Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

A Voluntary War: The Spanish-American War, White Southern Manhood, and the Struggle to Recruit Volunteers in the South

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

A Voluntary War: The Spanish-American War, White Southern Manhood, and the Struggle to Recruit Volunteers in the South

Article excerpt

ON THE NIGHT OF TUESDAY, MARCH 15, 1898, TWO MASKED WHITE men appeared at the home of a black man in Bethesda, South Carolina. The men were not looking for the homeowner but for his brother, Walter Beard. Beard, of course, did not want to answer the knock at the door, but his brother convinced him to leave the house, lest the white men invade the home, which they had threatened to do. Once Beard left the semiprotective confines of his brother's house, the two men grabbed him and led him away. Suddenly, more white men appeared; they had been hiding in the bushes. The mob took Beard to a wooded area near his brother's house, stripped him naked, and viciously beat him with a whip. According to a local newspaper, the white mob had been exceedingly magnanimous. Beard "ought to thank the fates that he was not swung up by the neck," the paper reported. Beard's crime in this instance: he had "spout[ed] his views on the war question." As war with Spain loomed in March 1898, Beard allegedly had said, "'I wish war would come. We negroes would hide in the swamps until all the white men had left the country; then we would kill from the cradle to the grave. I would paint every stump in this county red with the brains of their babes, and ravish their daughters for pastime.'" (1)

While this violent incident demonstrated the continuing distinctiveness of the South within the nation, a number of other events in March and April 1898 seemed to foretell the beginning of the end of that regional distinctiveness and the reconciliation of the North and the South. (2) In Congress, representatives from the South voted unanimously to support a request by a northern Republican president for a $50 million war appropriation. That northern Republican president, not too long thereafter, appointed two former Confederates to high-ranking positions in the U.S. Army. Newspapers in the North praised the heroism and patriotism of the South. Newspapers in the South vociferously proclaimed their region's loyalty to the nation. Poets and songwriters wrote ditties about northern men and southern men fighting side by side, shoulder to shoulder. The song "Dixie" rivaled "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "Yankee Doodle" as the song most dear to patriotic Americans. In New York, in fact, when John Philip Sousa's band played "Dixie" at a concert, the audience was so ecstatic, according to reports, that "bedlam let loose." (3) Most important perhaps, white southern manhood was no longer denigrated north of the Mason-Dixon Line, as it had been in the aftermath of the Civil War. (4)

All of these events came in response to the breakdown of relations between the United States and Spain over the attempt by the latter to end an uprising in its island colony of Cuba. Cuba lay just ninety miles off the coast of southern Florida, and many Americans seemed to take offense at Spain's brutal repression of Cuban insurgents. The explosion of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor in February 1898 inflamed public opinion. Some white Americans believed the trouble with Spain in early 1898 could be a tonic to heal the ailments of the American past. These whites agreed that the nation's destiny needed to be shaped by Anglo-Saxons. Forgetting past antagonism (that is, the Civil War and Reconstruction) was thus a key concern for some Americans at the end of the nineteenth century. As such, politicians, newspaper editors, and Civil War veterans created a narrative of sectional reconciliation and presented the events of early 1898 as a story of national regeneration. (5)

Yet as historian Joseph A. Fry has argued, "Place matters in how Americans have responded to and influenced the formation and implementation of U.S. foreign policy." (6) This was certainly true in 1898, as the narrative of sectional reconciliation, though enticing to many, failed to completely convince all white (and certainly many black) southerners that American entry into the Cuban war was appropriate, especially as a way to reunify the country. …

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