Marching Masters: Response to the Illinois State Historical Society Journal

marching masters cover

To the Book Review Editor of the Illinois State Historical Society Journal:

Allow me to respond to Robert T. McKenzie’s review of , published in the Spring 2015 issue of your journal. Dr. McKenzie’s superficial reading of contains distortions and lapses in logic that I feel need addressing as a means of evaluating the merits of his review and my book. I would also like to use his review as an opportunity to address larger issues concerning the war and the methodology of scholars who write about it.

Allow me to respond to Robert T. McKenzie’s review of Marching Masters, published in the Spring 2015 issue of your journal. Dr. McKenzie’s superficial reading of Marching Masters contains distortions and lapses in logic that I feel need addressing as a means of evaluating the merits of his review and my book. I would also like to use his review as an opportunity to address larger issues concerning the war and the methodology of scholars who write about it.

Confederates as “Slaves”

McKenzie’s review is accurate until the last line of the second paragraph. After discussing why Confederate troops joined the military, he states, “Above all, [Confederate soldiers] feared becoming slaves themselves.” The “above all” comment is McKenzie’s, not mine. A portion of the second chapter of my book examines Confederates’ fears of becoming “slaves” to the Yankees were the Union to triumph. But I do not think a widespread fear of whites becoming “slaves” was a reason “above all” for why men fought. It certainly was an important reason. Slavery for southern whites was not an abstraction. Whites knew slavery firsthand, and because of that, they never went into much detail concerning what “slavery for southern whites” might mean in practice. And yet, worries about becoming “slaves” was not as strong as fears of emancipation, which southern whites believed would cause black men to run wild, committing atrocities. And decades after the war, Confederates continued to decry emancipation.

Class Warriors?

More seriously, McKenzie errs when he states, “Woodward absolutely rejects the position held by some historians that poorer Confederates sometimes resented being enlisted in a rich man’s war on behalf of the master class.” I don’t reject (“absolutely” or otherwise) that Confederate troops “sometimes” complained that it was a “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight.” To reject that southerners did so would ignore the documentary record. I do in fact discuss complaints about the “rich man’s war” in my book. What I reject is the notion that class trumped race in the Confederacy, generally, or in the army in particular.

McKenzie apparently believes serious class antagonism existed in the army. Class played a role in the army, to be sure. But was it fatal to the Confederate war effort? I don’t think so. I won’t get into how class issues often blended into racial ones and vice versa (and have continued to do so). But I will say that more Confederates had stronger views on black people than they did Karl Marx. Southern whites lost far more sleep over what slaves might be planning in the cabins than what planters were doing at the State House.

Marx proved too liberal to work as an editorial writer for the New York Tribune. Needless to say, he was not popular among Confederate soldiers.

Besides, “poorer Confederates” is a loaded term. Unless he is Bill Gates, everyone is poorer than someone else. That doesn’t make him poor or a class warrior. Soldiers complain, that’s their right. In the context of the southern army, poverty doesn’t necessarily make him a deserter or anti-Confederate. McKenzie might believe that Confederates “resented being enlisted in a rich man’s war on behalf of the master class,” but I don’t, for several reasons. I don’t see Confederate soldiers as dupes of the master class. Most Rebel soldiers, being the good Jacksonians that they were, enlisted of their own free will. They didn’t always like army policy, but they put up with a lot of hardship and injustice.

The Master Class

It was my intention in Marching Masters to redefine—or at least suggest—what the “master class” truly was. Defined narrowly, it means slaveholders. More broadly, I see it as including slaveholders and non-slaveholders alike who had white skin. Southern wealth was built on slavery, and non-slaveholders knew getting rich in the South meant owning many slaves. Even those who wanted no part of owning humans wanted to make sure that blacks were kept subservient. Whenever a white man called a black man “boy,” he was employing a weapon of the master class.

