Reconstruction: The Conquest of the Southern Mind
The North defeated the South in war, crushed and humiliated it in peace, and waged war against it a war of intellectual and spiritual conquest. In this conquest the North fixed upon the South the stigma of war guilt, of slave guilt, of treason and thereby shook the faith of its people in their way of living and in their philosophy of life.
by Frank Lawrence Owsley
After the South had been conquered by war and humiliation and impoverished by peace, there appeared still to remain something which made the South different- something intangible, incomprehensible, in the realm of the spirit. That too must be invaded and destroyed; so there commenced a second war of conquest, the conquest of the Southern mind, calculated to remake every Southern opinion, to impose the Northern way of life and thought upon the South, write “error” across the pages of Southern history which were out of keeping with the Northern legend, and set the rising and unborn generations upon stools of everlasting repentance. Francis Wayland, a former president of Brown University, regarded the South as “the new missionary ground for the national school teacher,” and President Hill of Harvard looked forward to the task for the North “of spreading knowledge and culture over the regions that sat in darkness.” The older generations, the hardened campaigners under Lee and Jackson, were too tough-minded to reeducate. They must be ignored. The North must “treat them as Western farmers do the stumps in their clearings, work around them and let them rot out,” but the rising and future generations were to receive the proper education in Northern tradition.
The South, in the days after the so-called Reconstruction, was peculiarly defenseless against being educated by the North. Many leaders of the Civil War days were politically disfranchised or so saddened and depressed that they drew within themselves. From 1865 to 1880 the father of one of Alabama’s later Governors refused to read a newspaper. His was only an extreme case of what was a general tendency, for the reading of the “news” was nothing but the annals of plunder, rape, murder, and endless injustices. Such old Spartans, living thus within themselves in order that they might live at all, built up around themselves a shell which cut them off spiritually from all that was going on about them. This, too, when many of them were still in their prime and fitted for many years of leadership. These were men whom the Northern intellectual and spiritual plowmen were to plow around like stumps until they rotted out. Their older sons had been in the war. They adjusted themselves, if only to a degree. Their younger sons and daughters between 1865 and 1876 or later grew up wild and uncouth, either unable to attend school or too proud to attend school in company with their former slaves.
Hence, for thirty years after the Civil war the intellectual life of the South was as sterile as its own rocky uplands and sandy barrens. The rising generations read Northern literature, shot through with New England tradition. Northern textbooks were used in Southern schools; Northern histories, despite the frantic protests of local patriotic organizations, were almost universally taught in Southern high schools and colleges,-books that were built around the Northern legend and either completely ignored the South or insisted upon the unrighteousness of most of its history and its philosophy of life. One would judge from the average history text and from the recitations conducted by the Northern schoolma’am that the Puritans and Pilgrim fathers were the ancestor’s of every self-respecting American. Southern children spoke of “our Puritan fathers.” No child ever heard of the Southern Puritan fathers-the great horde of Scotch-Irish Presbyterians and German Lutherans and other strict and puritanical peoples who had pushed to the Mississippi River and far North of the Ohio before the New England population had got a hundred miles west of Boston.
In short, the South either had no history, or its history was tainted with slavery and rebellion and must be abjured. There was for the Southern child and youth until the end of the nineteenth century very little choice. They had to accept the Northern version of history with all its condemnations and carping criticisms of Southern institutions and life, with its chanting of “John Brown’s Body,” its hanging of Jeff Davis on a sour-apple tree, its hosannas to factories and mines and the growth of populations as the only criterion of progress, and the crying down and discrediting of anything agrarian as old-fashioned and backward. As time rolled on, the chorus of “John Brown’s Body” swelled ever louder and louder until the lusty voices of grandchildren and great—grandchildren of rebels joined in the singing. Lee, largely through the perverse generosity of Charles Francis Adams, Jr., was permitted to be worshipped in the Southern edition of the Northern tradition because Lee was made a good showing abroad as a representative of American military genius. However, Lincoln was the real Southern hero because Lincoln had saved the Union. So they were told!
Thus, the North defeated the South in war, crushed and humiliated it in peace, and waged war against it a war of intellectual and spiritual conquest. In this conquest the North fixed upon the South the stigma of war guilt, of slave guilt, of treason, and thereby shook the faith of its people in their way of living and in their philosophy of life.
-from I’ll Take My Stand (The Irrepressible Conflict)
Is any facet of American history more poorly understood and flat misunderstood by Americans at large- than the War Between the States??