was allowed to malign another in a whisper. Back-biting was beneath the dignity of a gentleman. If any man felt disposed to speak disrespectfully of another, society demanded a straight-forward, out-spoken, personal reflection, which the parties interested must settle between themselves on “the field of honor.”…
To take an enemy unawares or at a disadvantage was an offense against good breeding which society would not excuse. A man unarmed was as safe in the power of his deadliest enemy, as in a garrison of his truest friends. The man who would not hazard his own life in defense of his bitterest enemy when unarmed, was a craven coward. To seek or accept any advantage of an enemy in a duel to the death, was an offense against good breeding which would disgrace any man in good society.
The highest authority in aristocratic society was a sort of unwrtten law called “the code of honor.”…
Gallantry was a leading characteristic of old-time Southern gentlemen. There were no women in the eyes of such men; all females of human kind were ladies, except slaves, of course. The man who would remain seated while a woman, no matter how poor and humble, was standing, or even uncomfortably crowded in her seat, would have been promptly kicked out of a public conveyance, as an intolerable bore. Boisterous, profane or indecent language in the presence of ladies was an offense against society which any man of good breeding was in honor bound to punish if he could not prevent.
Hospitality was another leading trait in old-time Southern society. The traveler found a hearty welcome in every Southern home, and the wealth of the host was always lavished upon the traveler with a delicacy of taste and sincerity of hospitality such as would insure his comfort and enjoyment. Well trained servants complied with every wish of the guest, and the entertainment of strangers and travelers seemed to be the pleasure of the entire household. They were not only delighted to entertain stangers, but seemed actually anxious to have them remain in their homes as long as possible. Every member of the old Southern household welcomed travelers to the best hospitality the home could provide, and bade them adieu with evident reluctance to see them go. No remuneration was expected, or would be accepted, for such hospitality.
Language, both in conversation and current literature, in high circles of society, was remarkable for stateliness, dignity and formality. The commonest occurrences and simplest matters in every day life were spoken of, in ordinary conversation, in carefully arranged sentences and well-rounded periods. Items of news were expressed in the papers in pompous phrases, which savored of the dignity and formality of kings’ courts. Vulgarisms and slang phrases were carefully excluded from the vernacular of high society. Nothing in the guise of low wit or vulgar humor was ever attempted in social conversation or current literature…
In matters of dress and general deportment, the code of social etiquette ruled every individual as with a rod of iron…. From the cradle to the grave, every member of aristocratic society was continually on dress parade when not on duty in actual society engagements. Every soul was constantly in full society uniform, drilling in the manual of social etiquette….
The stilted dignity and staid formality of select society in that age betokened a generation of disiplinarians. The whole social atmosphere was redolent with the principle of rulership…. The rigid social discipline in high cirlces of society in the South in olden times trained the leaders of the white people for martyrdom. They were not the kind of people to be conquered, or subjugated. They were the sort who have to be exterminated. They defiantly led “the lost cause” till they were well nigh annihilated, and the whole country was completely devastated. With them the rebellion was “an affair of hnor” on a large scale. When once the issue was joined, they couldn’t see any honorable way to avoid a fight. They looked at the whole question in the light of the teaching of the “code of honor.” And why should they look at it in any other light? “The code of honor” was the highest authority they recognized. Many of the leaders in the South, therefore, looked upon the late war as a sort of personal matter…. When the issue came, they understood that the only alternative was to apologize, or fight, and they promptly decided to fight.
The independence, self-respect and self-reliance bred and born in the women, children, invalids, cripples and aged men who survived “the lost cause” in the South, served a good purpose in causing them to endure the hardships, privations and desolation through which they passed during the years succeeding the war. The whole course of human training for generations back, was well adapted to prepare a people to endure the poverty which fell to the lot of the South after the war. But for that spirit in the people, the fortunes of the country would never have been rebuilt. With a less measure of unconquerable pride and a greater love for luxury and ease, they would have emigrated from a country so completely devastated by war and so hopelessly burdened with the support of a thriftless negro population. It is worthy of note, as showing the mettle of Southern people, that very few families emigrated to the North after the war to escape the hardships every one could see must be endured before the waste places of the country could be reuilt in the midst of such povery and desolation. In some cases those who did leave their native country in ruins, to find better environments in Northern States, were remonstrated with by friends and relatives for their lack of patriotism. Whatever else is true of the spirit and genius of such old-time society in the South, it unquestionalbly trained a people to endure great hardships rather than compromise their self-respect by fleeing for assistance to the people and country they considered their enemies.
If it cannot be said of the Southerner that his culture represents a legitimate, established place among the peoples of the world, then it cannot be said of the French in France or the Swedes in Sweden, for the Southerner can validate his exemplary inheritance not only on one shore but upon two. His legitimacy of race was established in the Old Country and confirmed in the Old South. Not only does he have the right to exist but he has the right to exist well.
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