Stories from a Southern Yankee

Posted on May 26, 2019


Stories from a Southern Yankee

That of course is a contradictory term. How can one be a Yankee and a Southerner to boot? My Southern family—all South Carolinians–never quite forgave my parents for allowing me to be born in New Jersey, and while they loved on me, I was occasionally reminded that I was the little damn Yankee in the family.

This irritated me since I figured I had no choice on where I was born, but I got over it for the most part as an adult. I discovered who won The War, and then settled in to the South as a college student and later faculty member at the greatest Southern football school ever for more than a half a century. Perhaps I could have it both ways, born in the North which prevailed in the Civil War, but Southern by adoption into the land of my fathers.

Some say we are just another one of the regions in the U.S.—like New England or the Pacific Northwest—but that’s not quite true. We lost the Civil War and that left a deep imprint on the South—segregation, Jim Crow laws, lynchings, Gone with the Wind, Civil Rights, etc.—that either endowed or afflicted us for over a century. But we are also Rocket City—Huntsville–, William Faulkner and Harper Lee, George Washington Carver and Martin Luther King, Jr., the Crimson Tide, and so much more that gives us a peculiar identity.

What is it about Southerners that makes us unique? Since the central issue of our age was the Civil War, let’s examine it a bit.

History by the way changes. Don’t be shocked. By that I mean that history is interpreted and re-interpreted by each generation. The names, and facts, and places, and generals, and privates, don’t change but the interpreters do.

When I first learned of the Civil War, it was something my South Carolina relatives referred to occasionally as the “lost cause” which was in some fashion a noble and courageous part of our past. I accepted that South Carolina was part of God’s country and that Yankees were not very much welcome.

What was this “lost cause” business? You younger readers will have to Google it. My wife Louise, however, Florida-born and reared in the ranch country of Arcadia, sure knew about Yankees and how they were polluting her home State! Louise embodies the stereotype of civil, friendly, family- and God-loving Southerners, rather than the crass Yankees invading Florida over the past half century. That her grandmother who built the modern family fortune in the cattle business was a genuine Yankee–a Fuller from Hartford, Connecticut–complicates the story a bit because Louise was very fond of the old girl, and it was reciprocated. So, there’s room, I discovered, to like, and even love, Yankees given the proper conditions. She even married me.

Today, however, the Old South is being systematically dismantled and thrown on the trash heap of history. Why do this? Do Southerners today view slavery in any other way than for what it was: a cruel and pitiless institution? Just the middle passage voyages from Africa to the Americas were nightmares of pain, dislocation, and death, and the Civil War was fought to eradicate it in the United States. Good riddance.

In the course of disparaging slavery, however, do we also disparage those who fought the Civil War? My Confederate great grandfather was fighting not to defend slavery but to defend his home and a way of life that the wealthier, more powerful slave-holding class—the planters of the South—promoted with a lot of political clout and savvy. See the vote on Alabama’s Ordinance of Secession: 61-39. Almost forty percent of your ancestors voted against it. That’s true and faithful history.

After the War, Southerners put in Jim Crow laws and established segregation as the official policy—the separate but equal clause of Plessey vs. Ferguson, 1894. Was it right? Certainly not. What happened to true equality as one of the great principles of the Founding Fathers? How about the right to vote? Discrimination in our country was not limited, by the way, against African Americans. Many native Americans, women, and some other categories like Jews and Catholics endured prejudice and exclusion as well. Let’s be honest with each other. We had some serious warts and injustices. Don’t hide them.

My being born a Yankee in a Southern family was one of those accidents of misfortune for my relatives. General William Tecumseh Sherman of the Union, after all, was a godless warmonger who ruthlessly destroyed and raped much of the South on his March to the Sea. Ulysses S. Grant ran a close second in Southern popularity.

Yet, in my roots I have both Dixie and The Battle Hymn of the Republic. I treasure and value both. Each represents a part of our true history.

Published as “Musings from a Southern Yankee” May 5, 2019 in The Tuscaloosa News.