James D. B. De Bow, U.S. South, Railroads, Confederacy, U.S. Civil War
On February 27, 1867, southern nationalist and economic visionary James D. B. De Bow died while visiting his brother in New Jersey. An antebellum crusader for southern railroads, De Bow became president of the Tennessee Central and Pacific Railroad months before his death. Northerners placed his remains on a southbound train. But the Civil War that De Bow had zealously promoted ruined the transportation system he labored so long to develop. The morass of postwar southern rail lines lost his body before it reached his home in Nashville. No tombstone or monument marks his grave.
The disappearing body of James De Bow demonstrates the paradoxical life of an Old South economic booster. Despite living during the cotton boom, De Bow championed diversification, urbanization, and industrialization. He earned readers’ trust with objective statistical analysis that encompassed the region, but when sectionalism intensified De Bow discarded factual writing and penned passionate screeds that favored narrow interests. When he abandoned his prophetic vision of a diversified southern economy in favor of King Cotton’s empire, his powers of foresight failed to appreciate the South’s economic weaknesses and its impending doom. After his cause lost, this notorious fire-eater embraced Confederate defeat as an opportunity for economic reformation. Instead of wallowing in nostalgia like other prominent southerners, De Bow resumed his antebellum fixation on the future. While peers published histories of the Confederacy, De Bow titled his first postwar article ‘‘The Future of the United States.’’ A rare, repented rebel, he publicly admitted his mistakes.
Paradoxes also marked De Bow’s memory and historical legacy. The [End Page 699] timing of his death, after defeat but before Radical Reconstruction and Redemption, branded him as an Old South figure who vanished with the vanquished Confederacy. His vision anticipated the New South Creed of Henry Grady and other boosters, but De Bow did not live to assert the precedent of his vision. Even New South editors in Nashville, where De Bow had worked and lived, misremembered De Bow and misspelled his name when they recalled him at all. Historians have also neglected the first southerner to promote a regional economic plan, because De Bow’s career defies scholars’ neat periodization of Old and New South. As a result, historians have paid more attention to De Bow’s southern nationalism and his pro-slavery writings of the 1850s than to his advocacy for southern industry and cities. Many scholars quote De Bow’s Review, but few of them have studied the man behind the magazine. Only one outdated biography of De Bow had existed, until now.
John Kvach addresses all these paradoxes in a refreshing biography of an important antebellum intellectual. His fine work contributes to recent scholarship that complicates our understanding of the Old South’s economy. Beneath the veneer of moonlight and magnolias, historians are uncovering bustling cities, middle-class entrepreneurs, and self-aware professionals who transformed the southern economy before the Civil War interrupted the region’s modernization. These scholars are rediscovering what De Bow articulated in the 1840s: Slavery and plantation agriculture thrived beside industry and commerce—not in their absence. With impressive research and clear writing, Kvach traces De Bow’s early life in Charleston, his move to the Old Southwest, his early trials founding the Review, his embrace of southern nationalism, his failures during the Civil War, and his postwar penitence. Kvach attributes De Bow’s consistent influence through volatile times to his knack for embracing economic changes without challenging the South’s social conservatism. His safe regional agenda empowered enterprising readers without unsettling their cherished values.
Kvach supports this insight by offering a detailed analysis of De Bow’s readers. Beyond providing an overdue biography of De Bow, Kvach makes an important contribution by uncovering a partial, but extensive, list of subscribers to De Bow’s Review, and then traces their economic lives in the census. Tables and an appendix identify the names...