May 29, 2022
MY CORNER by Boyd Cathey
What I Would Tell a College Student: Recommended Books about the South and Its History
A friend recently asked me for a list of good books about the South and “the Late Unpleasantness” which he could share with his two sons, one of whom will be entering college this fall, and the other who will be a high school senior. I began naming some volumes, at random. But my friend stopped me in mid-sentence and asked if I could compile and write down a list of about ten books which would essentially touch the main points of Southern history and culture: that is, offering a non-politically correct view of the War Between the States, placing the institution of slavery in its proper context (as not the determining factor for the War), and taking a sympathetic view of the richness of our Southern heritage…and, perhaps most importantly, suggesting some works that a bright college freshman and high school senior could understand and refer to as they navigated the corrupted hallways of our American educational system.
That was more difficult than it seemed, as there are a number of excellent volumes in print which address those issues—but would they connect with a college freshman and his high school senior brother, even if they were exceptionally intelligent?
After some thought I was able to come up with a list, but in any such endeavor what is left out or omitted can be just as significant as what is included. I recognize this, and thus my list is just an impressionistic selection, a beginning, fully understanding that there are dozens of other excellent and solid volumes that could well be listed.
One volume stands out as fundamental to any survey, any overview of the South, its history and culture, and the War for Southern Independence. It is The South Was Right! (2020) by the indefatigable brothers, W. Donald Kennedy and J. Ronald Kennedy. If anything would serve as a superb and comprehensive introduction it would be this volume, now in its updated third edition. It is quite accessible and well-documented, an excellent primer for those interested in a comprehensive understanding of why the South is unique, why it is hated by the progressivists and globalists who dominate the world, and why its history and culture must be defended at all costs. Of course, the Kennedy brothers have authored other excellent studies treating various topics of real influence on Southerners, including Yankee Empire: Aggressive Abroad and Despotic at Home (2018) and Punished with Poverty (2020). These and other excellent volumes by the brothers are available from Shotwell Publishing, Columbia, South Carolina.
The second volume on my list would have to be the late Richard Weaver’s The Southern Tradition at Bay: A History of Post-Bellum Thought. The original hard back edition was published by Arlington House in 1968; a new inexpensive paperback appeared in 2021. Weaver’s book is a tour-de-force and should be required reading for any Southerner (or non-Southerner, for that matter)—it is a full-throated exploration of the heritage of the Southland, tracing that rich heritage and those traditions in the context of the South as one of last remnants of Western Christian civilization. Weaver examines the ideals and ideas of the Southern tradition as expressed in the military histories, autobiographies, diaries, and novels, especially those authored after the defeat in 1865. In that sense, he opens wide the door to a luminous wealth that each Southerner may lay claim to. Additionally, there is an extensive bibliography for those wishing to pursue the alleyways of our inheritance.
A third volume dates from 1930, but has been reprinted several times since then and retains much of its relevance today. It is I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition. Twelve noted Southern writers contributed to the it, including poet, essayist and historian Donald Davidson; poet, novelist and essayist Andrew Lytle; historian Frank L. Owsley; poet and essayist John Crowe Ransom; poet and biographer Allen Tate; and Robert Penn Warren, poet, novelist, essayist, and the first Poet Laureate of the United States. Centered at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, these men were known collectively and informally as the “Southern Agrarians,” and their incisive and elegantly written works defended a discernable “Southern way of life against what may be called the American or prevailing way….” But I’ll Take My Stand is more than a simple defense of Southern agrarianism against the advancing industrial and materialist age; it offers a broad vision of the South as a developed civilization, deeply rooted in the land but also faithful to natural law and Divine Positive Law, something very unique in the context of the ongoing decline of Western civilization. A fairly recent paperback edition was issued in 2006.
In 1981 an illustrious group of Southern scholars contributed to the volume Why the South Will Survive: Fifteen Southerners Look at Their Region a Half Century after ‘I’ll Take My Stand’, which offers a fascinating re-appraisal of the topics discussed by the Southern Agrarians in 1930. A 2011 paperback edition exists.
Certainly there are major questions that arise for any perceptive Southern student. First, there is the issue of secession and if the Southerners who pledged their loyalty and lives to the Southern Confederacy were traitors, if they committed “treason,” a phrase we hear far too often bandied about by the loathsome and ignorant pundits at Fox News and by their favored “conservative historians” like Allen Guelzo and Victor Davis Hanson. Far too often Southern students at our universities are unprepared for the stifling barrage of anti-Confederate rhetoric concerning just what occurred during those fateful days between November 1860 and May 1861, about the serious arguments made, and about the constitutional issues at stake during those few short months. Several significant volumes have explored those questions in some detail. In 2018 James Rutledge Roesch published From Founding Fathers to Fire-Eaters, an examination of exactly what the Founders and Framers intended when they came together to create these United States. Roesch mines the original sources, illustrating that the Southern view of the nation’s creation was the constitutional and correct interpretation.
