Historic roots define South

August 11, 2009

This column has been skimming over the reasons this community is like it is and why the people are unique. Jackson, like most southern towns, has been accused of being a closed society, and there may be a reason for that sad truth. I think it goes back to the War Between the States.

Books have been written on the war in West Tennessee. Although the state was independent for less than a year, only Virginia had more battles occur within its borders. It is a matter of geography, Tennessee is laced with rivers, and West Tennessee got its first railroads just a couple of years before hostilities commenced. The U.S. Army officially called it the "War in the West" (this was the west in 1861) and much of it happened right here. There are killing fields scattered all over the region just like Iraq or any other battleground. Only the weapons used were different.

The war started for no good reason and was particularly mishandled by the Tennessee General Assembly. When Lincoln was elected, there was fear that slavery would be abolished. Actually it was in the documented process of coming to an end anyway because the planters could not overcome the expense of maintaining the nonproductive young and old slaves as cotton became ever cheaper. As always, the war was a question of money. A working slave might be worth $1,000 while an acre of land only cost about $50. Liberation was one thing, voluntary ruination without compensation was another matter.

The federal government offered roughly $300 per slave to avoid a war, but the owners decided that was too little. Although only about 10 percent of the landowners held slaves, they had extraordinary influence with the legislature and urged secession. Surprisingly, the electorate voted it down twice in special referendums. But legislators are sometimes influenced by powerful interests, so they passed a law that would take Tennessee out of the Union if certain other states seceded, thereby putting the blame on them. Back then, the president was not inaugurated until March, and by that time many states had left the Union, including Tennessee.

Some months later, Gen. Grant was receiving supplies on the new railroad that ran from Kentucky to Mississippi via Jackson. Confederate Cavalry disrupted it so often that he abandoned it for steamboats. When he did so, he largely pulled the army out of West Tennessee, including the Jackson provost marshal. Civil authority had been dissolved by the military so law and order had utterly vanished.

Feelings were red hot, barns had been burned, land that had been confiscated from absent Confederate officers and given to freedmen caused extreme friction. Tempers were strained over the churches being used for barracks and livestock barns. The Union military hospital near today’s T.R. White Sportsplex had buried the rebel dead disrespectfully at random spots around the area. Union camps at Deaderick, Fairmont, Main and Baltimore streets had undoubtedly made waste on the farms they had occupied. Roving Union Cavalry had even burned downtown after collecting a ransom to leave it unmolested. Many of the freedmen evacuated to Fort Pillow for protection, leaving the farms untended and the people hungry. Depredation and theft was common.

The town’s experience with outsiders and the locals who aped them had been unpleasant for four years. Military law under the rump legislature after the war was not much better. Every Southern town probably had similar experiences, and even these many years later, outsiders generally complain of our closed Southern societies, deeply hidden beneath a collective mask of feigned pleasantries.

I agree, but a Southern boy or girl is gifted the advice to beware of strangers by the older generation. Strangers brought unforgettable misery to the community in the past, even the former slaves were not treated properly. While it is acceptable to be friends with everyone, we cannot help saving our most heartfelt feelings for those who share our history.

And the whole mess could have been avoided if the legislature had just voted according to the wishes of the people.

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