Another inaccuracy is McKenzie’s statement that “Woodward finds little evidence that the rebels’ commitment to slavery never wavered.” In fact, my book contains many examples of Confederates confronting the reality of blacks running away, rebelling against masters, and joining the ranks of the Union army. Chapter Five opens with a South Carolina (yes, even South Carolina) slaveholder becoming fatalistic about the survival of slavery amid the destruction emancipation wrought on his plantation.

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The “Emancipation” Debate

In early 1865, a significant number of Confederates (no one knows how many) supported the enlistment of slaves so that they might fight in the Rebel army. The debate over black enlistment in the last few weeks of the Confederacy was only significant in Lee’s army. And the final, weak bill that passed in mid-March 1865 would not have happened without Lee’s and Davis’s strong support. The enlistment debate clearly showed that many Confederates’ commitment to slavery had wavered. But the debate issue was an instance of—as Lincoln might have put it—how to “cut off a limb to save the body.” For most Confederates, even if their commitment to slavery as they wanted it wavered, their commitment to slavery writ large did not break. Confederates thought African Americans were best kept enslaved. The war dictated otherwise, but events showed that Confederates viciously resisted moves toward emancipation.

Proslavery Politics

Southern whites were very adaptable in manipulating free and enslaved African Americans to maintain slavery. They had 300 years of practice in doing so. The so-called emancipation debate of early 1865 (it was not a debate about seriously considering freeing most or all the slaves) showed that much had changed in the South. Obviously by then, many Confederates had altered their views on what slavery must mean in practice were the Confederacy to survive. But they their proslavery principles had not wavered.

McKenzie says, “Woodward’s observations about the connection of slavery to the Confederate war effort are well supported but largely commonplace. His assertions about how a commitment to slavery figured in the Confederate mindset will be more controversial.” I may be misreading this passage, but at best, it contains a distinction without a difference. At worst, it contradicts itself. Perhaps McKenzie believes that slaveholding politicians started a war for slavery that had little support among the general populace.

The point of my book, however, is to show the ideological link between the army’s high command, its lower officers, common soldiers, and Confederate civilians. Democratic armies are supported by the general populace. Sherman understood this, as did many others during the Civil War. The Confederacy consisted entirely of slaveholding states, and therefore, I read the Rebel war effort as an attempt to defend the proslavery interests of those states and their democratic population through force of arms.

Despite the obvious proslavery nature of the rebellion, McKenzie stresses the class based elements of the Confederate war effort, noting my “insistence that class-based resentment of slaveholders was almost non-existent and that proslavery ideology never wavered throughout four long years of war.” To say that I believe class resentment was “almost non-existent” during the war’s four years (whether long or short) is again a distortion. I’m not sure what “almost non-existent” means, but if McKenzie wants to push the idea that class divisions were rife in the Confederate ranks then, I must disagree. And the reason why the war lasted four years (long or short) was because of the strong support politicians had for fighting it, inside and outside the army.

How exactly does class factor into a discussion of this image from the early 1970s, courtesy of the late George Wallace?

How to Lie with Statistics

McKenzie’s next issue with my book concerns methodology. He writes, “Rarely does an academic historian writing for a university press reveal so little about his approach to the evidence.” This is an absurd statement. First of all, I am not an academic (no offense meant to academics), but an archivist who works at a university. To say that I “reveal so little” is disingenuous. Marching Masters is copiously footnoted. All sources cited in the text are included in the bibliography and endnotes. I am not hiding anything. The documentation for the book rested on hundreds of primary and secondary, published and unpublished, sources, many of them familiar to military scholars. I would hope that at this point in his career, Dr. McKenzie understands how historians operate: they read books, they go to archives, they write things down, make an argument, and footnote what they found. This practice has changed little in the last hundred years or so.

