- Middle Tennessee Society Transformed, 1860–1870: War and Peace in the Upper South
The distinguished first book written by an acclaimed historian of the Civil War–era South has recently been republished in accessible paperback format. Stephen Ash, who subsequently wrote When the Yankees Came: Conflict and Chaos in the Occupied South, 1861–1865 (1995), and A Year in the South: Four Lives in 1865 (2002), began his career with Middle Tennessee Society Transformed. A rare combination of empirical social science and erudite writing, this classic may now reach a wider audience.
Some historians, among them Ash, used mainframe computers in the 1970s and 1980s to create large files incorporating census data and related information, in order to discern the underlying structures of society. These findings, supplemented by more traditional archival sources, underlay some of the best of what then was called the "new social history." Ash focused on thirteen counties in the fertile Nashville Basin of Middle Tennessee, which he dubbed a "Third South" (pp. 9, 49), prosperous and committed to slave labor, but consisting of farms rather than plantations, and producing surpluses of foodstuffs rather than a staple crop for export.
This elegant monograph uses three chapters to set the stage. The 1850s were a time of "optimism and self-assurance" (p. 64), when elites in the Middle Tennessee "heartland" (p. 2) congratulated themselves for presiding over a social order that commanded the allegiance of lesser folk, both white and black. Ash's next four chapters deftly show how this harmonious world, both real and imagined, was destroyed by war. Occupied by the Union army starting in early 1862, Middle Tennessee experienced economic collapse and social disintegration. Most ordinary whites clung helplessly to the wreckage of the only world they had ever known. The men swarmed into the Confederate army, many never to return. But slaves, who had never accepted the legitimacy of their bondage, took advantage of wartime disruptions to cast off their fetters. Under military occupation, local government ceased to function, as did evangelical churches, the essential glue that once held the social order together. Guerrilla warfare, banditry, and "blind atrocities" (p. 144) became routine. Ash assumes that the reader is familiar with the course of the war in the West. His focus is not military history, but rather the impact of war on the social order.
The book concludes with three sobering chapters on the postwar situation in Middle Tennessee. Wartime chaos was followed by renewed social cohesion, at least among whites. But overall levels of wealth and economic well being fell dramatically, as slave property was liquidated while both agricultural and industrial output failed to match prewar levels. Bitter racial estrangement solidified, as freedmen and women attempted, with only limited success, to stand on their own feet as equals. The Ku Klux Klan originated in Middle Tennessee, as embittered whites sought to thwart the drive for black autonomy. [End Page 1242]
From the perspective of twenty years later, Middle Tennessee Society Transformed not only remains fresh and stimulating, but also invites questions about the too-hasty eclipse of the research model it exemplifies. One wonders whether the current outpouring of cultural history will stand the test of time so well. Perhaps this book's reappearance will embolden courageous young scholars to cast off prevailing academic orthodoxies and find new ways to apply Ash's elegant research design.
A Separate Civil War narrows the focus to two counties in the mountains of northern Georgia. Jonathan Sarris ventures into a troubled region where Confederate allegiances withered as the war ground on. By 1864 a spiral of atrocities, committed primarily by pro-Confederate vigilantes, revealed a ghastly breakdown of civil order.
Sarris finds little ideological commitment to "competing national visions" (p. 2). Precious few unconditional Unionists remained unswervingly loyal to the stars and stripes. More typically, the mountaineers, especially in Lumpkin County, initially embraced the Southern cause. But growing...