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Silent Cavalry

This week, Don reviews "Silent Cavalry" by Howell Raines.

Alabama writer Howell Raines, now retired from his job as Executive Director of the “New York Times,” has been able to bear down and finish a project of many years and dear to his heart. Though born and raised in Birmingham, Raines’ roots go back for generations to Winston County. His first book, the novel “Whiskey Man,” is set there and in its fictional way sets up the contrast between Alabama north of Birmingham-Tuscaloosa and the Alabama of the Black Belt.

There were, he says “two white Souths.” The differences are many. Appalachian Alabama is hilly, the Black Belt flat with rich soil suitable for cotton plantations and therefore for slavery. Winston County produced only 352 of the one million bales grown in Alabama in 1860 and accounted for 122 of the state’s 435,080 slaves. As secession loomed in the late 1850s it was clear that north Alabama was not interested. One state referendum vote passed by an unimpressive 61 to 39.

The mythology of the Lost Cause began to form immediately. The first falsehood was: Alabama opinion coalesced after the vote. Jeffersonian Democrats became Rebels - not so. This myth could thrive only until 1862 when the Confederate draft was instituted. Unionists refused service, “laid out” in the woods or caves, and Governor Shorter sent troops to catch the draft dodgers, arrest them, even execute them for treason against the treasonous government in Montgomery. From that point forward a bloody civil war raged in in North Alabama.

Hundreds left to join the Union Army, and Alabama politicians and historians, then and afterwards, strongly preferred that no one ever know about this. Raines’ book is a detailed history of one band, the First Cavalry Regiment of Alabama, U. S. A. He has searched for decades and found surely almost all there is to know. Most of this regiment came from the Free State of Winston, named, unofficially, in response to Chris Sheats’ speech in Looney’s Tavern.

The unit fought as spies, as reconnaissance outfit and as personal escort to General Sherman and fought bravely as the Union Army burned Atlanta and marched through Georgia to the sea. The Confederate Army, Sherman surmised, would not surrender until the Southern citizenry, exhausted in fighting for slaves most did not have, demanded it. After the fighting ended, Raines writes, a war of propaganda, pride, and mythology raged on. The Confederacy was touted, not as a defense of slavery, but “a tragic story of undeserved suffering inflicted on a noble, if misguided, class of Southern aristocrats on their plantations and the dashing knights of the Rebel army.”

The bravery, the exploits even the existence of Southern Unionists was ignored, and the Lost Cause was promoted by academic historians and patriotic Alabama state archivists like Marie Bankhead Owens. Raines’ anger at Alabama classism—the arrogant cultural superiority of the planter class over the yeomen—is just as great as his anger over slavery and racism; and that is saying something.

Don Noble , Ph. D. Chapel Hill, Prof of English, Emeritus, taught American literature at UA for 32 years. He has been the host of the APTV literary interview show "Bookmark" since 1988 and has broadcast a weekly book review for APR since November of 2001, so far about 850 reviews. Noble is the editor of four anthologies of Alabama fiction and the winner of the Alabama state prizes for literary scholarship, service to the humanities and the Governor's Arts Award.