- The Washington Times - Friday, September 16, 2005


By Peter S. Carmichael, Raleigh: University of North Carolina Press, $39.95, 343 pages, illus.


It was common to speak of a “generation gap” during the turbulent 1960s, but that was not the first time younger and older Americans looked at the world differently. Historian Peter S. Carmichael details a similar generation gap before the Civil War.

Mr. Carmichael reviews the experience of young Virginians, “the last generation of white Southerners to grow up with the institution of slavery.”

It was a time of great challenge: “They grew up politically in the tumultuous 1850s, lobbied for secession when their conservative elders preached Union, and served as secondary officers in [Robert E.] Lee’s army.”

Their hopes dashed by the South’s defeat, these young Virginians came to terms with the Union. They found that “Reconstruction provided a second chance to instill in Virginia a spirit of innovation, reform, and prosperity, even if it came at the price of having to return to Pennsylvania and worship the Star-Spangled Banner on the sacred ground of Gettysburg” at later war reunions.

Mr. Carmichael chose as his sample 121 young Virginians, largely twentysomething sons of slaveholders. He paints a more attractive portrait than many would expect. Mr. Carmichael writes: “I discovered … that this age group and class of Southern men articulated a version of masculinity based on Christian gentility, not raw physical aggression; that they were highly ideological, not just men of feeling; and that they were remarkably savvy as the Confederacy’s front-line negotiators, not the brutal enforcers of the slaveholders’ political will.”

This youthful generation believed in progress. Its members took slavery for granted but “were eager to push the Old Dominion to the head of the pack in the global race for progress,” Mr. Carmichael says.

In this way, some of them sounded more like capitalist Yankees than agrarian reactionaries. Although uncomfortable with what they saw as mass democracy, he explains, “young Virginians shared with free-labor societies a belief that progress represented an increase in material prosperity, individualism, and bourgeois liberalism.”

In the bitter sectional disputes leading up to war, members of the last generation defended their state but acknowledged its failings. They were perhaps better intentioned but less realistic than their elders, accepting, Mr. Carmichael writes, “the North’s challenge without considering that the ‘spirit of the times’ could result in the undoing of their own society.”

The result was a significant generational divide that sounds eminently modern: young Virginians versus the “old fogies.” The former, Mr. Carmichael writes, “coalesced as a generation around the central issue: Why had Virginia declined materially and lost its influence in the Union since the Revolution? Instead of attributing the state’s loss of stature to impersonal economic forces, as previous generations had done, young Virginians blamed the leaders of their parents’ generation for failing to embrace the idea of progress and all of its trappings.”

When the great cataclysm of war came, this generation found itself conflicted. Its members supported the Union and viewed Republicanism as an aberration. Yet when the national government fell to that force, the young Virginians “emerged as the most outspoken proponents of secession in Virginia, holding a position at odds with a vast majority of their elders.”

Most served as second-echelon officers in the war. Although they did not set national policy, they did help bridge class and social divisions within Southern society.

The exigencies of war caused them to favor larger government and back proposals to arm the slaves. These stances, Mr. Carmichael says, “reflected their uncompromising commitment to Southern independence.”

Most took defeat hard, but Mr. Carmichael’s most interesting finding is how most of them eventually accepted the Northern victory. He cites the writings of John Hampden Chamberlayne, who served in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

Chamberlayne refused to surrender at Appomattox and hoped for eventual sectional retribution, even if beyond his lifetime, but a decade later, he publicly welcomed Virginia’s forced release from slavery.

“The religious defense of slavery, he argued, had closed Southern minds, while freedom of thought had flourished in the North, encouraging creativity and innovation,” Mr. Carmichael explains.

One reason the last generation shifted course so quickly was practical: Accommodation was the best way to end Union occupation. “Pragmatism and a quest for home rule, however, do not entirely explain why members of the last generation accepted New South orthodoxy and the death of slavery with relative ease,” Mr. Carmichael writes.

Many members of the last generation openly called for abandoning the state’s Cavalier tradition. They again pointed to progress, including the embrace of industrial capitalism, as Virginia’s pre-eminent objective.

Among their opponents were surviving “old fogies” from before the war, such as Gen. Jubal Early, who did much to keep Southern nationalism alive. Rather than smash the icons he was erecting, they adopted them.

Writes Mr. Carmichael: “Younger Virginians argued that Christianity instilled in Lee a controlled ambition and a focused energy that propelled him to professional success. The way in which he managed the Army of Northern Virginia demonstrated that Lee was not mired in the past and wedded to values unfit for the rising New South.”

Broad-based reconciliation eventually followed. Ironically, though, some of the last generation eventually recovered its old nationalistic impulses and expressed concern over Northern values. Progressives till the end, many found it difficult to reconcile their romantic notions of a New South with the “materialistic marketplace that they did not understand or desire,” Mr. Carmichael observes.

“The Last Generation” offers a fascinating portrait of the journey of a generation through perhaps America’s most turbulent time. More important, Mr. Carmichael illuminates the intellectual and philosophical divisions of Southern society too often overlooked in standard histories.

Looking back, it seems obvious that no slave society could survive the sort of economic progress that characterized the industrialized North. But it took a great War Between the States to convince many young Virginians of this fact.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.

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