The “gander pull” was a popular Southern pastime. An old tough male goose (gander) was strung up and its neck slathered with grease. Male contestants, fortified with whisky, would ride under the goose, reach for its neck, and attempt to pull the head off. The ladies would cheer for their “knights,” and hope their man would be the one to present the head to them as a trophy.
Sports gave Southern men a chance to demonstrate their physical prowess — gambling, one’s strategic skill. Even in games of chance, winning boosted a man’s status. Johann Huizinga explains that a lucky win “had a sacred significance; the fall of the dice may signify and determine divine workings.” Winning meant God favored you and deemed you worthy of praise from your brethren. That’s why cheating constituted the ultimate dishonor and was worthy of death; it was an attempt to unfairly gain status and thwart the will of the gods.
Cheating was sometimes punishable by death.
Fathers in the Old South initiated their sons into the “manly art” of gambling at an early age so they would be ready to take part in the world of men. “Betting,” according to Wyatt-Brown, “was almost a social obligation when men gathered at barbecues, taverns, musters, supper and jockey clubs, race tracks, and on steamboats.” To not ante up was to deny your equal standing with your fellow men, and thus refusing to play “implied cowardice, differentness, unwholesome and even antisocial behavior.” However, compulsive gambling, which consumed one’s inheritance, and the failure to pay a gambling debt were seen as very shameful.
Drinking served the same purpose as gambling. It brought men together and acted as a sorting mechanism for status within the group. The man who could drink the most and hold his liquor showed hardihood and earned the admiration of his peers. Intoxication also heightened the chances that men would provoke or dare each other into fights or hijinks – opportunities for a rollickin’ good time and further tests of manhood.
3. Fighting and Dueling
“The Palmetto State: Her sons bold and chivalrous in war, mild and persuasive in peace, their spirits flush with resentment for wrong.” — toast of J.J. McKilla, at Independence Day militia banquet in Sumterville, South Carolina, 1854
As we’ve mentioned in previous posts, traditional honor began with your own claim to honor, but then that claim had to be ratified by one’s peers. If one of your fellows disavowed your claim, and said the image you projected was false, this was a grave insult; if you tolerated the insult, you essentially let another man dominate you, and thus lost status in the group. Fighting the accuser allowed you to maintain your honorable reputation; if you beat or killed him, you demonstrated that he was wrong, whether his insult had been true or not.
An accuser knew when he was intentionally drawing a man into a fight; calling another man a coward (or in the parlance of the time a “poltroon” or “puppy”) was essentially a declaration you wanted to duel or duke it out. Insulting a man’s honesty in the South, known as “giving the lie,” had the same effect and was sure to provoke instantaneous rage. Ditto for doing wrong to a man’s wife, mother, or daughter; Southerners prided themselves on their chivalry. But whether it was a man’s courage or his integrity that was questioned, the recourse was always the same: violence.
While childrearing in the North emphasized the cultivation of inner conscience, and the feeling of guilt in wrongdoing, Southern parents instilled in their progeny a sense of honor, and feeling shame for violating the code. Young boys were encouraged by both their parents and the community to be aggressive and manly, and to fight to defend one’s honor from an early age. And it wasn’t just fathers who sought to impress upon their sons the importance of personal valor; mothers were equally adamant on this point. For example, Sam Houston’s mother urged him to fight in the War of 1812, and when he decided to join up, she gave him a plain gold ring with “Honor” engraved inside it, and then handed him a musket saying, “Never disgrace it; for remember, I had rather all my sons should fill one honorable grave, than that one of them should turn his back to save his life.”