What I think Dr. McKenzie wanted me to do was discuss a “sample.” The inclusion of a “sample” has been popular among some Civil War scholars for the past twenty years. In 2010, Kenneth Noe published Reluctant Rebels, which contains a sample of 320 soldiers, with accompanying charts and percentages. Dr. McKenzie objects to my anecdotal approach to the sources, much as Dr. Noe criticized me in a review in the Civil War Monitor published in April 2014.

reluctant rebels

The notion of “sampling” has been popular since James McPherson proudly noted in 1997 in For Cause and Comrades that he “sampled” 1,071 Civil War soldiers, 429 of whom were Confederates. Scholars estimate that roughly three million men fought during the war. Assuming McPherson “sampled” 1,071 of three million troops, he sampled .000357% of all the soldiers who fought during the war. This is hardly a sample that would have great merit among a trained statistician. From a scientific standpoint, what Civil War scholars have been doing with their sampling is closer to the “surveys” one finds on The Family Feud.

I do not wish to diminish the achievements of Dr. McPherson or Dr. Noe, whose scholarship I admire. Instead, I want to suggest how Civil War historians are trying to hammer an anecdotal square peg into a scientific round hole. But to say more about my “approach to the evidence”: I did research for years at numerous archives and libraries. I used facts and opinions to construct a narrative and make an argument. What I thought was important and interesting became the subject of chapters. Much was left on the cutting room floor, and much of that for purely editorial reasons. UVA Press was not going to publish a 500 page book. Instead, I had to do the best I could in 206 pages of text. Endnotes, bibliography, and index took up another 90 pages.

Perhaps I tried to do too much. The task of writing about the Confederate army, rather than a single army or a single regiment or single soldier, was a daunting one. Dr. McKenzie clearly wanted me to make more conclusive statements about what all 800,000-1,000,000 Confederates thought at any given time, perhaps using percentages to do so—37% were virulently racist, 81% liked having body servants in camps, 49% disliked Davis’s views on black enlistment, 99% disliked hardtack, 88% sang “Maryland, My Maryland” during the invasion of September 1862, etc. It is one thing to state percentages about something concrete, such as how many men voted for Lincoln or how many Confederate troops were literate. It is much more difficult to make concrete claims about things as subjective as racism, patriotism, and how one generally feels about the war effort. Statistics are antithetical to nuance.

I don’t believe that scholars of the Confederate army should see historical actors as some kind of polling group or feel that they work for Gallup rather than the world of the humane letters. Military historians of the Confederacy are among a long line of scholars going back to Douglas Southall Freeman and Bell Wiley. Freeman’s and Wiley’s works hold up well (and are still in print), despite the absence of “samples.”

I’m willing to bear criticism for not following the lead of recent historians. But I’m not sure why those who examine the Civil War soldier are held to a standard different from other scholars. Should all studies of the past contain “samples” that come from a “representative” cross section of people? When writing about the civil rights movement, for example, must a scholar make sure that the views of people from all the 50 states be included? Should such a history contain appendices that break down all their sources by state and county, age, and property ownership? I would hope not. It is difficult to make precise statements about even a small group of people, let alone a group as varied as the Confederate army. If Marching Masters is to be criticized for saying “some,” “many,” or “most” at times—which McKenzie found “frustratingly imprecise”—a book critic should at least provide examples of when and why such statements were unhelpful. For surely, all historians make such claims.

To again bring up the late Bell Wiley, Dr. McKenzie seems to agree with the scholarship of The Life of Johnny Reb in its exclusion of politics from the Confederate war effort. Wiley, though, was writing in a Jim Crow South that didn’t think race and slavery were an important aspect of Civil War history. Historiography has shifted quite a bit, yet McKenzie finds odd my emphasis on politics. Despite what his review says, however, I don’t write about politics to the exclusion of personal issues for explaining why men fought. Indeed, it would be impossible to write a book about the Confederate army that ignores personal motivations.

Honor Thy Mother and Thy Father

McKenzie apparently reviewed my book based on what he wanted to read rather than what he read. He wanted a book about “the more personal motives for fighting that many historians have found to be influential, such as personal honor, commitment to place, and loyalty to family.” Scholars can read about such important things in other books, but that was not what Marching Masters, with its supposedly “commonplace” assumptions, is about. Personally, I think the whole notion of “honor” driving southern history is nonsense if one ignores its racial foundation. Nor should we divorce proslavery thinking from the desire to defend home and family. Whether he knows it or not, McKenzie is restating what the Lost Cause said for decades: that the war was not about slavery, but about defending homes, firesides, and family. Defending them from what? The tariff? I think not. Confederates were prepared to shed blood and die to avoid the political advances of Lincoln and his “Negro/Negro-loving allies.”

