LINK: Atlanta, Cradle of the New South (2013)

Posted: 10/30/2013
Reviewed By: John J. Langdale III

Atlanta, Cradle of the New South: Race and Remembering in the Civil War's Aftermath by William A. Link. University of North Carolina Press, 2013. Cloth, ISBN: 146960776X. $34.95.

In recent decades, historians of the postbellum South have used the variable of memory to deepen comprehension of the disparate lenses through which black and white southerners understood their region in the aftermath of the Civil War. From Gaines Foster’s and Charles Wilson’s illuminating studies of white commemoration of the conflict to David Blight’s study of the contested ground of the war’s legacy, historians have engaged in a now half-century long project which began with C. Vann Woodward’s attempt to locate the “origins of the New South.” Recovering memory, however, does not always intrinsically correlate to uncovering meaning. In Atlanta, Cradle of the New South, William Link seeks to remedy this with a microcosmic study of Atlanta which has macrocosmic implications for understanding the means whereby the city’s reconstruction ultimately “helped define the contours of the post-Reconstruction American South” (6).

Link begins by sketching the boundaries of antebellum Atlanta which, two decades before secession, was little more than a backwoods village on Georgia’s northern frontier. However, by 1850, Atlanta was becoming a major railroad hub and boasted a population of nearly ten thousand people. From the outset, economic boosters, Link deftly shows, sought both to secure Atlanta’s economic dominance and to forestall any licentiousness which threatened to hinder its economic prosperity. Though slavery provided the basis for a semblance of order in most southern towns, the institution was less prominent in Atlanta which, Link notes, “lay on the margins of the slaveholding regime”(9). Nonetheless, white boosters rushed to the Confederate cause in 1861 and the city, initially far removed from the horrors of war, prospered into a place of both strategic and industrial significance. At the same time, the war increased Atlanta’s slave population, heightened unruly behavior and, most significantly, made the city an inevitable target of the Union army. Through Sherman’s bombardment, Atlanta became a symbol of Confederate defeat for white southerners, one of liberation for blacks and one of just retribution for northerners. At the same time, boosters, Link notes, quickly and eagerly promoted an image of post-war Atlanta emerging “Phoenix-like” from “her own ashes” (55). This version, which was especially appealing to northerners, formed the basis of a heightened campaign of economic promotion for what shortly came to be known as the “New South.”

However, the end of the war did not, Link argues, so much empower the myth of the New South as it “made possible the creation of fundamentally antagonistic visions of the future” (61). While whites promoted Atlanta’s destruction as affording unique opportunity to redefine the South, African Americans viewed the event as a harbinger of black freedom. Consequently, Atlanta, during Reconstruction, became synchronously devoted to the promotion of both “white supremacy” and “black autonomy” (90). While boosterism and white supremacy, for obvious reasons, largely trumped African American understandings of the significance of the war and its aftermath, the contrasting black narrative of the era, Link points out, can be recovered through the stories of Atlanta University and the enclave of AMA missionaries who were exemplars of racial egalitarianism and who furnished a compelling alternative vision of the region’s future.

In chapter six titled “Wheel within a Wheel,” Link marvelously traces the means whereby white southerners, black southerners, and northerners elaborated and confronted one another’s visions of both the southern past and the American future. The chapter weaves together the saga of Henry Grady’s New South boosterism, William T. Sherman’s post-war encounters with Atlanta and Edward Randolph Carter’s The Black Side to illuminate the means whereby these contrasting images of Atlanta challenged one another in both direct and indirect ways. The book concludes with notable examples of direct and indirect tension regarding the legacy and future of Atlanta as the consummate New South city. First, Link recounts the historical events surrounding the Atlanta Race Riot of 1906 as reflective of the continued burden of white supremacy on Atlanta’s image. Second, he contrasts Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone with the Wind with W.E.B. Du Bois’s writings on race and the legacy of Reconstruction which, Link demonstrates, were indelibly shaped by his eleven year tenure at Atlanta University.
 
Parallel to the social and economic reconstruction of the former Confederacy, there were, historians remind us, equally compelling imaginative reconstructions taking place. Along these lines, the poet Robert Penn Warren once noted that the course of the war itself was far less important than how it was ultimately “lived in the national imagination.” Link’s well-researched and highly accessible study, in part, validates Warren, but also shows that before the “national imagination,” of which Warren spoke, there were white southern, black southern, and northern imaginations which preceded the national one. Link’s book effectively reminds the reader of a time when the Civil War war was not a distant abstraction, but a lived reality in the southern and American imagination. By doing so, Cradle of the New South not only adds to the literature on the significance of historical memory, but reminds us why those memories are historically significant.
 

John J. Langdale III is an Assistant Professor of History at Andrew College and the author of Superfluous Southerners: Cultural Conservatism and the South, 1920-1990.

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