Boys were taught that even if you got creamed, simply showing your willingness to fight demonstrated your manhood. A story recalled by James Ross, born 1801, illustrates this well. When he was six, Ross bought a knife, but then lost it, and in his naivety, returned to the storekeeper who had sold it to him for a refund of his money. The boy argued with the shopkeep for a while, and some other boys in the store began laughing at him, making him feel ridiculous. When Ross saw a boy he already disliked among the laughing crowd, he fell upon him, and the two proceeded to engage in a long and unmerciful scuffle as the other boys gathered in a circle to watch. When he could no longer go on, Ross was told he had been whipped, and began to make his way home, thoroughly dejected and humiliated. But then an older, more respected boy who had witnessed the fight came over and offered him this advice: “I must cheer up—adding that I had done exactly right; every man ought to fight when insulted; being whipped was nothing; he had been whipped twenty times and was none the worse for it; I had fought bravely; all the boys said so; and he thought a great deal more of me than he did before. This talk comforted me wonderfully and all my troubles soon vanished. It is true my ribs felt sore for several days, but I cared little for that.”
Seldom did a boy of any class make it to adolescence without getting into a fight, or several. For poor boys, as they grew into men they were expected to begin to participate in what was called the “rough and tumble.” A rough and tumble was a no-holds-barred fight where the first man to cry “uncle” lost, and opponents sought to disfigure and maim each other to claim victory; fights often ended when one employed “The Gouge” – scooping the other man’s eyeball out of its socket.
“As far as it can be done, we should live peaceably with our associates; but, as we cannot always do so, it is necessary occasionally to resist. And when our honor demands resistance, it should be done with courage.” –Advice of North Carolinian William Pettigrew to his younger brother
For middle and upper class boys, schoolyard scraps quickly evolved into true “affairs of honor;” teenage duels were not uncommon in the South. Introduced to the US by French and British aristocrats during the Revolutionary War, the Southern upper classes saw dueling as a way to fight and show courage that distinguished itself from the heedless, ugly “rough and tumbles” of their lower class brethren. While theirs were bodily fights of immediate passion, duels were carefully orchestrated rituals between gentlemen who considered each other equals (an insult from an inferior was not worthy of notice). That it required a man to resist the urge to punch a man right on the spot made the duel seem a much more gentlemanly and honorable form of combat. Duels were governed by an elaborate set of rules, and could take weeks and even months to arrange. During that time, the men’s chosen “seconds” (a man’s representative and duel referee) would try to negotiate a peaceful resolution in order to avoid bloodshed.
Even for those showdowns that did make it to the “field of honor,” only 20% of duels ended in a fatality. Gentlemen often aimed for an appendage or deliberately missed. Dueling was much more about demonstrating one’s willingness to literally die for one’s honor, than it was about killing another man; it symbolized the culture’s belief that dishonor was worse than death. Southerners scoffed at the way Northern men used the word honor, but defended an insult with a fist fight or a contemptuous laugh and turn of the heel; an honor not worth dying for was not honor at all.
Dueling was seen by some as a way to head off feuds, and as an incentive for gentlemen to conduct themselves in the most upright manner. But it always had its critics and was the most controversial of the three pillars – even Jefferson Davis condemned it. Yet even as Southern states outlawed the practice and anti-dueling societies arose, gentlemen continued to participate in the ritual without much public censure during the antebellum period. Including violence, even if in a ritualized way, allowed upper class men to hold onto the essential nature of traditional honor; the celebration of personal valor tied all classes of whites together.
Southern Honor and the Civil War
While folks still debate whether the Civil War was primarily about states’ rights or slavery, an argument can in fact be made that it was also largely about something that has subsequently been lost to time: honor.
Both sides saw and referred to the struggle as a duel; as Wyatt-Brown puts it, “for many, the Civil War was reduced to a simple test of manhood.”
In the South, John C. Calhoun told the 1860 Democratic convention in Charleston:
“Ours is the property invaded; ours are the institutions which are at stake; ours in the peace that is to be destroyed; ours is the honor at stake–the honor of children, the honor of families, the lives, perhaps, of all.”
In the North, Lorien Foote describes a report in the popular magazine Harper’s Weekly “about the private meeting among some of the leading gentlemen of New York City in the tense days of the secession crisis. When one participant proposed to ‘accede’ to all the south’s demands, others jumped to their feet to denounce such a ‘total, unqualified, abject surrender in advance of all national and individual honor.’ They demanded that the men of the north at least ‘strike one blow for our own honor’ rather than ‘deliberately to relinquish our manhood.’”