Stranger vs. Stranger

Dr. McKenzie suggests that the Civil War was really just the old “brother versus brother” conflict as advertised on the Time-Life books TV commercials I used to watch as a kid. As Confederate apologists have noted, “How could it have been about slavery, since most southerners didn’t own slaves?” Well, for the same reasons the U.S. fought a war in Afghanistan and Iraq even those most Americans did not lose a loved one in the 9-11 attacks. Politics. Glory helped correct the notion that the Civil War was only a white man’s war. So did Ken Burn’s 1990 documentary. The war was not simply an exercise in defending personal honor or rival families settling old scores. Nor was it all about, as Shelby Foote summarized it, “I’m fightin’, ‘cause you’re down here.”

Modern wars are fought for political, not personal reasons. To stress the class based nature of the Confederate army contradicts Dr. McKenzie’s belief that the war was more personal than political. Some individuals are in a class of their own. But the whole notion of class is political in nature. Regardless, I don’t necessarily see a clear distinction between the personal and the political in much (most? I don’t know, and neither does Dr. McKenzie) of American history, whether those politics be local or national in scope. As any political observer today knows, people get very emotional, indeed can become hysterical, when it comes to politics. Many (sorry, I can’t be more precise than that) have taken politics very personally (“where’s my bailout?”) since the fall of 2008 and the election of our first African American president.

When it came to fighting, many Confederates surely had reasons more personal than political, communal rather than country-wide, for doing so. Yes, they had many, many reasons for fighting and dying and doing whatever they did. But my book is not about every reason they had for joining and staying in the military. In case the title of my book is unclear, I focused on slavery, which I feel important, indeed, necessary, in a discussion of the Civil War soldier. The Hatfields and McCoy’s? The fact that Jeb Stuart’s father-in-law opposed him during the Seven Days campaign? Not so much.

From the 2012 show “Hatfields & McCoys.”

Blood feuds are relatively small affairs, whereas the Civil War was a modern conflict, where men who did not know one another engaged in mass slaughter over political principles. As we all know, war is politics by other means. Men fought for many reasons, but McKenzie wants to take slavery out of the equation, or at the very least, subsume its importance beneath other motivations. In a way, then, he only shows how necessary a book like mine is, for even among historians, there is resistance to the idea that the Confederacy was fighting to preserve slavery.

McKenzie concludes that “careful readers will question whether the author has satisfactorily proven his sweeping counter-argument.” Readers have a right to question what I say, and I hope many do. But such a statement sounds like the complaint of neo-Confederates who claim that Marching Masters is “re-writing” history. There’s no point in writing history that will not at some level rewrite it. “Well-supported or not,” though, mine is not a scientific proof, but a monograph. I used books and papers, not a microscope and charts, to do my work. Better to write a “sweeping counter-argument” than leave dirt on the historical floor.

Despite taking fifteen years to complete, and using considerable documentary evidence, the central argument of Marching Masters did not convince Dr. McKenzie. That is unfortunate. It is one thing to receive a bad review. It is quite another, however, to have such a review misconstrue and distort your arguments. I hope next time. Dr. McKenzie will be more careful.

Colin Woodward is the author of Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War, published by University of Virginia Press in 2014. He is working on a second book on Johnny Cash.

Randy Newman: Southern Historian?

Randy Newman in 1972, featured on the cover of his album Sail Away.

By Colin Woodward

Last month, I saw Randy Newman perform with the Conway Symphony Orchestra at the University of Central Arkansas. I’ve always liked Randy Newman. If you know anything about music, chances are you can name at least one of his songs. I recall hearing  “I Love L.A.,” which came out around the time I first remember listening to music, back in the early 1980s.

