Not just a book review: My Diary North and South

I recently finished reading William Howard Russell’s My Diary North and South, though my edition is an older one (1954, edited by Fletcher Pratt). It was a purchase I made at a used book store not too long ago, and I singled it out as my choice while on a one-book budget because of much recent blogosphere discussion regarding how individuals of 1860-61 actually viewed things.  Arguments have gone all over the place, mostly in the comments sections of the popular Civil War blogs, specifically challenging whether those who honor/celebrate their CW ancestors really understand the individual ancestor’s motivations or whether they are simply projecting generic political or social goals of the appropriate section upon unknown men who lived generations ago.  I suppose that if you lack written record from your ancestors (or from those who actually knew them) and if you are also unfortunately devoid of trusted stories passed through the generations, then you are left with two options- either choose not to speak for someone whom you truly do not know and leave it at that or look at the circumstantial evidence and try your best to figure it out.  Since I am not a “let it be” kind of guy, I picked up Russell’s Diary, and it absolutely lived up to my hopes as an essential piece of just such evidence.

As a read, the book is very well done, sucking the reader into the scenery, the people, and the times.  Russell was, of course, a heralded reporter and that was evident in the way he did not focus only on the major subjects, but also on things like the environment, the living conditions, the generic physical makeup of different groups of people, and even the risks of traveling on steamships.  The fact that he attempted to thrust himself into the Battle of Manassas could, I suppose, be seen as either a great journalistic conscience or perhaps no conscience at all, but it shows that he was willing to get to the truth at all costs.  However, his angle as a reporter did cast a rather large downside, namely a lack of trying to get into people’s minds; though he was apt to relay his acquaintances’ words, actions, and lifestyles, he was not a psychologist and, much like a report on TV today, the reader is left to take what he sees and interpret from there.

As a piece of circumstantial evidence, My Diary cannot be overestimated. Perhaps the most important thing that Russell did as a reporter was to record the words and sentiments of the nobodies, those who were not the politicians or generals, those who were not the influential.  Mostly, this dealt with the Southerners, as he spent much time swinging down the east coast, then to Montgomery, on to the Gulf, and back up the Mississippi.  Russell’s journey south began shortly after the bombardment of Sumter, and at that time, he was met with scenes throughout Virginia and North Carolina of crowds huzzahing for Jeff Davis, and spoke with an individual who was more than eager to explain the brand new Confederate flag already flying somewhere near the Virginia-NC border as “our flag”.  At Goldsboro, NC, on April 15, 1861, “the wave of the Secession tide struck us in full career,” and Russell went on to describe the crowds in their frenzy for the South. These states had not yet seceded from the Union (Virginia would in two days), but Russell was hard-pressed to find anyone not excited to separate and support the Southern Cause.

What we don’t know is whether these people rallied to the Confederacy because of or before the Sumter bombardment, but what we do know from his account is that once that event happened, “all was noise, dust, and patriotism” for the South and its Confederacy. This is especially important to understand when dealing with a state like North Carolina where opinion had been evenly split on union versus disunion, and the road to secession was not always guaranteed.  Here is a state that barely went for Breckinridge in the 1860 election over the Union party candidate, John Bell, and that subsequently voted against secession, again barely.  In dealing with ancestry, North Carolina, for this reason, is specifically used as an example by many folks who take the “I can’t speak for someone whom I don’t know” approach; not only were there many enslaved and free blacks within the borders of NC, but there was clearly a large contingent of strong white Unionists.  Yet, we have Russell’s account of the place after Sumter, and the reader is left to interpret a scene of folks shouting about the Yankees having been whipped, the Southern Confederacy, and Jeff Davis, and bands playing Dixie’s Land almost non-stop.  Maybe the Unionists felt like it was in their best interests to stay home that day, sure, but what I gather from a man who wasn’t afraid to be frank in his reports was the existence of a very vitalized separatist movement with little to no opposition, even if it took Sumter to get it.

Similar themes of huzzahing for the South, for States Rights, etc., continued throughout, and one of the most telling anecdotes was his encounter with a Confederate soldier in a Tennessee camp who was dying from disease before ever fighting, but who asked, “Stranger, remember, if I die, that I am Robert Tallon, of Tishomingo County, and that I died for States’ Right; see, now, they put that in the papers, won’t you? Robert Tallon died for States’ Rights.”  In short, the overall picture is one of the people willingly supporting the Confederacy, believing not in defending slavery specifically but rather what they perceived to be their rights and states’ rights.  Russell was not shy about portraying the awfulness that was slavery (he detailed it in accounts from everywhere he went, including the auctions occurring right outside of the statehouse in Montgomery), nor was he willing to deny how Southern enthusiasm for it was in truth the most critical cause of the conflict, but his reporter instincts allowed the shining portrayal of the people themselves as those who were under the beliefs that they had a Southern Cause that was righteous and true in Constitutionality, even though slavery was clearly the issue forcing debate on those things in the first place.

I already hear some of the counter-arguments coming at me: Russell was one man with one account; He never visited the interior South; He couldn’t get a true feeling of a place by being there for only a few days at most; etc.  But this post is not about whether Russell’s account was representative of every individual, nor it is about whether those Southerners whom he did encounter were right or wrong; to go there would require an entire book, and many in fact have already been thus written. Rather, this blog post is about taking a first-hand account of someone who was there at the time, in fact someone whose very job it was to be an objective reporter, and inferring that there was a lot less ambiguity about how commoners viewed the Southern Cause, and why and whether they supported it, than some would lead us to believe, at least in the time after Sumter.

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