The conflict between North and South was depicted by cartoonists as a fist fight between Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis.
While both the North and the South saw the war in terms of honor, what motivated the men to fight differed greatly. In the North, volunteers joined the cause because of more abstract ideals like freedom, equality, democracy, and Union. In the South, men grabbed their rifles to protect something more tangible — hearth and home — their families and way of life. Their motivation was rooted in their deeply entrenched loyalty to people and place.
But what if a man felt allegiance both to the principles espoused by the North, and the honor of the South? The ancient Greeks had grappled with what to do when one’s loyalties to one’s honor group conflicted with one’s loyalty to conscience. Such a conflict has been a struggle for warriors ever since, and is best embodied during this time in the life of Robert E. Lee.
Lee was the perfect example of the South’s genteel honor code and what William Alexander Percy called the “broad-sword tradition:” “a dedication to manly valor in battle; coolness under fire; sacrifice of self to succor and protect comrades, family, and country; magnamity; gracious manners; prudence in council; deference to ladies; and finally, stoic acceptance of what Providence has dictated.” He had also served and greatly distinguished himself in the United States Army for 32 years, so much so, that as the Civil War loomed, Lincoln offered Lee command of the Union forces. Lee was torn; in the days before secession, he wrote, “I wish to live under no other government & there is no sacrifice I am not ready to make for the preservation of the Union save that of honor.” Lee did not favor secession and wished for a peaceable solution instead; but his home state of Virginia seceded, and he was thus faced with the decision to remain loyal to the Union and take up arms against his people, or break with the Union to fight against his former comrades. He chose the latter. Lee’s wife (who privately sympathized with the Union cause) said this of her husband’s decision: “[He] has wept tears of blood over this terrible war, but as a man of honor and a Virginian, he must follow the destiny of his State.” In a traditional honor culture, loyalty to your honor group takes precedence over all other demands — even those of one’s own conscience.
Many other Southerners of divided loyalties made the same choice as Lee. United in opposition to the encroachment of outsiders, the perceived threat to their autonomy, and simply the necessity of showing honor by adopting an aggressive stance and fighting when insulted, the vast majority of white Southerners, whether slave-owners or not, took up arms for the Confederacy. Because of their shared honor code, there was, at least at first, a great deal of unity in the “solid South,” and less of the socioeconomic clashes that arose between the gentlemen and the roughs in the Union Army. For example, while the average personal wealth for company officers in the Confederate Army was $88,500, for noncoms and privates it was $760 – an incredible gulf. And yet company officers were elected by troops themselves – showing that they saw such men as their natural leaders.
Northerners were long critical of the South’s claims to chivalry, as depicted in this Thomas Nast cartoon from Harper’s Weekly.
Greater conflict would arise in the South, as it had in the North, when the Confederacy instituted conscription. Some chafed at this insult to their personal mastery of their lives, as well as Jefferson Davis’ suspension of habeas corpus, wartime inflation, and laws that exempted men who owned 15 slaves or more from the draft. These and other onerous effects of the conflict led some lower class men to grumble that it was a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.”
In some ways, the South’s traditional honor code worked against the Confederacy’s efforts. A man would sometimes only agree to enlist if given a guarantee that he’d be retained in his own county or state – he was interested in fighting to protect his kin, not on some anonymous battlefield a few states over. For that same reason, drafted men, particularly if married, would often desert their unit if they were transferred far from home. And if a family emergency arose, or his wife and children needed help bringing in the crop, a man felt justified in going AWOL. Southern honor demanded loyalty to one’s people and place above all, and devotion to family and home was the highest of those sacred obligations.