In Conway, Newman didn’t mess around. He played his “best of,” which covered floods, bad love, the slave trade, genocide, communism, child murder, and kinky sex. The usual. What does it say about me that one of my heroes is a cranky, mumbly piano-player in his 70s that I’ve never met? Not sure. I like Americans who go against the grain. And besides, loving old men is the way entertainment goes these days. Our senior musicians endure, while our young athletes and others fade away.

Newman is known for his caustic, acerbic wit and a tendency to offend. The singer got flak for his 1977 hit “Short People,” which was written purely as a goof. Newman had no idea how vocal and bitter the short people lobby was. In Conway, Newman was in classic form. He made a joke about American Sniper and how dumb his sons were in comparison with his daughter. He also called Little Rock a “dump.” Was he kidding about Little Rock? You’re never sure with Newman.

Years ago, one moment endeared me to Newman. When he finally won an Oscar in 2002 for “If I Didn’t Have You” from Monsters, Inc. (after losing on many other occasions), he told the crowd, “I don’t need your pity.” He then chastised the Academy Awards’ orchestra for trying to cut him off during his speech. He told them they were being “rude.” It was one of Newman’s best moments.

One reason I’ve liked Newman is not just because his songs are funny, but because history plays such a prominent role in his work. Newman was born in Los Angeles and has been there most of his life, but he lived in New Orleans for a while as a kid, and he has family with southern roots. His penchant for southern history is most pronounced on 1974’s Good Old Boys, a concept album about the South, with several songs about Louisiana and the bizarre governorship of Huey “Kingfish” Long in the 1920s and 1930s.

Newman hasn’t been afraid to tackle a subject as tricky or as touchy as race in America. Good Old Boys opens with “Rednecks,” a song inspired by the segregationist governor of Georgia, Lester Maddox. “Rednecks” is the only song I have ever heard by a mainstream singer than uses the word “nigger” (the only other one I can think of is John Lennon’s “Woman is the Nigger of the World”).

We got no-neck oil men from Texas

Good ol’ boys from Tennessee

College men from LSU

Went in dumb, come out dumb, too

Hustling ’round Atlanta in their alligator shoes

Getting drunk every weekend at a barbecue

They’re keeping the niggers down

We’re rednecks, we’re rednecks

We don’t know our ass from a hole in the ground

We’re rednecks, we’re rednecks

We’re keeping the niggers down

Newman, of course, is not promoting racism, but satirizing it. And in “Rednecks,” he skewers northern and southern racism, saying that northern blacks were “free to be put in a cage” in places like West and South Chicago, Harlem, Filmore in San Francisco, and Roxbury in Boston. Racism, Newman, makes clear, is an American problem, not just a southern one.

Needless to say, “Rednecks” did not make the Top 40. And Newman did not play it in Conway. Newman did, however, play several tunes from Good Old Boys, including the moving “Louisiana, 1927,” about the horrible Mississippi River flood of that year.

What is happening down here is that winds have changed

Clouds moved in from the north and it started to rain

Rained real hard and for a real long time

Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline

The song might have seemed a novelty in 1974, but it became eerily current after Katrina hit in August 2005. Newman’s Good Old Boys made numerous references to depression era figures, but its better songs, such as “Back on My Feet Again” could’ve been about making it in the recession-plagued 1970s, or the early 2010s for that matter. In plumbing the depths of American history, Newman has unearthed the everyday.

Newman has sung about historical topics outside the South, too. His terrific 1999 album Bad Love is something of a history lesson. It opens with the line “let’s go back to yesterday/when a phone call cost a dime.”The Great Nations of Europe” examines the explorers who conquered North America and decimated the native populations. Heavy stuff, and not the type of material most songwriters would want to tackle. But, it’s the kind of song Randy Newman has liked to write throughout his entire career. He is the closest thing to an endowed professor of history that American pop music has produced.

The University of Central Arkansas, where Randy Newman took the stage last month.

In Conway, Newman joked about how “In Germany before the War” should have been a hit, though the song’s subject–a child killer living in Nazi Germany–was unfit for mass airplay. Hearing it last month made me a little uncomfortable. And yet, the song is not at all explicit. It is disturbing because of what it suggests.

