Author Interview-- James Hill “Trae” Welborn (Dueling Cultures, Damnable Legacies) Part 2

Niels Eichhorn Discussion

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we continue our conversation with 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.

Part 1

What was the role of religion and masculinity in this developing culture of the South, and how did social pressures especially with a view to religious conformity impact people?

JHW: As alluded to earlier, the most fascinating aspect of Edgefield society and culture during the Civil War Era that revealed itself in my archival research was the conspicuous juxtaposition of a masculine culture grounded in honor and violence and an equally fervent religious culture grounded in Protestant Evangelical conceptions of personal piety and morality. Certainly much of what transpired in Edgefield aligns to the historiography regarding southern masculinity and religion in the region, as many men stopped well short of formal denominational affiliation or congregational membership, with even fewer holding leadership positions in those national, regional, or local denominational organizations or congregations. But the pervasive presence of religious piety and morality in the rhetoric and actions of Edgefield’s white men during this period, even at times when they engaged in the ritualized language and ritual of honor toward its sometimes violent ends, seemed to beckon for a more nuanced explanation that what the scholarship on these intersecting cultural forces in the South had theretofore provided. So I identified prominent families in Edgefield who consistently exhibited this cultural duality in their public pronouncements and private reflections and correspondence in order to pull at analytical threads exposed but not fully unraveled in an earlier historiography by Ed Ayers, Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Anne C. Loveland, Christine Heyrman, and more recently by Edward Crowther, A. James Fuller, Charity Carney, and Robert Elder. Certainly, social pressures to conform to convention fundamentally shaped individual application of these moral and ethical ideals on a daily basis. But what became abundantly clear as I continued to unpack the hyper-individualized and emotional experiences of these Edgefield men and their families was that they were largely incapable of dissecting their sense of honor and their religious beliefs as they defined themselves as men generally, but specifically as white men in the South’s slave system (and following emancipation, in the still virulently white supremacist society and culture of the postbellum South).  

In all this, where does slavery fit and what about women?

JHW: As I emphasize throughout the book, a hierarchical conception of race grounded in assumptions of white supremacy pervaded the South throughout the Civil War Era, and as such pervaded the individual and collective emotional experiences of the Edgefield men and their families at the heart of my analysis. All were enslavers and all aligned to the proslavery position in the sectional debate over slavery in the nation. Inherent in their defense of the slave system and its racial hierarchy was a conviction that privileging and perpetuating patriarchal power was essential to maintaining “good social order,” by which they clearly and consistently meant white supremacy, whether through the slave system before and during the Civil War or through reassertions of white control in the postwar wake of Confederate defeat and Black emancipation.

How does your book force us to reinterpret major figures like Preston Brook?

Preston Brooks began as a secondary figure in my initial research. In an early chapter draft of the MA thesis, my advisor even scrawled in the margins “methinks we’ve had enough of Brooks-Sumner, no?” when I emphasized that violent event as a marker of the cultural tensions I was at that point just beginning to explore. But as the evidence accumulated for the other men and families in my study, the Brooks family generally and Preston Brooks in particular seemed to vividly personify those tensions in instructive ways that complicated the caricatured portrait of Preston Smith Brooks so often replicated in references to his most infamous act, the caning of Charles Sumner in 1856. Brook’s life and family experiences, youthful transgressions, violent nature and boisterous character, but also his moments of genuine religious reflection and commitment all seemed far more complex, and as such more engaging and telling, than the “Bully Brooks” caricature by which most have come to conceive of him. The poignancy of his most infamous, and most violent, act at the height of the sectional crisis aligned to the growing tensions, animosity, and violence I was finding among others of his peers in Edgefield, the state of South Carolina, and the South at large. He and they promised to explain much about the mindset and mores of white proslavery southerners as they confronted their own inner demons (both individually and as a collective slave society) and external, even existential threats to their self-described “way of life.”

How does Reconstruction change the dynamics you discuss in the book, how does defeat in war make such a hyper-masculine environment feel?