Southern Honor Culture Lives On
Although the Civil War ended almost 150 years ago, 4 in 10 Southerners still sympathize with the Confederacy. While I won’t wade into the endless debate over whether, and to what extent, this attachment to history is appropriate, I will say that what is invariably missing from the debate, and crucial to fully apprehending it, is an understanding of the culture of Southern honor. The echoes of that culture go far beyond the displaying of the Confederate flag, and still influence the behavior of many Southern men to this day.
Since the end of the war until now, the South has had an overall higher rate of violent crime and of homicide specifically, than the Northeast. Compare, for example, two quintessential Southern and Northern states: South Carolina and Massachusetts. According to the US Census, in 2007 SC ranked first in the country as to the number of violent crimes per 100,000 people (788), while Massachusetts came in at twenty-second with nearly half that (432).
Chart Source:Culture Of Honor: The Psychology Of Violence In The South by Richard E Nisbett and Dov Cohen
However, when you start to analyze the data further, things get much more interesting. Psychologists Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen looked at homicide stats for the North and South, and found that once you separate the murders into two categories — argument/conflict-related and felony-related — the South only has a significantly higher rate when it comes to the former. What this means is that murders in the North are more likely to occur during the course of another crime, like burglary, and involve strangers, whereas murders in the South are more likely to arise from a personal conflict, such as a barfight or love triangle. Other studies have shown that only homicides that involve a victim personally known to the perpetrator are elevated in the South compared to other regions of the country. Most interesting of all is the fact that this effect is correlated to the size of a town or city. In medium-size cities (pop. 50k-200k), Southern white males commit murder at a rate of 2 to 1 when compared to the rest of the country; in small cities (pop. 10k-50k) the ratio is 3 to 1; in rural areas it is 4 to 1. After reading this post, you can probably guess why this is so – a small town provides the intimate, face-to-face relationships that are essential to an honor culture, and creates an environment where everyone knows your reputation, and an insult to it can lead to violent altercations.
Nisbett and Cohen followed up their findings with a study that looked at the differences between the emotional and physiological responses of Northern and Southern white men when faced with an insult. They had both Northern and Southern college-age men come into the lab under the pretense of taking part in an unrelated study. They were asked to take a questionnaire to a room at the end of a long and narrow hallway, and as they made their way down it, a confederate to the experimenters would bump into the subject, and call him an “*******.” During this altercation, the subjects’ emotional response was recorded, and afterwards their levels of cortisol (which is released from arousal and stress), and testosterone (which increases when gearing up for something that will involve aggression and dominance) were measured. The result? Nisbett and Cohen found that Northern men reacted with more amusement to the insult than anger, while the Southerners reacted with more anger than amusement. Their physiological response differed too. The cortisol levels of insulted Northerners rose 33%, even less than the control Northerners who walked down the hallway without being bumped at all. But the cortisol levels of insulted Southerners went up more than double that: 79%. The testosterone levels of Northern increased by 6%, but went up 12% for Southerners.
Chart Source:Culture Of Honor: The Psychology Of Violence In The South by Richard E Nisbett and Dov Cohen
All of which is to say that in their reaction to insult, Southern men today remain tied, both culturally and physiologically, to their antebellum forbearers, and to their Scotch-Irish ancestors.
This is true when it comes to those ancestors’ warrior values as well. Before the Civil War, Southerners occupied nearly every important position in the US Army, could claim the lion’s share of its most distinguished commanders, and had served as Secretary of War every year in the decade and a half prior to secession. Overall, Southern families contributed more sons to the Army than the North, despite the difference in population. And this too remains true today. As you can see from this map (which is controlled for population), many more service members are based in the South (and in the Western frontier states where an honor culture also thrived in the 19th century) than in the Northeast:
Since this has gone on so long, let’s make this the shortest conclusion possible. While we said in the last post that after the Civil War, the North’s Stoic-Christian honor code triumphed over the South’s traditional one, it would really be more accurate to say that each region’s respective code continued on for a few more decades. But despite the echoes that remain in the South today, the public, cultural nature of neither code were any match for the increasing urbanization, diversification, and shifting values of the US in the 20th century. Which is where we’ll turn next.