The brilliant and much-lamented Southern scholar, Mel Bradford, explored these and related issues in detail in several volumes, including Founding Fathers: Brief Lives of the Framers of the United States Constitution (paperback, 1994) and most significantly in his volume, Original Intentions: On the Making and Ratification of the United States Constitution (hard back, 1993), a fundamental and in-depth study of the nature of American constitutionalism, what the Framers intended, and what it meant to those men—representing their individual states—who gathered in Philadelphia in 1787. Bradford’s work is sometimes dense, but always revelatory…and essential to understanding the nature of the Old Republic as delegated to our ancestors, and now in danger of collapse.
Charles Adams’ When in the Course of Human Events: Arguing the Case for Southern Secession (originally published in 2000, with a subsequent paper edition, 2004) remains a pivotal study of the question of secession and its constitutionality. Nearly as important is Secession, State & Liberty (2017), edited by the David Gordon, and bringing together contributions by a number of noted scholars who explore the issues surrounding secession and its real and admitted constitutionality.
Several other works add to these considerations by focusing them in the context of events, the steps and missteps, largely on the part of the newly-elected administration of Abraham Lincoln in the first few months of 1861. Here I recommend strongly the works of historian William Marvel, and in particular his engrossing volume, Mr. Lincoln Goes to War (2006). As a promo for the book states: “Drawing on original sources and examining previously overlooked factors, Marvel leads the reader inexorably to the conclusion that Lincoln not only missed opportunities to avoid war but actually fanned the flames—and often acted unconstitutionally in prosecuting the war once it had begun.” Then, there is prolific historian Thomas Fleming’s A Disease in the Public Mind: A New Understanding of Why We Fought the Civil War (2013), a balanced account of events, personalities and beliefs that led up to the fateful events of 1861, not just another screed condemning the South for its egregious “sins” of slavery and racism.
Professor Thomas DiLorenzo (Loyola University Maryland), in two volumes, The Real Lincoln (2002, paperback 2003) and Lincoln Unmasked (2006, paperback 2007), examines the responsibility of Abraham Lincoln and his administration not only in bringing on the war of 1861-1865, but in various perversions of the Constitution which forever altered the nature of the American republic. As DiLorenzo indicates, the results of the “Lincolnian revolution” have been disastrous to the Framers’ vision of constitutional government and have resulted in the avaricious growth of a centralized, managerial bureaucracy, self-perpetuating and unanswerable to citizens. In a sense, despite the loud protestations of a Nancy Pelosi or Joe Biden about “our democracy,” real control over our destiny and our rights as citizens has nearly been extinguished in our day.
The issue of slavery is addressed by several of these previously cited authors in the contexts of their volumes; digesting them will offer good information on that question. There is one very recent volume which I recommend: Dr. Samuel W. Mitcham’s It Wasn’t About Slavery: The Great Lie of the Civil War, recently published in 2021. Professor Mitcham is a highly regarded author, specializing in military history. And his volume on the issue of slavery and its effect on secession is a solid examination of that almost undebatable topic. His analysis in the face of the hysterical neo-abolitionists now dominating the historical profession is both fearless and convincing.
Additionally, intrepid researcher/historian Gene Kizer Jr. at the Charleston Athenaeum Press has done significant work in publicizing the scholarship of such now-largely ignored historians as Dr. Charles W. Ramsdell. Kizer has edited a superb compendium of Ramsdell’s writings which should be owned by every patriotic Southerner: Slavery Was Not the Cause of the War Between the States: The Irrefutable Argument (2014). Like other historians of the mid- and early 20th century Ramsdell understood the underlying constitutional and economic issues—the rights of the states, and especially the debate over tariffs, in particular the Morrill Tariff that would cripple the economies of import-dependent Southern states and on which Lincoln had campaigned in 1860—which were the driving forces for separation in 1861. As historian Frank Taussig in his Tariff History of the United States (1967) details, under Lincoln’s agenda the South would be paying nearly 80 percent of the tariff, while most of the revenues would be spent in the North.
About the relationship between Southern masters and slaves, the late historian Eugene Genovese stands out through his profound examination and analysis. Beginning in the 1960s as a Marxist, Professor Genovese made the long pilgrimage to an identifiable position in which he defended the old South, its leaders, and its culture. While approaching the issue of slavery not as an apologist, he understood the dilemma of Southerners and sympathizes with their attempts to grapple with the question. Of his numerous books, The World the Slaveholders Made (paperback, 1988) and The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders’ Worldview (paperback, 2005) are extremely valuable in giving the lie to modern “woke” historiography where Southerners are little more than “pre-Nazis,” while noting that most Southern leaders, writers, and theologians were men of high and admirable standards. Professor Genovese’s book of incisive essays on the old South and its eloquent defenders, The Southern Tradition; The Achievements and Limitations of an American Conservatism (1994), should be on the shelf of any self-respecting Southerner.
Back in 1974 two distinguished economists, Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman produced a work, Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery (reprinted in 1995), that should have altered the narrative on “the peculiar institution.” But given the historiography since then and the triumph of a zealous anti-racist, anti-white template, that did not occur. Based on their exhaustive research they found “that slavery was an economically rational institution and that the economic exploitation of slaves was not as catastrophic as presumed, because there were financial incentives for slaveholders to maintain a basic level of material support for those they held as property.”
