The Presence of the Past on my Grandmother’s Bookshelf

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“Against the South they planned still darker fates / By bill iniquitous, styled ‘Civil Rights,’ / To force equality ‘twixt blacks and whites.”

I found this book, which seems to have belonged to my great-great-grandfather, while going through my grandmother’s things after she passed in April. It’s Joseph Tyrone Derry’s The Strife of Brothers, an epic poem about the Civil War published in 1904.

It’s a really interesting artifact in light of the conversations flying around the internet about the South and its history. Derry was a confederate soldier; after the war he started a “Select School” for boys in Augusta that enrolled future president Woodrow Wilson and future Supreme Court justice Joseph Rucker Lamar. He was a historian, too–though his epic poem seems mostly forgotten, I did find some citations of his 1898 historical work The Story of the Confederate States. When the poem was released, its New York Times review mercifully overlooked its mediocre verse and focused instead on Derry’s historical knowledge.

I bring up The Strife of Brothers because it perfectly illustrates Adam Serwer’s great column on the legacy of the “Lost Cause” notion in the Southern imagination. Serwer argues that the idea that the Confederate flag is a benign symbol of southern pride comes from a revision—a “propaganda assault,” says historian David Blight—of the historical record that took place in the last years of the nineteenth century, in which a war that was explicitly started to preserve slavery was turned into a fight for freedom. Serwer writes, “In this interpretation, popularly known as ‘Lost Cause’ mythology, the Confederacy was fighting for some vague conception of liberty, not the right to own slaves; its soldiers were unparalleled warriors defending their homeland who were only defeated because of the Union’s structural advantages; and the postwar subjugation of black Americans was a necessary response to lawlessness.”

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Derry’s long poem is part of this propaganda assault, and all of the elements Serwer identifies are there:

-Derry minimizes the importance of slavery to the Southern states, but when he does mention the institution, in Book III, he emphasizes that black slaves stood by their masters during the war:

The master’s home they guarded true and well

And safely did its honored inmates dwell.

The Southern lady walked where’er she would,

As safe as if a queen ‘mid guards she stood.

Her life and honor ev’ry slave did prize,

As if a goddess moved before his eyes.

The mistress’ children were the ‘mammy’s’ pride

Who for these cherished treasures would have died.

-Rather than discussing the actual issue that started the war, Derry dedicates most of the poem to the courage of Southern soldiers. As The Times puts it, Derry weaves in “with the more illustrious names many humbler soldiers whose deeds (perhaps) came under the poet’s own eye–his companions, fellow Georgians.”

-As favorably as Derry depicts blacks living under slavery—trustworthy, loyal—they morph into monsters after Emancipation. In Book VII, about Reconstruction, blacks are “ignorant dupes” who, in voting, “stupidly obeyed” “whate’er the carpetbaggers bade them do.”

Worse, they’re marauding menaces and, probably, rapists. In a section on the virtues of Southern womanhood, Derry relates a shootout between black members of the 136th Infantry Regiment and two white families. In Derry’s telling, it’s a harrowing, Alamo-like siege in which “forty negroes came / Breathing out threats of slaughter and of flame” while “Miss Lizzie Freeman [took] her stand / having a loaded pistol in her hand” and “little Annie Martin knelt and prayed / With childish faith that God would send them aid.” To read the passage, with its lines like “Now to the housetop thwarted negroes climb / Thinking to thus break through in speedy time” is to understand James Baldwin’s description of the “great shock” in watching Gary Cooper killing off the Indians in the movies: “[A]lthough you are rooting for Gary Cooper, … the Indians are you.”

-Finally, Derry positions the book as a gesture towards reconciliation with the North.

But, as Serwer points out, this reconciliation comes at the expense of black citizenship. While Derry does seem to concede that slavery may have been bad (“If holding Africans as slaves was wrong / Then to the North did equal guilt belong”), one issue on which he is unwilling to budge is white supremacy. For Derry, Reconstruction is hell, and he specifies two crimes imposed on the South by federal government after the war: 1) the denial of post-war power to former Confederate officers and 2) the “pretense” that African Americans are equal to whites. Derry treats these crimes as two sides of the same coin, since he argues that the punishment of Confederates never would have been democratically enacted had blacks not been given the vote.

And Derry fully expects to find agreement on this issue from his Northern readers.

Railing about the Reconstruction government in the section titled “The Battle-Storms are Hushed, the Banner’s Furled,” Derry seethes:

Not satisfied with what they’d done to States

Against the South they planned still darker fates

By bill iniquitous, styled ‘Civil Rights,’

To force equality ‘twixt blacks and whites.

Blacks, Derry says, were “made citizens by law of might, / against all principles of sense or right.” This is a recurring theme in the poem. In its first chapter, Derry writes that Reconstruction carpet-baggers “into our temple holy brought a race / That under no condition e’er could grace  / Those honors which to citizens belong.”

Here is how Derry depicts the end of Reconstruction:

At length the mighty North, at heart aye kind,

Knew fear and prejudice had made her blind,

Saw what oppressors she had raised to power

And to our rescue came in needful hour.

In east, in west, in center ballots showered

At last the foes of Liberty o’erpowered,

And brothers’ shouts in Massachusetts heard

With rising hope the joyful Southland stirred.

Then Love began to claim once more his own

And Hate dismayed leapt from his tottering throne.

Note that, in Derry’s figuring, preventing black men from voting is “Liberty” and “Love,” while allowing them to vote is “Hate.”

There’s so much more here, like when Derry praises “white-souled Wade Hampton,” a man elected governor of South Carolina after a campaign of intimidation by his “Red Shirt” partisans, including the Hamburg Massacre, which left seven men dead. Justice and fraternity, amirite? And there’s Derry’s kind words for Nathaniel Bedford Forrest, grand wizard of the KKK, and John B. Gordon, an early leader of the Klan in Georgia.

And that’s just a start—I haven’t made it through all of the poem’s anecdotes and references yet. But the point is, if you want to understand Serwer’s argument that the national reconciliation between North and South  occurred  “on terms that sacrificed black freedom to white supremacy,” The Strife of Brothers is a pretty striking illustration.

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