Where Does the South Begin?

The Post had an interesting article last weekend about how the Washington, D.C. region has lost most of its southern identity in recent decades as northerners move in and the federal capital's culture, food, and dialect became more standardized. The article raised the inevitable question: Was D.C. ever a southern city? And if so, where does the South begin?

Most Americans would agree that Richmond is a southern town, but how far north above the capital of the Confederacy does the South extend? Is Fredericksburg a southern town? Annapolis? Harper's Ferry? Louisville?

In some sense it's a ham-handed question, since "the South" has many sub-cultures. Charleston is very different than Dallas; the Great Smokies look nothing like the Delta; and Lexington-style barbecue is sacrilegious in Memphis. But at the same time, most Americans, southern and otherwise, have a psychological concept of the South. The question is the geography of it.

The town of Winchester in the Shenandoah Valley was the base to legendary southerners such as Harry Byrd and Stonewall Jackson, yet it is north of Washington, was settled by Quakers, and has the feel of a Pennsylvania mill town. Not surprisingly, Winchester changed hands 72 times during the Civil War.

The border is obviously hazy, as anyone familiar with the events of 1861-65 can attest. The five most widely used borders are the Rappahannock River, the Potomac River, the Ohio River, the Mason-Dixon Line, and U.S. Route 40. Each of these can seem equally logical and preposterous depending on what kind of metric you're using. Here are some of the best ways decide:

Surveys and Censuses

The Mason-Dixon Line is the most traditional border between North and South, and to some extent the line made sense in its time. Maryland was a slave state, home to the likes of Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman, and Lincoln had to send federal troops into Baltimore to quell secessionist riots -- all suggesting Maryland was a southern state.

The Line endures today and the U.S. Census still lists Maryland and D.C. as part of the South. In fact, the Census even calls Delaware southern, which seems a bit misguided. The concept of the Mason-Dixon Line today is outdated, as few people would describe Baltimore, with its ethnic neighborhoods and industrial tradition, as southern.

 

Free States and Slave States

Many historians and sociologists decided long ago that the Mason-Dixon Line was too clumsy and that U.S. Route 40 -- the old National Road -- was a more accurate border. The road extends from Baltimore to Frederick to Cumberland, through Wheeling, across southern Ohio, through Columbus and Indianapolis, across southern Illinois, and out to St. Louis.

In the "Nine Nations of North America," Joel Garreau noted that there are "substantial differences in food, architecture, the layout of towns, and music to either side of that highway." Southern Indiana, he wrote, "is definitely part of Dixie, and has been ever since the Coppherheads (those Northerners who sympathized with the Confederates in the 1860s)."

 

National Road 2


Rivers

Gen. George McClellan could never cross the swampy Chickahominy River outside Richmond, and so everything south of there is clearly property of Dixie. But a more frequently-used border is the Rappahannock, which is about halfway between Washington and Richmond. Most neighborhoods north of the Rap feel metropolitan while counties south are rural.

The Potomac was also the effective border between the USA and CSA. The Feds' decision to coin the Army of the Potomac was symbolic, as it hinted at the central point. Similarly, the Army of the Ohio suggested that the Ohio River was the western border between North and South, which seems reasonable if you consider Kentucky southern and Ohio northern.

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Patrick Ottenhoff has been writing The Electoral Map blog since 2007. A former staff writer for National Journal Group and project manager at New Media Strategies, he now attends Georgetown's McDonough School of Business. More

Patrick Ottenhoff attends Georgetown McDonough School of Business in the Class of 2012. He previously served as a project manager in the Public Affairs Practice of New Media Strategies and was a staff writer for National Journal Group. Patrick has been writing The Electoral Map blog since 2007. As the name implies, the blog covers news and commentary at the intersection of politics and geography, but it also analyzes the stories, people, culture, sports, and food behind the maps and the votes. Patrick is a native Virginian and graduate of Union College in New York. You can follow The Electoral Map on Twitter and Facebook, and follow Patrick on YouTube.

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