There are a number of older recommendable histories and accounts of the War itself. I grew up reading Bruce Catton during the Centennial events and the various histories written by Virginian Clifford Dowdey, whose books made Robert E. Lee and our War for Southern Independence come alive in my imagination as a young student. I would mention here: The History of the Confederacy, 1832-1865 (1955, republished 1992); Death of a Nation: The Story of Lee and His Men at Gettysburg (1958, republished 1992); Lee’s Last Campaign: The Story of Lee and His Men Against Grant, 1864 (1960, republished 2011); and finally, Lee: A Biography (1965, republished 2015). Dowdey was not an academic, but he knew well how to write and attract his readers. His books have not lost their flair and appeal, and are very accessible to younger readers.
Of course, there is the three-volume set by Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative (1958-1974, paperback 1986). Although Foote’s mammoth work may not be the kind of set that one just reads from cover to cover, its engaging and fluent style, and its sympathetic and fair treatment of the Confederacy at war, remain definite attractions to Southern readers.
Another noted historian, the late Professor Ludwell H. Johnson, who taught for years at the College of William & Mary, published the volume Division and Reunion, 1848-1877, in 1978, and it remains an excellent, one volume survey of the mid-19th century, the coming of the War, and Reconstruction. A more recent paperback version issue (North Against South, 1848-1877) is exorbitantly priced, but the original is still available as a reprint.
On Reconstruction, itself, the work of pioneer researcher William A. Dunning remains pivotal. Dunning’s Reconstruction, Political and Economic, 1865-1877, continues to be essential in understanding the difficult post-War period. A 2010 paperback re-print of the original 1907 work is available. A much more recent study, Southern Reconstruction (2017), by Philip Leigh is easily accessible and may be the best way to approach the topic in one volume.
One way to understand the War and its meaning is to become familiar with the men who led the South during that difficult period. There are some excellent biographies that allow us to look into the minds and character of those unique individuals. I would mention, first, Douglas Southall Freeman, whose four volume, R. E. Lee: A Biography (1936), has never been bettered as a thorough study of the man who incarnated the ideals and hopes of the Confederacy. A one volume, abridged version, Lee, appeared in 1997, and should be among the books of every young Southern student.
Professor Hudson Strode authored a monumental biography of the Confederacy’s first and only president, Jefferson Davis. In three volumes he covered Jefferson Davis: American Patriot, 1806-1861 (1955); Jefferson Davis: Confederate President (1959); and Jefferson Davis: Tragic Hero, 1864-1889 The Last Twenty-Five Years (1964). Strode’s study remains the touchstone for understanding the life and history of a great man who is reviled by far too many contemporary historians.
James “Bud” Robertson’s Stonewall Jackson: The Man, The Soldier, The Legend, was published in 1997, and is certainly one of the finest biographies of any War commander. It’s a true page-turner and an excellent portrait of one of the world’s great military leaders, but also a study of the man, his ideals, and how he lived out his beliefs on and off the battlefield.
For an older, even more eloquent account, Southern Agrarian Allen Tate penned a short biography of Jackson in 1928: Stonewall Jackson: The Good Soldier. Tate’s volume is a classic and was reprinted in 1991 with a preface by Southern writer Thomas Landess. Tate also authored a biography of Davis in 1929: Jefferson Davis: His Rise and Fall (1929); a paperback edition appeared in 1998.
Of the various biographies of other Confederate leaders, I should mention Andrew Lytle’s superbly written Bedford Forrest and His Critter Company (1931). This riveting classic has also been reprinted in a paperback edition, in 1993. And more recently, Samuel Mitcham has given us Bust Hell Wide Open: The Life of Nathan Bedford Forrest (2016), an excellent modern study of General Forrest which is also in paperback.
One more biography I should include—there are literally hundreds that could be added—and that is Dr. Clyde Wilson’s magnificent volume, Carolina Cavalier: The Life and Mind of James Johnston Pettigrew (hard back, 1990). A paperback edition exists from 2002. Elegantly and superbly written by the dean of Southern historians, Dr. Wilson’s work offers a remarkable portrait of one of the South’s most fascinating and brilliant essayists and chroniclers, as well as a Confederate general of note, who tragically perished as a result of the battle of Gettysburg. Dr. Wilson is the editor of the John C. Calhoun papers (University of South Carolina) and dozens of other books and studies, many of which are available from Shotwell Publishing.
I know—what I have compiled here is far more than just ten books! But I cannot apologize, for each of the volumes cited is valuable and would be extremely helpful for a Southern collegian (or for a Southern adult, for that matter) navigating his way through the “woke” morass that purports to be our educational system these days. Some of the volumes I cite are more involved, perhaps a challenge for a college freshman, even a very bright one. But they still should find their way to his shelves, even if only as reference copies.
Finally, I will add one final volume—and assert personal privilege in doing so: my little book of essays, The Land We Love: The South and Its Heritage (Scuppernong Press, hard back, 2018). In its chapters I discuss a number of the subjects covered by this present essay, with the hope that some of my words will inspire readers to follow up and delve into our rich Southern history and heritage.
It is the only inheritance we have, and we are fast losing it.