Book Review: Dueling Cultures, Damnable Legacies: Southern Violence and White Supremacy in the Civil War Era

Dueling Cultures, Damnable Legacies: Southern Violence and White Supremacy in the Civil War Era. By James Hill Welborn III. Charlottesville: VA: University of Virginia Press, 2023. Softcover, 284 pp. $34.50.

Reviewed by Tim Talbott

A passed down family saying advised that, “If you’re going to commit a murder, do it in Edgefield, as jurors there understand the idiosyncrasies of a gentlemen!” (21) Located along the Georgia border in west-central South Carolina, Edgefield District (later Edgefield County) was home to some of the state’s most noted politicians and fierce defenders of slavery and post-Civil War white supremacy. Born in Edgefield were noted statesmen George McDuffie, Andrew P. Butler, Pierce Mason Butler, Francis W. Pickens, Louis T. Wigfall, “Pitchfork” Benjamin R. Tillman, and J. Strom Thurmond. Edgefield also produced Preston S. Brooks (who caned Charles Sumner on the Senate floor in 1856) and Confederate cavalry general and Reconstruction redemption warrior Martin W. Gary.

Edgefield County and subjects relating to its history have received a significant amount of scholarly and popular literary attention over the past 40 years or so with books like Orville Vernon Burton’s In My Father’s House Are Many Mansions: Family and Community in Edgefield, South Carolina (1985), Fox Butterfield’s All God’s Children: The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence (1996), Edna Gail Bush and Natonne Elaine Kemp’s There Is Something About Edgefield: Shining a Light on the Black Community through History, Genealogy & Genetic DNA (2017), and Kevin M. Cherry’s Virtue of Cain: From Slave to Senator – Biography of Lawrence Cain (2019), among a number of others. Many of these works examine issues of honor, violence, race, family, class, white supremacy, and religion. James Hill Welborn III makes a valuable contribution to this subject area with Dueling Cultures, Damnable Legacies: Southern Violence and White Supremacy in the Civil War Era.

As Welborn explains in the book’s introduction: “Through its exploration of the emotional experiences or inner lives of this set of leading white southern men and their families, Dueling Cultures, Damnable Legacies details the complex ways in which such men attempted to balance these interrelated and composite cultural values of honor and piety during the Civil War era. (3-4) While espousing both the seemingly mutual exclusive tenants of Christian teachings of forgiveness and honor-bound retaliation for perceived slights, white southerners were able to blend the two into what Welborn terms “righteous honor.” Through his research into Edgefield County, and his writing, Welborn helps readers better comprehend “the minds, motives, and methods of many leading white southern men as they made war in defense of what they deemed their best material interests, social structures, and cultural values, first against Indigenous Americans and Mexicans, then against the American Union itself.” (4)

Along with the informative introduction and an evocative epilogue, Welborn divides Dueling Cultures, Damnable Legacies into two parts. Part I, “Toward a New Southern Ideology,” includes three foundational chapters that discuss honor, piety, and the blending of the two through righteous honor, which was passed on through generations. Part II, “Righteous Honor in Action,” which covers four chapters, offers readers what its title states, including closer looks at white southerners’ righteous honor defense of the institution of slavery against growing abolitionist criticism, and Congressman Preston S. Brooks and his famous caning of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner.

His 40 pages of extensive endnotes and 33-page bibliography show Welborn’s depth of research. A well-organized index helps readers find topics easily. In addition, the study includes several images of individuals, particularly Edgefield clergymen, who helped develop and convey righteous honor ideals through their respected pulpit positions.

Welborn clearly shows that righteous honor did not end with the Confederacy’s military defeat in 1865. One can trace its continuance into Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era and can still see its influence in certain segments of our 21st-century society through politics and religion.

Dueling Cultures, Damnable Legacies: Southern Violence and White Supremacy in the Civil War Era is an important and timely addition to southern and Civil War era scholarship. Written largely with an academic tone, its argument and interpretation are clear and persuasive. If one wants to better understand the mindset of many white southerners during this period, then this book will be of immense help.

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