Southern Knighthood

September 28, 1990|By Garry Wills

CHICAGO — THE GREAT DOCUMENTARY on the Civil War, carried by public television stations, helps revive a wonder that the South, so heavily outnumbered and outproduced, began the war with a brilliant series of victories.

This helps revive the concept of a Southern chivalry -- mounted knighthood -- that surpassed the North in imagination and boldness. There is something to that myth. Even Gen. Ulysses S. Grant admitted, after the war, that the Southerners entered it with ''more --.'' Mark Twain said there was just enough truth to the concept to cause a ''Walter Scott sickness'' in the South -- the belief in their own superior nobility. As usual, in dealing with the South, slavery was at the root of the superior military talents. The best and worst are intertwined in America, as we see even in that greatest of our leaders, George Washington. The South produced, for a long time, a superior set of leaders because plantation life was a school for princes.

The owner of a large plantation had a realm to care for: populations in the hundreds, production over thousands of HTC acres. It was a hard task. The weak succumbed to debt, drink and other forms of inefficiency. Those who succeeded had to be very good leaders, organizers and commanders.

There was always a military aspect to the role. People now laugh at the honorary ''colonels'' who populated the Southern landscape until recently. But they came from the huge role the militia played in Southern life. While Northern states let their militias become vestigial organizations in the early 19th century, the Southerners drilled and kept in readiness, always fearful of slave rebellions or restiveness. Slave communities have to be communities armed and mobilizable. They breed the kind of leadership that situation demands.

Even in the colonial period, the Virginia militia drilled on Sundays, to intimidate slaves on their one day off. The ''West Point of the South,'' Virginia Military Institute, was formed from a garrison to keep watch over the weapons stored after the War of 1812. This armory was put in a remote spot, to keep it out of slaves' hands. Stonewall Jackson was a teacher at VMI before the war, and Gen. Robert E. Lee became the president of its sister institution after the war.

Even the Ku Klux Klan is best understood as an attempt to reassert the central role of the militia in the antebellum South. Nathan Bedford Forrest, about whom we are hearing so much in the PBS series, was the organizer of the Klan, to let it do in covert ways what the militia had always done in the open.

The gallantry of the South is undeniable. So is the heroism of ancient Sparta, whose men were kept in barracks to control the Helots who worked the farms of Lacedemonia.

The best of things can be nurtured by the worst of circumstances. Slavery helped shape leaders of the caliber of Washington and Jefferson and Madison and Andrew Jackson (the last of our slave-owning presidents). This neither excuses the vast evils of slavery nor denies the reality of the leadership produced. The Boers had their military virtues in South Africa. Such virtues are never enough. That is the last and crushing truth about the ''failed crusade'' of the American South.

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