The Bad Old Man

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As I've said before, people in the 19th century just had cooler names--Hiram Ulysses Grant, Spottswood Rice, Sojurner Truth and, my favorite, William "Extra Billy" Smith. Second to Smith is probably Jubal Early, who I always knew as the chief author of Confederate-Camelot hagiography. But apparently Early actually began his career as an anti-secessionist:


He spoke out on behalf of "the real people -- the bone and sinew of the state," who had spurned the Deep South's lead. Always "quick to take violent offense," as one biographer noted, Early hit back hard when one of the secession leaders, young John Goode Jr. from neighboring Bedford County, accused him of misrepresenting the sentiments of Franklin voters. Mutual friends interceded to prevent a duel, but the two continued to spar on the convention floor. Early continued to insist -- and with good basis for doing so -- that "the masses of the people of Virginia" repudiated Richmond's noisy secessionist mobs. 

 On April 13 -- the day after Confederates in South Carolina fired the first shots of the war -- Early commended Major Robert Anderson's "gallant devotion to duty" and announced that his heart was "bound down with sorrow" to find that any Virginian dared to rejoice at Anderson's having been forced to "lower the flag of his country." In Early's eyes, Anderson was "the hero of Fort Sumter." The two had known each other since West Point -- Anderson was an artillery instructor when Early was a student. John Goode saw the situation quite differently. 

He called for a Confederate army to liberate eastern Virginia from Black Republican oppression -- and from "the powers that, perchance, may lie West of the Allegheny mountains." Showing that the bad blood between them still festered, Early immediately aimed a sharp barb at "the gentleman who claims to be of the states rights school," but who now would welcome an invading army to overturn majority sentiment in Virginia. Goode, he sneered, "was not only going to secede from the Union, but to secede from the State of Virginia."

There were no real public opinion polls back then, but it would be interesting to know what percentage of the South actually favored secession. I'd be inclined to know the same thing about Maryland and Kentucky. It is worth noting that secession started in South Carolina, arguably the most undemocratic state in the Union:

Slave owners had more control over the state government of South Carolina than of any other state, blending aristocratic traditions with democracy. South Carolina's plantation owners played the role of English aristocrats more than the planters of other states, whereas newer Southern states, such as Alabama and Mississippi, allowed more political equality among whites. Although all white male residents were allowed to vote, property restrictions for office holders were higher in South Carolina than in any other state. South Carolina had the only state legislature where slave owners had the majority of seats. It was the only state where the legislature elected the governor, all judges and state electors.  The state's chief executive was a figurehead who had no authority to veto legislative law. 

The majority of the population in South Carolina was black: by 1860 the population of the state was 703,620, with 57 percent or slightly more than 402,000 classified as enslaved African Americans. Free blacks numbered slightly less than 10,000. Unlike Virginia, where most of the plantations and slaves were concentrated in the eastern part of the state, in South Carolina plantations and slaves were common throughout most of the state. After 1794, Eli Whitney's cotton gin allowed cotton plantations to grow throughout South Carolina. By 1830, 85 percent of inhabitants of rice plantations along the coast were slaves. When rice planters left the malarial low country for cities such as Charleston, up to 98 percent of the low country residents were slaves. By 1830, two-thirds of South Carolina's counties had populations with 40 percent or more enslaved; in the two counties with the lowest rates of slavery, 23 percent of the population were slaves.

Somehow when people discuss the horrors of Sherman's march through South Carolina, these facts are always left out. This really was Genosha, and you can only imagine the brutality necessary to uphold that order. That South Carolina would ultimately be brought low by Sherman, an avowed white supremacist, is fascinating.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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