The postwar Reconstruction Era certainly changed the dynamics of white patriarchal power in the South, but clearly failed to supplant it as a dominant force in southern society and culture. I argue in the book that, rather than eroding the foundations of such power, Confederate defeat and emancipation largely served to embolden white men to redouble their efforts to marshall their claims to honor and moral righteousness in defense of patriarchal privilege and prerogative wielded to uphold white supremacy in the postemancipation South. Always fraught with tension and at times even doubt about their professed convictions, the realities of defeat and emancipation seemed to many to necessitate even more concerted efforts to reassert white male control over the postwar South, first in resistance to “Radical Republicanism” then in support of “Redemption” and the eventual implementation of “Jim Crow” disfranchisement and segregation it enabled. By the 1890s the besieged mentality that had permeated white proslavery rhetoric and action from the 1830s through the 1870s shifted toward one of confidence and assurance that their claims to authority had been valid and successful as evidenced in the return of “home rule” in the region’s politics and the reassertion of white supremacy in the region’s cultural conventions and social structures as embodied in “Jim Crow.” 

Finally, Rachel Shelden made an interesting claim a few years ago in Civil War History about studying continuity to better understand the Civil War era--do you feel your book addresses that?

Indeed, all of Rachel Shelden’s work has been an inspiration for my own. Her first book, Washington Brotherhood was especially influential in shaping the context into which I first began to situate Preston Brooks as a political figure within the D.C. social milieu and Congressional cohort. Her article you reference in Civil War History was and is spot on in its call for analyzing continuity and change across a broader chronological sweep that breaks down the imposed barrier of pre- and post-war analysis (and attending historiographical “camps” therein). That very concern (and frustration with the largely arbitrary dichotomy between the two periods so prevalent in much of the historiography) was a major consideration in the framing of my book, even in its earlier stages as a dissertation. While the bulk of the book focuses on the complexities of white southern manhood, identity, and ideology during the evolving sectional crisis over slavery, the final chapter and epilogue very deliberately attempt to carry those cultural tensions into the wartime and postwar period in order to show that yes, as the social, political, and economic context changed drastically during and after the war, certainly cultural ideals, conventions, and convictions in their legitimacy, even necessity, persisted among white southerners. And these continuities explain much about the nature of the postwar South from the rise and fall of Reconstruction to the emergence of Jim Crow, not to mention the continued resonance of the legacies of these processes in our own time. The striking similarities in the confluence of prejudicial assumptions, moral and ethical convictions, and violent rhetoric and action between patriarchal and white supremacist assertions by southerners in the Civil War Era and those of many white nationalists in recent history and current events all speak to the need for historians to examine change over time, certainly, but to also be cognizant to the significance of continuity as well. Better contextualizing the dynamics between the two forces in shaping historical processes of development has always been paramount, but perhaps now more than ever, especially for historians of the Civil War Era and its memory in the current moment when the legacies of that era and its memories have such profound implications for the present and future.

I know that you just published a book and we all deserve a break in that moment, but I am going to ask, what is your next project?

I am currently co-editing a collection of essays with Dr. Patrick Lewis (Filson Historical Society) tentatively titled Playing at War: Identity and Memory in American Civil War Era Video Games that is under contract with LSU Press and currently on schedule for Fall 2024 publication. Beyond that I’m working on an article in its early stages that expands upon one facet of the dynamic between southern honor and religion touched on in my book, what I call “rhetorical dueling” among religious clerics in the religious press of the antebellum era. I am also in the early stages of research for a second book project, tentatively titled In the Lion’s Den: Southern Students at Northern Seminaries During the Height of the Sectional Crisis. It will also follow inroads made in the first book by identifying southern seminary students attending northern schools during the 1840s and 1850s. Focusing on these students will enable a more in-depth and nuanced understanding of the complexities of their experiences, 1) confronting their own cultural misgivings about the South’s slave society, while 2) faced with unprecedented exposure to and engagement with antislavery and abolitionist thought and activism during their studies “abroad” in the free labor north. In the longer term I intend to expand the scope of my scholarship beyond the Civil War Era and its memory to engage with one of my other passions, southern collegiate athletics, through a study of the religious rhetoric and ritual embedded in major college football culture throughout the South.