8102 Sir Walter Scott and the Civil War

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Sir Walter Scott and the Civil War
by Lachlan Munro


It was Sir Walter that made every gentleman in the South a Major or a Colonel, or a General or a Judge, before the war; and it was he, also, that made those gentlemen value their bogus decorations. For it was he that created rank and caste down there, and also reverence for rank and caste, and pride and pleasure in them. Enough is laid on slavery, without fathering upon it these creations and contributions of Sir Walter. Sir Walter had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war. Mark Twain - Life on the Mississippi.

Twain was serious, and although he was the only person of note to accuse Sir Walter Scott directly of being responsible for the Civil War, many others have pointed out the huge influence Scott had on Southern character and culture.

It is difficult nowadays for anyone who has managed to plough through a Scott novel to understand the tremendous influence he had on the world. Not only was he regarded as the greatest writer of his age, his influence was everywhere - everything from operas to knitting patterns, from dog breeds to railway stations, were named after his books and characters (he was even responsible for a minor agricultural revolution in Poland). He had invented the historical novel, captured the romantic imagination of the world, and nowhere more than in the United States of America.

Scott was not the first to popularise Scottish themes; James MacPherson’s Ossian had created a great stir, but, particularly in America, Jane Porter’s The Scottish Chiefs (1810) became a perennial favourite of Southern youth, and had prepared the way for Scott’s novels. President Andrew Jackson, who scarcely ever read a book, recommended its hero, Sir William Wallace, to his nephew as a model upon which to build his character.

It was however Sir Walter’s tales of chivalry - the cult of the horse, of honour, of knights, and the glorification of womanhood, that captured the imaginations the Southern upper classes (Ivanhoe for instance was so popular that medieval tournaments were organised in Southern towns), and the concept of the Southern aristocrat as a kind of medieval knight developed during the antebellum period as a result of the enormous influence of Scott upon the Planter class (Robert E. Lee is often described in ‘chivalric’, even ‘Arthurian’ terms; Twain satirises this in The Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court). In his book Cavalier and Yankee, William R. Taylor suggests a less than glorious explanation for the South’s attachment to this fanciful romantic past – "They grasped at symbols of stability and order to stem their feelings of drift and uncertainty and to quiet their uneasiness about the inequalities within Southern society. Soon they would be forced to answer directly charges concerning Negro slavery levelled at them from the North." There was another powerful reason why Scott had struck a sympathetic response in the Old South. In his Scottish novels, Scott had depicted gallant little Scotland striving to express her cultural identity against the political and military pressure of the English, and Southerners immediately seized on this comparison between themselves and the North. This feeling of pressure, of being the underdog, combined with their strong feelings of honour and chivalry, became an explosive mixture.

Of course, a very significant part of the Southern population, both in numbers and influence, was of Scottish and Ulster-Scots (Scotch-Irish) descent. In his book A History of the Old South, Clement Eaton calls them "the cutting edge of the frontier", "excellent Indian fighters", and "the blue blood of the South". Many Southerners were descendants of Scottish (and English) Cavalier and Jacobite exiles, or the 1,000 survivors of Culloden transported there after the ’45. This ‘Celtic’ component was a ubiquitous feature of antebellum Southern life - Andrew Jackson, John C. Calhoun (Colquhoun), James K(nox) Polk (Pollock), Sam Houston, Jim Bowie, Davy Crocket, and Confederate President Jefferson Davis, to name but a few, were reared on old-world stories of warrior heroism. Davis’s grandmother for instance was Scottish, and his mother told him legends from the land of her birth, and even taught him a few words of Gaelic that Davis later took pleasure in teaching his own children - in 1869 he made a highly symbolic pilgrimage to Culloden Battlefield, the site of the final Jacobite defeat.

In his book The Mind of the South, W. J. Cash has emphasized the hold of the Scottish clan tradition in the South, whereby the ordinary white farmer stood shoulder to shoulder with the Planter "like a Scottish clansman to his chief", for there was a fierce sense of belonging to a great aristocratic tradition. In this new country this sense of ‘clan loyalty’ developed into a sharing of the Planter’s aristocratic paraphernalia, including his culture, his standards of honour, and even his distinguished ancestors, for, like the Highland clan, the ordinary white was often related by ties of blood to his aristocratic neighbour, or at the very least, shared the Highland concept of "widely extended kinship", or in Scott’s words - "associations common to inhabitants of a rude and wild land".

Before the war, Southerners had identified with the manners and ideals of Scott’s novels (Professor Osterweiss of Yale University calls the South ‘Walter Scottland’); but after the war, in defeat, they identified even more closely their ‘Lost Cause’ with Scott’s novels of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the ‘Lost Cause’ of the Jacobite struggle for Scottish independence in 1746.

Back in Scotland, ‘The Wizard of the North’ had, through his novels and poems, (with the help of other Lowlanders, particularly songwriters and collectors such as Robert Burns, James Hogg and Lady Nairne), ‘reconstructed’ the once feared Jacobites, and by the time of his death in 1832, (and with Highland society safely destroyed), the Highlands had become a romantic wonderland of noble savages and past glories. In a similar way, the Southerners, who had vehemently opposed Northern ‘Reconstruction’, slowly began to reconstruct themselves in the American imagination. Ironically, according to Taylor, it was with the unwitting connivance of many Northerners, who still longingly regarded the South as having the romantic, aristocratic, and ‘Cavalier’ society that the more democratic and acquisitive North lacked.

However, the South’s stubborn resistance to the North’s attempt at ‘Reconstruct’ them had a much more sinister component. According to Professor Osterweiss – "It was characteristic if not inevitable that the institution employed to restore the Southern system was a clandestine, quasi-military band of self-styled "knights-errant" in the Scottish tradition, who surrounded their organisation with the symbols of both romantic and folk myth. The Ku Klux Klan – a title and a concept with probable debts to Scott and Goethe." The origins of ‘The Klan’ remain a mystery; some suggest it was founded by Confederate veterans at Pulaski, Tennessee - men who "saw themselves as persecuted Scottish ‘klansmen’ riding forth to redress the wrongs being perpetrated by . . . people in league with the hated conquerors." Professor Macinnes of Aberdeen University thinks their lineage is undoubtedly Scottish, their name being an Aberdeen dialect term introduced by farm workers who belonged to the elite and secret Society of Horsemen, which survived in Scotland well into the 20th century. Whatever their origin, the symbolism is obvious, the fiery cross for instance (in Gaelic the crosh-tairie), a symbol of resistance and coercion, is straight out of Scott’s The Lady of the Lake; a poem ‘inflicted’ on every Southern child.

Scott’s legacy in his own country and in the South, whether we like it or not, was enormous, and today, due in no small part to his influence, it is not the victorious Hanoverian Army of the British, nor the Union Army of the North that stirs the majority of hearts and imaginations, but the beaten yet un-bowed armies of the Highlands and the Old South, and the lost romantic worlds they symbolised. The question remains to be answered - did they both lose their wars, but with the help of Sir Walter Scott, win, and continue to win, the final victory?


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