Atlanta, Cradle of the New South: Race and Remembering in the Civil War's Aftermath

Atlanta, Cradle of the New South: Race and Remembering in the Civil War's Aftermath

Atlanta, Cradle of the New South: Race and Remembering in the Civil War's Aftermath

Atlanta, Cradle of the New South: Race and Remembering in the Civil War's Aftermath

Synopsis

After conquering Atlanta in the summer of 1864 and occupying it for two months, Union forces laid waste to the city in November. William T. Sherman's invasion was a pivotal moment in the history of the South and Atlanta's rebuilding over the following fifty years came to represent the contested meaning of the Civil War itself. The war's aftermath brought contentious transition from Old South to New for whites and African Americans alike. Historian William Link argues that this struggle defined the broader meaning of the Civil War in the modern South, with no place embodying the region's past and future more clearly than Atlanta.
Link frames the city as both exceptional--because of the incredible impact of the war there and the city's phoenix-like postwar rise--and as a model for other southern cities. He shows how, in spite of the violent reimposition of white supremacy, freedpeople in Atlanta built a cultural, economic, and political center that helped to define black America.

Excerpt

In 1886, civic booster and newspaper editor Henry W. Grady became one of the most successful popularizers of what he and others called a “New South.” Grady wanted to hasten the South’s rebirth. the specific locale for his call to arms was post–Civil War Atlanta. Destroyed by war, in two decades the city had rebuilt itself and became a leading, dynamic urban center. Grady emphasized the city as a center of a newly industrialized South that had abandoned the economic bases of the old slaveholding order. His “New South” incorporated some powerful notions that were reflective of Atlanta’s new self-image. Especially among whites in the growing city, there was a strong sense that they had rebounded from the war and were at the leading edge of dynamic economic tendencies. An early historian claimed that the city was “everywhere regarded as the leading representative city of the New South” and that there was “no place in the South … more thoroughly American.” It was a city, he wrote in 1905, where different people “meet, fraternize and unite in one harmonious whole” in a spirit of “toleration in thought, speech and conduct.”

Sixty years ago, C. Vann Woodward described the New South as nothing more than “a slogan, a rallying cry.” Behind the slogan lay an ideology that embodied a faith in the future combined with a passion for the past, alternating between a “forthright recantation to an affable and uncritical optimism.” Woodward urged historians to examine critically the lingering effects of a New South mentality in order to understand its significance and power. in 1970 Paul Gaston, taking up Woodward’s call, described a “New South Creed” a set of ideas serving as an exercise in mythmaking. the Creed became part of the postwar South’s attempt to redefine itself. It spun a version of an Old South past and a New South future that were, according to Gaston, both “genuine social myths with a social power over the way in which their believers perceived reality” These myths were composed of images and symbols that reflect popular perceptions of truth. It was no coincidence that . . .

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