On a lighter note, “Life Just Isn’t Fair,” about Karl Marx and the failures of communism to combat human nature, also graced Newman’s album Bad Love. “Life” was inspired by a trip to Newman’s school, where “froggish men, unpleasant to see” were alongside “all the young mommies.” The point: ugly, rich men can get the girl. And really, what better motivator is there for men to succeed?

Randy Newman was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013, even though his music rarely can be considered “rock.” More appropriately, I think he should be honored with a lifetime achievement award from the American Historical Association or the Southern Historical Association.

As Americans, we are products of our history. And few songwriters understand that better than Randy Newman.

Colin Woodward is an archivist and historian and the author of Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War, published through UVA Press.

Jim Guy Tucker and the Vietnam War

Jim Guy Tucker in Vietnam. Source: UALR Center for Arkansas History and Culture.

By Colin Woodward

Where I work, I’m the lead archivist on the Governor James Guy Tucker, Jr., processing project. The project hopes to process the personal and political papers of Tucker, which are housed at the UALR Center for Arkansas History and Culture. Tucker’s papers consist of about 600 boxes of material that cover his days as governor, lieutenant governor, U.S. Congressman, attorney general, and prosecuting attorney. He also worked as a war correspondent in Vietnam. In 1968, he published a book on his experiences, Arkansas Men at War.

The Draft

To better understand Tucker and the war, I’ve been doing some background reading on the conflict in Vietnam. I have been surprised at some things I’ve learned about the war. Perhaps the most surprising thing I’ve learned is that most of the men who served in Vietnam were not drafted. The draft, of course, was very unpopular. We have images of protests and the burning of draft cards in our heads. And yet, more men were drafted during World War II than were during the Vietnam War.

Careful, smoking can kill you! Jim Guy Tucker (on right) with unidentified American. Source: UALR Center for Arkansas History and Culture.

War Correspondent

Tucker was a correspondent, not an enlisted man. He was “in country” for a few months in 1965 and 1967. Tucker–who had served in Marines Corps Reserve before being discharged for a medical problem–was a sharp and objective observer of what was happening. His book, Arkansas Men at War, focuses on a cross-section of Arkansas men, from a helicopter pilot, to a sniper, to a boat driver. As a writer, Tucker composes prose in the tradition of Hemingway. His lines are direct and uncluttered, but also evocative of the time and place. Tucker was in danger much of the time, and the reader feels the tension on each page. Tucker’s writings on Vietnam will prove one of his most lasting legacies.

Race and the War

At one point in the writing of the articles that became the book, Tucker was told by an African American newspaper that his stories would have to examine more the role of the black soldiers in Vietnam. Most of the Marines in Arkansas Men at War are indeed white. And yet, so were most of the men who served in Vietnam.

I had always been under the impression that African Americans provided a disproportionate number of troops in Vietnam. The facts, however, are more complicated. In total, African Americans did not provide a significantly disproportionate number of men in Vietnam. But, this was not the case early on in the conflict. In the first years of heavy combat in Vietnam (1964-1967), black men had a better chance of serving in Vietnam–and dying there–than his white countrymen. Eventually, black leaders in the U.S.–among them Martin Luther King–saw racism at work in Vietnam. They demanded more equality in the military.

One of the reasons why blacks served in disproportionate numbers was the draft system itself. College students could receive deferments. And since whites on average were more likely to go to college, that mean many African Americans served who had no means of avoiding the draft. In the South, especially, draft boards were overwhelmingly white. In some former Confederate states, including Tucker’s home state of Arkansas, there were no black draft board members at all.

The Vietnam War was the first major U.S. conflict in which the military was completely desegregated: units consisted of black and white troops. Yet, there was no shortage of racial tension. Race riots erupted both in Vietnam and at bases back home.

