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Southern Cultures 8.4 (2002) 96-98

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American City, Southern Place A Cultural History of Antebellum Richmond. By Gregg D. Kimball. University of Georgia Press, 2000 336 pp. Cloth $35.00
Montgomery in the Good War Portrait of a Southern City, 1939-1946. By Wesley Phillips. Newton University of Alabama Press, 2000 368 pp. Cloth $34.95

When it came to writing southern history a generation ago, cities were places up north. The "true" South was embodied in the small town, the plantation or farm, and those who inhabited these timeless places. Not so any more. Books on the urban South are becoming commonplace. As a result, we know more not just about southern cities, but about the South. Montgomery in the Good War and American City, Southern Place reflect the value of these studies: One adds to our knowledge of how the South coped with the dislocations and disruptions of World War II in its own particular way; the other extends our knowledge of the [End Page 96] years just before the Civil War and our understanding of how postwar events should be interpreted in the context of antebellum precedents.

Gregg Kimball's study of Richmond before the Civil War is the more ambitious of the two works. Kimball's training and experience as both an academic and a public historian combine the former's interpretive insights with the latter's talent for communicating succinctly and clearly with an eye for the relevant detail. A complex picture emerges of a city and a people carefully balancing their economic involvement with a larger urban world and their cultural attachment to Virginia and the South, with the latter connection growing stronger as the 1850s progressed. Peeling away the aggregate to expose the various components of the urban population—women, African Americans, immigrants from the North and from Europe, and native-born whites of all social classes—Kimball connects these groups to networks in other parts of Virginia, the South, the nation, and the world. Ironically, those with the most extensive commercial relationships outside the region—the city's merchants—evinced the strongest attachment to southern ideals, particularly the defense of slavery. This finding serves as a corollary to John Shelton Reed's observation that the most-travelled contemporary southerners often demonstrate the greatest regional loyalty.

Although slaves and free blacks lived the most constrained lives of Richmond's population, their contacts with people and institutions outside the city were remarkably extensive. Kimball utilizes the records of the First African Baptist Church to demonstrate these relationships, relationships which periodically alarmed Richmond's whites, though never enough to warrant intervention.

The Civil War highlighted the fissures in antebellum Richmond, between black and white, between workers and merchants and industrialists, and between immigrants and long-time residents. These divisions, in turn, played significant roles in the city's postwar development and in state politics during the Reconstruction era and beyond. In this respect, Kimball is what C. Vann Woodward called a "continuatarian," emphasizing the strong economic, social, and racial ties that the Civil War did not break, but, arguably, solidified. That the Civil War, which proved so devastating to the South in so many ways, did not significantly disrupt class and racial patterns, and even economic trends, seems counterintuitive—but Kimball's evidence is strong and persuasive.

Which adds fuel to the debate as to whether World War II, in the oft-quoted phrase of historian Morton Sosna, was "more important than [End Page 97] the Civil War" to the South. Montgomery in the Good War, by Wesley Phillips Newton, a military historian and Professor Emeritus at Auburn University, as well as a Montgomery native and participant in the conflict, is inconclusive on this score. In fact, although Newton does a fine job of evoking the responses to the war and its impact on a broad cross-section of the city's population, his focus is narrow. The book is less about Montgomery during the war than about the...