I recently published my sixth fiction novel, Honor’s Banner, a sequel to my post-Civil War Gothic, Camellia Creek, and was dismayed to see that my first Amazon review was a one-star. “[B]ut if she did research, she translated it to her own version and trying to rewrite history,” the reviewer says of my Historical Note at the end of Honor’s Banner.
If the review had been a critique of my writing, I would have simply let the matter drop. I’ve learned there’s no way to defend oneself against a critique on craft without appearing gaseous on sour grapes. This reviewer, however, chose to attack the historical accuracy of my work affording me not only an excellent example supporting the theme of my recent posts on the subject of skewing Southern history but also providing me the opportunity to rebut the reviewer’s negative critique. Hereupon, I risk public censure:
This challenge was put forth by someone who believes it was, and I quote, “Johnson (Lincoln’s Vice President) who made the south a mess after the war because he was a Southerner and he tried to make it so the Plantation owners could use Blacks to rebuild the south even though they were free, by paying little o[r] nothing for wages and generally keep them slaves even though they were free. Blacks were murdered by the thousands in the south after the war, but she [she being me] doesn’t mention that at all.”
This reviewer’s understanding of Reconstruction is based on revisionist history promoted over the past fifty years. Johnson, a mule-headed man from east Tennessee hated the plantation elite. His falling out with Congress was actually due to his attempt to carryout Lincoln’s plan for Reconstruction (not rebuild the plantation economy, but one of reconciliation), which stumbled in the face of the Radical’s plan of centralization, nullification of state rights, and the demise of Federalism as the Founders meant for it to be. A strong argument can and has been made that Lincoln’s plan cost him his life. I don’t place a lot of stock in Lincoln, but he was not a Radical. Johnson, who the Radicals believed was in their camp, primarily because of his overt enmity to the plantation system, proved a ringer to the Radical cause. He was easier to turn public opinion against than Lincoln would have been, though, so they let him slide (or missed him if one buys into the conspiracy theory of Atzerodt being part of Booth’s team the night Lincoln was murdered and the ancillary belief the Radicals were behind the assassination. I have no opinion either way regarding that particular conspiracy theory.). Nevertheless, the Radicals neutralized Johnson in the fall 1866 elections when the Radicals gained control of Congress.
As for paying the freed slaves, the Southern economy was in shambles. England, the South’s primary foreign cotton market, had, with the encouragement of Washington and New England mercantilists, cultivated new sources of raw cotton. There was no significant amount of capital to pay anyone until a cotton crop came in—that meant labor with a promise to pay—and the laborers weren’t interested in working and no one made them work. Johnson couldn’t have replicated the plantation economy even if he’d wanted to.
And those thousands of murdered blacks? I don’t know if a body count was ever made covering twelve years of Reconstruction, and I would be suspect of any number thrown out there—including the reviewer’s “thousands,” but yes, many were killed: by white Democrats, by white Republicans, and Freedmen killed one another. They killed white folks, too, and white folks killed one another. Some were killed for political reasons, some in self defense. Some murders were real, some were fabricated for fodder in Northern newspapers. At the time of my story, the great majority of Federal troops in the South were Negro and when those troops were disbanded in the spring and summer of 1866 they were trained soldiers. In the years going into Congressional Reconstruction these men (who were all born and raised in the South) made up the bulk of the armed militias supporting the puppet Republican administrations, themselves backed with Federal bayonets. What was happening in the South during these years were pockets of armed warfare. The Negro was not innocent and he was not helpless, no more so than his white counterpart anyway, who, I should add, he outnumbered in Mississippi and South Carolina and made up a significant plurality in the rest of the South. All in all, most of both races survived, actually managing to remain halfway decent to each other despite the aggravation of Northern interlopers.
But whatever the overall body count, the time period covered by my two novels combined is six months, October 1865-March 1866. Presidential Reconstruction in Mississippi ended in December 1865. At that time, things had begun to unravel between Congress and the man they thought was on the Radical side (Johnson), the fall elections of 1866 are a half year away and the Reconstruction Acts, officially issuing-in Congressional Reconstruction are a year down the road. The murders and alleged fraud and intimidation which are today the lore upon which the righteousness of Reconstruction is woven (and which are, I believe, what the reviewer is basing her critique on) are in the future. The white South is trying to find its footing, the Freedmen either remain on the plantations where they lived prior to and during the war for the reason that it was home, it was relatively safe, and they cared for their white folks and their white folks cared for them. Those who left did so because the plantation was either abandoned by its demoralized and defeated owners (assuming they were still alive) or they believed freedom included the freedom to do as they pleased, and that included doing nothing. These indigents numbered in the hundreds of thousands and they found succor in the larger communities secured by Union troops (who, I reiterate, were mostly black), living off the taxpayer—including the Northern one. I know the history, sans slant, which on close inspection of modern works doesn’t add up.
Likewise, I’m not sure what to make of the reviewer’s take on my characters: “...she has taken history and twisted it to make it sound like all who supported the north, anti-slavery, President Lincoln (in other words all things Northern) evil and the Southerners were all wonderful people who treat their slaves so wonderful that they continued to serve them after the War.”
Did she expect me to make my hero a slave-beating, murdering bigot? Hardly sympathetic, and her implication is not true. The hero of Honor’s Banner is a United States Marine, who honored his oath primarily in support of his Blue-grass Kentucky family. The primary antagonists in both stories are Southerners. Yes, my story is prejudiced in favor of the South, but no more so than most works of escape fiction that happen to portray the hero as the “good” guy. Oh duh. I am a Southerner; my ancestors were Southerners. My pro-Southern stance on history is my brand; other than a love of storytelling, it is the reason I write.
No, what the reviewer finds fault with is that I have dared to challenge the current liberal orthodoxy of Southern treason and intransigence by making heroes of unrepentant Southerners, who refuse to acknowledge the South’s sins against the faux idolatry of Union and democracy both symbolized by that boogeyman, slavery. Or, perhaps it’s simply that I’ve made the South and Southerners—repentant or not—heroic at all. Guess that makes me guilty, too.
Well, I can handle it.
Thanks for reading,
This is a great piece, Charlsie. Good for you. I loved the book Wolf Dawson and am looking forward to reading more of your books.ReplyDelete
Thank you, Karen. Much appreciated.ReplyDelete
Charlsie, please post this article on twitter! I want to Retweet it. Also, going now to buy Camillia Creek and Honor's Banner- for myself, for Christmas!ReplyDelete
Never mind, I tweeted it, hope that's ok.ReplyDelete
Yes, that's fine that you tweeted it to your followers. I tweeted it way back when I first published it and periodically I do repeats, but RTs are always appreciated.ReplyDelete