By the end of the war, the government made better efforts at achieving equality in the military. Service became less deadly for African Americans as the war continued. Ironically, despite the racism embedded in the military bureaucracy, by the mid-1970s, African Americans signed up for extended duty at a higher rate than whites. As the war wound down, increasingly, blacks saw the military as a means of bettering themselves and achieving job security. The officer corps, too, opened itself to African Americans. General Colin Powell, one of the architects of the First Gulf War and later Secretary of State under George W. Bush, was a Vietnam veteran.

Jim Guy Tucker in Vietnam. Source: UALR Center for Arkansas History and Culture.

A Complicated Conflict

Tucker’s book on Vietnam doesn’t portray the soldiers there as demoralized. At one point, a man says that the war was being fought “about as well as it could be fought.” Many people might dispute that. And regardless of how the war was fought, the American way of war did not lead to victory. But Tucker’s book, as well as other primary sources I have read on the war, suggests that soldiers were dedicated and professional, but their commitment was not enough.

The reasons for American failure in Vietnam were complicated. Indeed, some people assert that the war was not even lost. The U.S. certainly did not lose the war tactically (Americans suffered far fewer casualties than the Vietnamese). At a more controversial level, some have argued the war was not a strategic failure either. The logic goes like this: failure in southeast Asia only showed the U.S.’s long-term commitment to combating communism. The ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union and in eastern Europe, they argue, was a result of America’s Cold War policies, including a more than ten-year commitment in Vietnam.

Whatever the “larger” issues involved in the outcome of the Vietnam War, I am eager to learn more about it. And Tucker’s book (which, unfortunately, has been out of print since 1968) provides a compelling look at combat in the jungles and rice paddies of southeast Asia.

Colin Woodward is an archivist and historian. He published his first book, Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War through UVA Press. He is working on a book on Johnny Cash.

Dan T. Carter, George Wallace, and the “Duality of the Southern Thing”

By Colin Woodward

I recently started reading Dan T. Carter’s book, The Politics of Rage, which examines the life and political career of the Alabama Governor, who infamously said in 1963 that he wanted “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

Wallace gained national headlines for standing in the doorway of the University of Alabama in 1963, trying in vain to prevent the integration of the college. He also ran for president several times, running most famously on a “Law and Order” platform in 1968. He was forced to live the rest of his life in a wheelchair after a failed assassination attempt wounded him during his 1972 campaign. Yet, despite being paralyzed by Arthur Bremer’s bullet, Wallace would run again in 1976 (the same year the film Taxi Driver, inspired by Bremer came out). Altogether, Wallace was governor of Alabama for sixteen years, a record unmatched except by a former governor of Iowa.

Wallace’s stamp on the history of southern politics is clear, and in Carter, he has a worthy biographer. Dan T. Carter might just be the greatest living southern historian. He has written not just about twentieth century race relations, as in his terrific Bancroft Prize-winning book Scottsboro, but the Reconstruction Era. His When the War was Over is one of the best books I’ve read on Reconstruction and the white backlash after the Civil War. Carter also has a somewhat personal connection to Wallace. He grew up in South Carolina, but he is a distant relative to Asa Earl Carter, a Klansman and speech writer to Wallace (he is also the author of the story that became the film Outlaw Josey Wales and, oddly, the children’s book, Education of Little Tree, about a Native American boy).

Carter is too good of a historian to portray Wallace as merely a race-baiting demagogue. And the Wallace story isn’t that simple. I’m only about 40 pages into the book, and Wallace has yet to enter the military during World War II. So far, there is little to suggest the future governor was ardently racist. As a young man, he grew up in a small racially-mixed town in Alabama, where he excelled at boxing (his favorite picture of himself involved him giving a gloved opponent a bloody nose) and had a lifelong thirst for politics. As was Huey Long before him, Wallace was a born hustler and politician. Unlike Long, however, he made racial politics the lynchpin of his pursuit of power. It’s that decision that is central to the Wallace story.

