Civil War History 49.2 (2003) 191-192
[Access article in PDF]
Creating an Old South: Middle Florida's Plantation Frontier before the Civil War. By Edward E. Baptist. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. Pp. 408. Cloth $59.95, paper $19.95.)
In Edward E. Baptist's engaging and well-researched study, the Old South was a cultural myth created by the planter class that had failed to fully master their world on the frontier. Unable to control the yeoman farmers and slaves they hoped to dominate, Florida planters shaped a historical and cultural narrative that put them in a position of power at the top of a society that had never really existed. This mythological story became a means to as well as an end product of the hegemony the planters hoped to exercise. The extent to which this myth became a social reality in the years just before the Civil War was illustrated by the devotion of a generation of planters and farmers who were willing to sacrifice their lives on the battlefields of a conflict that they believed would preserve the world they had created in their minds.
Creating an Old South is a masterful example of the ways in which historians can bring together the contributions of the past thirty years of scholarship in a style that promises to reach a broader public audience as well as other academics and college students. This study falls within the new "identity" history that has become [End Page 191] quite popular of late. The author reveals that identity, in this case regional identity, is not static, but contested and contingent, something changing across time and place, something created by those motivated by the desire to secure their own honor and power in society.
Baptist's narrative is a story of the Southern frontier, of a contested world in which planters, farmers, slaves, and Indians struggled for power. He studies two counties in the panhandle of Florida, a state largely neglected by historians, and finds the frontier to be a seething world of conflict—filled with fighting among groups all vying for power, all hoping to create a community that they might dominate. For the elite members of the planter class, this frontier experience was especially troubling as they fought for their honor and the economic, political, and social hegemony that their role as the producers of staple crops required. They hoped to be masters of their world, but that world seemed beyond mastery during the frontier period. Honor and masculinity were at the very heart of their struggle and became the center of planter identity. Once a more stable community was developed, the planters created their myth—a story of how they had transplanted the society and culture of the Old South to the wilderness of Florida.
This mythology carefully masked the reality of conflict in favor of a unified world where planters easily established their power. In the minds of the elites on the eve of the Civil War, theirs was indeed an "Old South," a timeless place where they had always been the honorable masters. The power of myth drove them on to the battlefields of the coming war and they continued to build that myth by adding tales of heroic manhood on the part of brave planters who died for the Confederate cause.
Baptist's work coincides with the current trends in scholarship and offers fresh insight to the ways in which a Southern identity was created. He might have spent more time on the role of religion in this developing culture, especially since so many historians have argued that religion was the intellectual linchpin of Southern society and culture, but such criticisms do not detract from the quality of Baptist's work. He offers the reader spellbinding vignettes and introduces interesting individuals in meaningful ways. He provides critical examinations of the people who were at the very center of his story, analyzing in context the choices and actions of those who lived the past. Thus, he puts a human face...