Author Interview-- James Hill “Trae” Welborn (Dueling Cultures, Damnable Legacies) Part 1

Niels Eichhorn Discussion

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we feature James Hill “Trae” Welborn to talk about his new book, Dueling Cultures, Damnable Legacies: Southern Violence and White Supremacy in the Civil War Era, published by University of Virginia Press in June 2023.

Trae Welborn is associate professor of history at Georgia College and State University. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Georgia.

Trae, first of all, how do you feel stepping on Vernon Burton territory so strongly in your book? 

JHW: Vernon Burton has been a steadfast supporter of this project from very early on. Before I had the privilege of knowing Vernon personally, his work, especially his first book focused on Edgefield, In My Father’s House Are Many Mansions, served an essential role as this project took early form as my master’s thesis at Clemson University. Vernon’s book was the first scholarly historical analysis of the Edgefield community, its culture and history, that I consulted. Another book, Jack Bass’s biography of Strom Thurmond (Ol’ Strom), was the first hook to set me upon a research path into Edgefield. In it Bass quotes Strom Thurmond explaining that “his father probably would have been governor except ‘one time he had to kill a man.’” (8) Everything about this phrasing intrigued me–the matter-of-fact recognition of deadly violence, the implied sanction/justifiability of the act, the community surrounding such an attitude toward such violence–so I began to dig more deeply into Edgefield as a hotbed of masculine violence and its cultural meanings and implications. Vernon’s work represented the beginning of that process of delving into the scholarship on Edgefield, South Carolina, the South in the Civil War Era, and its contentious and evolving memory in the region since. He served on my dissertation committee as an outside reader, and encouraged me to submit a revised book manuscript based on the diss. to the UVA Press  series he co-edits with Elizabeth Varon. And Vernon has consistently encouraged and counseled the project through each of those stages. 

How did you come to write a book about dueling, masculinity, and religion in the mid-19C South? 

JHW: I entered into my Edgefield research with a fairly simple question in mind: “What’s in the water in Edgefield?” The self-proclaimed “Home of Ten Governors” and notorious for its very public, often deadly political violence among some of its most prominent public figures, I initially sought to understand the dynamics animating this boisterous community and its culture. Early in my research I sought simply to catalog and categorize the acts of violence so prevalent in Edgefield throughout its history. I initially focused on white male violence generally in order to understand the dynamics of the white power structure in the Slave South. And I found ample evidence of the various modes by which white men enforced, reinforced, and defended that power structure and their place within it through various forms of violence. But alongside this litany of violent acts I also found copious references to a vibrant religious community and a pervasive religious moral ethic at work in Edgefield society and culture. Explaining the existence–and significance–of this apparent dichotomy became the focal point of the work from MA thesis to dissertation and now with the published book. Toward that end, the focus remained on better understanding how those who authored those cultural ideals and vested themselves with the social capital and power to enforce adherence to these ideals within society writ large. Here it became apparent that the duality I was encountering in Edgefield–between a broad sanction of various forms of violence within an even broader conception of masculine honor and a fervent religious morality bent on curbing worldly passions, violence prominent among them–didn’t wholly square with the secondary scholarship. I came to conceive of the historiography on Southern culture writ large during the Civil War Era as divided into two contrasting camps: the “Honor-bound South” and “Bible Belt South,” which analyzed these two moral and ethical forces in southern culture during the nineteenth century as fundamentally at odds, with those who adhered to one or the other typically rejecting the other. The historiography is, of course, more nuanced than this, but this was the general pattern that emerged, and the exceptions to this pattern seemed underdeveloped but more compelling and therefore ripe for analytical picking. Edgefield proved fertile ground toward those ends.  

What do you argue in Dueling Cultures, Damnable Legacies?

My book argues that honor and religion, though often at odds in the prescriptions for male behavior, could and often did serve complementary moral and ethical purposes within the decidedly patriarchal and white supremacist context of the American South throughout the Civil War Era. Whether in the service of the proslavery defense, or the Confederate nation, or the postwar resistance to “Radical Reconstruction” and its racially progressive agenda, leading white southern men marshaled both their sense of honor and religion to sanction their privileged position in the region’s social hierarchy while enabling themselves to protect that position through special prerogatives–including various forms of violence–that ensured the perpetuation of white supremacy and patriarchal power as the purported bedrock of good social order. And the legacies of this moral and ethical worldview continue to resonate in modern society, especially in the form of white christian nationalism and its tendency toward violence rhetoric and action still grounded fundamentally in persistent assumptions of white supremacy and patriarchy.

Why Edgefield, South Carolina?

JHW: Those first forays into Edgefield proved instructive and confounding. On the one hand, ample evidence of a heightened sense of masculine honor and propensity toward violence poured off every archival page. But on the other hand an equally fervent (and sometimes even violent, at least in rhetoric if not to the same degree in action) religious moral ethic of piety pervaded the archival record. The inability of the secondary scholarship, as I applied it, to more holistically and effectively explain this duality in all of its nuance and complexity seemed to beckon for a more sustained and, in my view, granular analysis of men’s lived experiences of these cultural values and mores during this tumultuous  and dynamic era. So I pursued a more in-depth analysis of particular men and their families with ties to Edgefield, and sought out men on both sides of this apparent cultural dichotomy–ministers and “master” who both claimed to be fulfilling some higher calling to their family, their society, and in most cases to at least some degree, to their God. Given the previously mentioned notoriety of Edgefield’s public men and their public actions that tended toward violence, I found plenty of prospective subjects for further study of honor and violence. But I also found equally prominent figures in the religious community of Edgefield with comparable clout across the region and nation. Both groups evinced much the same cultural mores and convictions grounded in similarly racialized and gendered conceptions of “proper” social order. The dynamics between these powerful men and their thoughts and actions as it related to honor, violence, and morality seemed a promising avenue through which to better understand white southern identity and ideology more broadly as it evolved from 1820 to 1880. The result I think is a revealing connection between macro conceptions of honor and religion as abstract cultural forces in the region and the micro understanding of hyper-individualized-and-emotional experiences of these forces by particular men and their families with ties to a particular place.

You already mentioned that you were curious about what was in the water, what did dueling culture look like especially in Edgefield?

JHW: In most respects elite dueling culture in Edgefield during this period was fairly typical, even prototypical in its adherence to the regulatory “rule” of the  “code duello” as most prominently published by SC Governor John Lyde Wilson in the 1830s. What set Edgefield apart was the frequency with which its most prominent citizens engaged in “affairs of honor,” many of which ended in an exchange of shots on the dueling grounds and some of which resulted in serious injury and even death. What I seek to emphasize in the book about honor and violence in Edgefield specifically during this period, though, is that white male violence up and down the social hierarchy incorporated to varying degrees these ritualized rules of social interaction, verbal exchange, and, when deemed necessary, violent confrontation. Even beyond the social and political elites who claimed the dueling grounds as their own exclusive territory for conflict mitigation, the ritualized language and conventions of the “code duello” manifested in violent exchanges between white men in Edgefield beyond the dueling grounds, spilling over into barroom brawls, courthouse shootouts, and neighborhood fisticuffs. The pervasive presence of honor-bound violence among white men, and the implicit community tolerance (if not sanction) of it, made Edgefield unique even if the nature of that violence itself played out in ways typical for the era in the state and region more broadly.