Mark Twain put it best, as early as 1882: “In the South, the [Civil] war is what AD is elsewhere; they date everything from it”. Several generations later, the legacies of slavery and “The War Between the States” remain evident throughout the southern heartland states of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas. It’s impossible to travel through the region without experiencing constant reminders of the two epic historical clashes that have shaped its destiny: the Civil War, and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
For many travellers, the most exciting aspect of a visit to the South has to be its music. Fans flock to the homelands of Elvis Presley, Hank Williams, Robert Johnson, Dolly Parton and Otis Redding, heading to the country and blues hot spots of Nashville and Memphis, or seeking out backwoods barn dances in Appalachia and blues juke joints in the Mississippi Delta. The South gave the world rock’n’roll, and its contribution to music in general cannot be overstated.
The Southern experience is also reflected in a rich regional literature, documented by the likes of William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, Margaret Mitchell and Harper Lee. Major destinations include the elegant coastal cities of Charleston and Savannah, college towns Athens and Chapel Hill, and the historic Mississippi River ports of Natchez and Vicksburg. Away from the urban areas, perfumed with delicate magnolia trees, the classic Southern scenery consists of fertile but sun-baked farmlands, with undulating hillsides dotted with wooden shacks and rust-red barns and broken by occasional forests. Highlights include the misty Appalachian mountains of Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina; the subtropical beaches and tranquil barrier islands along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of Georgia and South Carolina; and the river road through the tiny, time-warped settlements of the flat Mississippi Delta. In July and August, the daily high temperature is mostly a very humid 90°F, and while almost every public building is air-conditioned, the heat can be debilitating. May and June are more bearable, and tend to see a lot of local festivals, while the autumn colours in the mountains – just as beautiful and a lot less expensive and congested than New England – are at their headiest during October.
As a rule, public transport in rural areas is poor and you will see far more, and be able get out to the backwaters – the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the Ozarks and the Mississippi Delta to mention but a few – if you rent a car. In any case, it’s best to take things at your own pace – you’ll find things to see and do in the most unlikely places. Incidentally, if you harbour fantasies of travelling through the South by boat along the Mississippi, note that only luxury craft make the trip these days.
The British dominated the region from the seventeenth century onwards, establishing increasingly successful agricultural colonies in the Carolinas and Georgia. Both climate and soil favoured staple crops, and massive labour-intensive plantations sprang up, predominantly growing tobacco prior to independence, and then increasingly shifting to cotton. Eventually, the big landowners turned to slavery as the most profitable source of labour. Millions of blacks were brought across from Africa, most arriving via the port of Charleston.
Although the South prospered until the middle of the nineteenth century, there was little incentive to diversify its economy. As a result, the Northern states began to surge ahead in both agriculture and industry; while the South grew the crops, Northern factories monopolized the more lucrative manufacturing of finished goods. So long as there were equal numbers of slave-owning and “free” states, the South continued to play a central role in national politics, and was able to resist abolitionist sentiment. However, the more the United States fulfilled its supposed “Manifest Destiny” to spread across the continent, the more new states joined the Union for which plantation agriculture, and thus slavery, was not appropriate. Southern politicians and plantation owners accused the North of political and economic aggression, and felt that they were losing all say in the future of the nation. The election of Abraham Lincoln, a longtime critic of slavery, as president in 1860 brought the crisis to a head. South Carolina seceded from the Union that December, and ten more southern states swiftly followed. On February 18, 1861, Jefferson Davis was sworn in as president of the Confederate States of America – an event for which his vice president shockingly proclaimed that this was the first government in the history of the world “based upon this great physical and moral truth…that the Negro is not equal to the white man”.
During the resultant Civil War, the South was outgunned and ultimately overwhelmed by the vast resources of the North. The Confederates fired the first shots and scored the first victory in April 1861, when the Union garrison at Fort Sumter (outside Charleston) surrendered. The Union was on the military defensive until mid-1862, when its navy blockaded Georgia and the Carolinas and occupied key ports. Then Union forces in the west, under generals Grant and Sherman, swept through Tennessee, and by the end of 1863 the North had taken Vicksburg, the final Confederate-held port on the Mississippi, as well as the strategic mountain-locked town of Chattanooga on the Tennessee–Georgia border. Grant proceeded north to Virginia, while Sherman captured the transportation nexus of Atlanta and began a bloody and ruthless march to the coast, burning everything in his way. With 258,000 men dead, the Confederacy’s defeat was total, and General Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865, at Appomattox in Virginia.
The war left the South in chaos. A quarter of the South’s adult white male population had been killed, and two thirds of Southern wealth destroyed. From controlling thirty percent of the nation’s assets in 1860, the South was down to twelve percent in 1870, while the spur the war gave to industrialization meant that the North was booming. For a brief period of Reconstruction, when the South was occupied by Union troops, newly freed Southern blacks were able to vote, and black representatives were elected to both state and federal office. However, unrepentant former Confederates, spurred in part by allegations of profiteering by incoming Northern Republican “carpetbaggers”, thwarted any potential for change, and by the end of the century the Southern states were firmly back under white Democratic control. As Reconstruction withered away, “Jim Crow” segregation laws were imposed, backed by the not-so-secret terror of the Ku Klux Klan, and poll taxes, literacy tests and property qualifications disenfranchised virtually all blacks. Many found themselves little better off as sharecroppers – in which virtually all they could earn from raising crops went to pay their landlords – than they had been as slaves, and there were mass migrations to cities like Memphis and Atlanta, as well as to the North.
Not until the landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs Topeka Board of Education outlawed segregation in schools was there any sign that the federal authorities in Washington might concern themselves with inequities in the South. Even then, individual states proved extremely reluctant to effect the required changes. In the face of institutionalized white resistance, nonviolent black protestors coalesced to form the Civil Rights movement, and broke down segregation through a sustained programme of mass action. After tackling such issues as public transport – most famously in the Montgomery bus boycott and the Freedom Rides – and segregated dining facilities, with lunch-counter sit-ins reaching their apex in Greensboro, North Carolina, the campaign eventually culminated in restoring full black voter registration – not without the loss of many protestors’ lives. One fulfilling itinerary through the Southern states today is to trace the footsteps of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, from his birthplace in Atlanta through his church in Montgomery to the site of his assassination in Memphis.
The region’s varied cuisine ranges from creamy, cheese-topped grits (maize porridge) to highly calorific, irresistible soul food: fried chicken, smothered pork chops and the like, along with collard greens, sweet potatoes, macaroni and all manner of tasty vegetables. Barbecue – a deep source of regional pride and cultural identity – is king here, particularly in Memphis, but each state has its own smoked-meat variations and closely guarded recipes. Seafood is also exemplary, from catfish to the wonderful Low Country Boils – fish stews served with rice, traditionally prepared on the sea islands of the Carolinas and Georgia.
Top image: Charleston SC, a historic Antebellum home flies the American flag in Charleston, South Carolina © James Kirkikis/Shutterstock