- Historic Sites
Legacy Of Violence
Sociologists continue to be vexed by the pathology of urban violence: Why is it so random, so fierce, so easily triggered? One answer may be found in our Southern past.
October 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 6
In part it was the South’s deep loyalty to honor that helped spawn secession and the Civil War. All the signals from the North—the abolitionists, John Brown’s raid, the response to the Fugitive Slave Law, Lincoln’s election—were read not merely for their overt political content but for their affront to Southern honor. White Southerners in 1860 did not feel they could in good conscience accept the North’s apparent disregard for Southern rights and opinion. The states of the upper South refused to secede until they saw that Lincoln was calling up troops for South Carolina; considering themselves invaded, they joined the states of the Deep South that had seceded months earlier. Honor may even have shaped Southern strategy in the ensuing war, encouraging frontal assaults and other daring strategies instead of less glorious defensive maneuvers.
After the South’s defeat, one thing remained constant. “Self-respect, as the Southerners understand it, has always demanded much fighting,” a Connecticut native serving in the Freedmen’s Bureau explained to fellow Northerners. “A pugnacity which is not merely war paint, but is, so to speak, tattooed into the character, has resulted from this high sentiment of personal value.” As in the colonial and antebellum periods, all classes seemed touched with violence: “It permeates all society; it has infected all individualities. The meekest man by nature, the man who at the North would no more fight than he would jump out of a second story window, may at the South resent an insult by a blow, or perhaps a stab or pistol shot.”
Nor was the pervasive violence confined to the turbulent years of Reconstruction. As late as the 1890s the bloodshed was still a sign of Southern distinctiveness. “People who have never visited the Southern States but only read of these deeds of violence, are not infrequently inclined to smile when the principals are referred to as ‘members of prominent families’ or ‘leading citizens,’” a Southern writer admitted. But in fact, “farmers, merchants, bankers, physicians, lawyers, even ministers of the gospel, often slay their fellow-man in private warfare, and often after a mock trial are set at liberty, not only with no serious detriment to their reputation, but in many instances with increased popularity.”
A few mannered duels still occurred in the South after Reconstruction, but dueling was increasingly eclipsed by less formalized and more deadly violence. Perhaps the mass slaughter of the Civil War, the depersonalized and often senseless deaths in a losing cause, undermined Southerners’ faith in ritualized violence. Perhaps, too, defeat forced members of the Southern elite to reconsider before ostentatiously engaging in a form of violence strictly reserved for an “aristocracy.” Duelists who went upon the ground of battle “with all the hullaballoo and style imaginable,” as one Georgia newspaper commented in 1889, “make themselves the laughing stock of the continent.”
New avenues to respectability appeared in the South after the Civil War. Business now offered a legitimate and increasingly prestigious way to make a living, and there seemed little profit in a public ritual of bloodshed. One Southerner dreamed of a time when the values of business would purge the South of honor: in “the most highly civilized States … the foremost classes give little or no attention to enemies at all. … They do not care what any enemy says, and do not mind what he does, as long as he is not in debt to them. They keep up a disciplined police force to catch him and lock him up if he gets drunk, or threatens violence, or goes about calling names in the street.” Another Southerner argued that “commerce has no social illusions” and that it would be commerce that would rid the region of “this historic, red-handed, deformed, and swaggering villain.” As a Savannah newspaper put it, “In these modern times, character and honor depend upon a man’s own life and conduct; not upon what another may say of him.”
But even as business values, stronger churches, and a new mass culture worked in the New South to spread the values of dignity, Southern violence endured and escalated. Although dueling faded, a Southern professor warned, “the old spirit of so-called Chivalry has not declined with the ‘Code’: there is the same unwillingness—in a lessening degree—to go to the law; and in [the Southerner’s] transition stage from the ‘Code’ to the courts we have fallen into the present lawless and cruel habit of street fighting.” “The curse and shame of the South,” lamented an 1882 article on the influence of homicide on Southern progress, “is the constant presence in the minds of all classes, from childhood up, of homicide as one of the probable contingencies of ordinary social life.” Robert Penn Warren remembered that in Kentucky in the early twentieth century “there was a world of violence that I grew up in. You accepted violence as a component of life.”