Back in 2000, the Alabama southern rock band Drive-By Truckers made an album called Southern Rock Opera, which uses Wallace as inspiration for a couple songs. Unlike Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” (a cartoonish anthem for redneck pride), the Truckers make more than a passing reference to the governor. The Truckers’ take on Alabama, furthermore, is far more nuanced than Skynyrd’s ever was. In the spoken-word song “The Three Great Alabama Icons,” the band’s chief songwriter Patterson Hood discusses Wallace’s early, fairly progressive career, which was eclipsed by his opportunistic stand for segregation, even after the Brown v. Board decision made the destruction of Jim Crow inevitable. “Icons” also examines Wallace’s conversion to a more moderate political stance, which enabled him to get a vast majority of the black vote in later gubernatorial campaigns. The Truckers dub Wallace’s appeal to so many people as example of the “duality of the southern thing.”

Even so, the Truckers talk about George Wallace being in hell (where the devil brews him some sweet tea)–not for his racism necessarily, but his sheer ambition at the expense of black civil rights. After all, not everyone who supported civil rights was racially enlightened. Could Wallace have been another LBJ, a man who grew up prejudiced but came down on the side of promoting, rather than blocking, civil rights? Perhaps. But Wallace didn’t, and we are left with the legacy of a man who became a spokesman for segregation.

The Wallace story is further complicated by the redefining of “conservatism” in America. Wallace was a lifelong Democrat, but his rise to power coincided with a realignment that occurred in the U.S. in the 1960s and 70s. In that time, southern Democrats began migrating to the Republican Party, something helped greatly by Sunbelt conservatives Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. Wallace was a creature of the Solid South, which had been strongly Democratic from the mid-19th century up through the mid-20th. But his views found a home in the new, very southern Republican Party.

African Americans would remain Democrat after the civil rights movement, but it was the big government-based Great Society that drove so many white politicians from the Democratic fold. While most white politicians were too shrewd to allow themselves to lapse into Wallace-like language about African Americans, many learned to speak in racial code. They could, however, be much more open, as was Wallace, about being tough-on-crime stance and their evangelical faith. Today, Wallace would, no doubt, be a Republican.

In his book’s introduction, Carter discusses Wallace’s late life conversion to moderation and wonders how real it was. By the 1980s, many people had softened toward Wallace, a fact helped by his obviously weakened physical condition. Many people, even African Americans, seemed willing to forgive his racist past.  I’m not sure if Carter will be as forgiving, but that’s something I’ll find out as I read more.

Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.


Young Black Men Accused in the Scottsboro Rape Case

By Colin Woodward

For me, the two most interesting aspects of American history are race and war. Recently, I finished reading Dan Carter’s terrific book, Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South. Somehow, I made it through graduate school without ever reading this book. The research is impressive, and it reads like a novel. The story recounts the trial of black youths in Alabama who were accused of rape in the 1930s. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, all-white juries repeatedly convicted the boys. And back then, the death penalty was the punishment for a black man who had raped a white woman. Ultimately, none of the boys were executed, but in the long process of winning their release (which, for one of the defendants, did not happen until the 1950s), some of the boys grew to adulthood in prison.

carter scottsboro

Carter skillfully narrates the events of the trials and retrials of the case. Alabama was dripping with racial tensions during the trial. But Carter also shows how divided were those who defended the Scottsboro nine. Initially, the NAACP campaigned to defend the boys, but the ILD (International Labor Defense) acted as counsel. Thus, compounding racial tensions were accusations that the boys were defended by communists. Their chief counsel, Samuel Liebowitz, was a Jewish lawyer from New York, and he endured quite a bit of scorn from the southern public and press. Liebowitz, however, was a brilliant lawyer, who did the best he could with racist white juries. Ironically, white racism actually helped one of the defendants. At one point, one of the Scottsboro boys is convicted but not given the death penalty. Why the “leniency”? One of the jurors believed a black man naturally couldn’t help himself from attacking a white person and so couldn’t be held morally culpable the way a white man would have been.

Scottsboro is the second book I’ve read by Carter, who I find to be one of the more underrated American historians. I quite enjoyed his book When the War Was Over, which shows the difficulty Republicans had in subduing the white backlash against Presidential Reconstruction. I look forward to reading Carter’s book on George Wallace.


Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He published his first book, Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War in 2014 through University of Virginia Press.