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FW: Myers on Hubbs, _Guarding Greebsboro_ [book review]

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  • Amos J Wright
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      Subject: Myers on Hubbs, _Guarding Greebsboro_

      Published by H-South@... (November, 2006)

      G. Ward Hubbs. _Guarding Greensboro: A Confederate Company in the Making
      of a Southern Community_. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2003. xi
      + 325 pp. Tables, maps, notes, bibliography, index. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN

      Reviewed for H-South by Barton A. Myers, Department of
      History, University of Georgia.

      Creating Community in Civil War Era Alabama?

      In _Guarding Greensboro_, G. Ward Hubbs offers a thought-provoking
      analysis of how white settlers living on the west-central Alabama
      frontier during the nineteenth century forged a "community" at
      Greensboro from a disparate collection of self-interested
      individualists. Hubbs argues that between 1819, when Greensboro was
      founded, and the end of the Civil War the local militia company became
      the rallying point for the formation of community solidarity. He asserts
      that between an early stage of self-interested individualism and a later
      period of coherent community was an intervening phase where
      individualists gradually joined voluntary organizations, one of which
      was the Greensboro Guards. Central to Hubbs's overall argument is that
      the experience of the Civil War and the service of the Greensboro Guards
      militia company played the key role in the formation of strong bonds of
      local loyalty.

      Hubbs's work looks not at the destruction of community, as many other
      scholars have done for the Civil War period, but at how and when
      community-building took place. The author's account focuses primarily on
      the white male settlers that populated Greensboro and the surrounding
      area of Greene County and not on the slaves and women, who he argues
      played little role in creating civic community. Hubbs demonstrates that
      early frontier Greensboro was not known for "community," which he
      defines as a social network of "enduring commitments" to a larger group
      (p. xiii). To the contrary, early Greensboro was known for gambling,
      land accumulation, greed, violence, and vice. The author views the laws
      suits growing out of the 1837 financial panic as evidence of an absence
      of community; Hubbs shows only "transient and autonomous self-seekers"
      during this founding period.

      During the second phase of community-building, Hubbs explains how a
      series of voluntary associations emerged in Greensboro including the
      Free Masons, local churches, and the Greensboro Guards. According to
      Hubbs, the evangelical churches that infiltrated west-central Alabama in
      the 1810s and 1820s were elitist groups, organizations people joined
      only to make financial ties. Hubbs's argument here reminds us of William
      Faulkner's Thomas Sutpen darkening the door of the church only to find a
      bride in Rosa Coldfield. During the 1830s and 1840s, Hubbs sees the
      cooperation between overlapping voluntary associations as a period of
      integration and consolidation. He points to the failure of townspeople
      to bring the railroad as evidence of limited commitment to the community
      as a whole. In the end, however, he believes one association--the local
      militia company--rose above the rest to become the symbol of Greensboro.

      The militia company that played a central role in Hubbs's assessment of
      community development formed in 1823, following the Denmark Vesey slave
      insurrection in Charleston, South Carolina. The company participated in
      the 1836 Creek War, but it did not leave the town for the Mexican War.
      Hubbs argues that the Greensboro Guards were already so attached to the
      town in 1846 that they did not want to leave. By the end of the
      antebellum period, the Guards represented the community because they
      have played a central role in its protection from Indians and slaves.

      Hubbs's argument that community had not yet formed in Greensboro until
      the late antebellum period does have its limitations. While the author
      argues that there was not a strong community bond until the last two or
      three years of the antebellum period, he does present some contradictory
      evidence. Greensboro's citizens gathered for a major celebration of
      George Washington's Birthday in 1832, which seems to signify an
      emotional bond to something larger than self-interested individualism.
      Likewise, the Greensboro Guards' decision not to serve in the Mexican
      War signifies some level of local attachment. Hubbs believes that the
      community was only in a budding stage when Southern University was
      formally established in 1857, thirty-five years after the founding of
      Greensboro. This event seems more like the culmination rather than the
      beginning of community formation. Furthermore, the failure to bring the
      railroad to Greensboro was not unique or necessarily evidence for a lack
      of strong community ties, as even well-established communities on the
      eastern seaboard of the South were unable to attract railroads due to
      limited funds.

      The citizens of Greensboro strongly supported the Whig Party and the
      Know Nothings during the 1850s. According to Hubbs, this left a brief
      legacy of Unionism during the secession period. Greensborians
      overwhelmingly supported John Bell in the Presidential election of 1860.
      Hubbs, however, contends that the strong Unionism of the late antebellum
      period quickly evaporated across the black belt and in Greene County
      once secession was underway. Hubbs believes that by 1861, despite some
      evidence of lingering Unionism, most people in Greensboro were united by
      a common support for the Greensboro Guards and the attempt to build a
      Confederate nation. According to the author, those few dissenters that
      remained were quickly ostracized or forced out.

      During the war, the Greensboro Guards became Company D of the
      hard-fighting Fifth Alabama Infantry, which saw action in virtually
      every major campaign of Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. Hubbs
      argues that the driving motivation for most of these Alabamans was a
      desire to preserve the personal liberty of free white men (p. 103).
      Furthermore, Hubbs asserts that Greensboro's community spirit remained
      strong while soldiers were at the front. During the early part of the
      war, the Guards were involved in several important military actions.
      They lost men at Seven Pines and were virtually decimated at Gaines Mill
      and Malvern Hill during the Peninsula Campaign. Remaining members of the
      company were captured at South Mountain in September 1862. But,
      gradually men returned to the ranks where they participated in the
      famous "Stonewall" Jackson flank attack at Chancellorsville. In the
      aftermath of Chancellorsville, only thirty-five men remained. Throughout
      the conflict, Hubbs asserts that the men corresponded with the people at
      home through letters to the local newspaper, which shored up community
      commitment to the cause.

      The final years of the war were hard for all of Greensboro's citizens.
      After the defeat at Gettysburg, the impact of the war on civilians back
      home in Alabama grew severe. Many soldiers at the front began to see
      Greensboro as a refuge from the war. Some women in Greensboro had doubts
      about the war, but according to Hubbs, they stayed committed to the
      Confederacy. Nevertheless, careful readers will find some evidence for
      the type of dissent Drew Gilpin Faust found in her _Mothers of
      Invention_ (1996). Hubbs traces mass desertion in July 1863, yet finds
      only four deserters among the Greensboro Guards. By 1864, the Alabama
      home front was collapsing, but the Fifth Alabama continued to fight on
      at Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, in the Shenandoah Valley
      Campaign, and at the siege of Petersburg. Only one member of the Guard
      remained by the surrender at Appomattox. Ultimately, Hubbs believes that
      the men of Greensboro feared a race war and fought to the bitter end to
      prevent this. As far as the citizens on the home front are concerned,
      Hubbs's argument mirrors the work of William Blair in _Virginia's
      Private War_ (1996), which also argued that, despite serious economic
      hardship, southerners remained committed to Confederate nationalism
      until the end of the war.

      At the heart of this well thought-out community study is the question:
      how much individual interaction and voluntary association make
      community? This is where Hubbs's notion of community is a little too
      slippery. Hubbs allows the reader to see community only when he wants
      them to see it and not simply when groups of people from all walks of
      life came together to celebrate an event or work together to form an
      institution. In light of this, Thomas Bender's definition of community
      should remain the gold standard. In a masterful work on community
      studies theory _Community and Social Change in America_ (1978), Bender
      (borrowing from Ferdinand Tonnies) defined two types of communities,
      _gemeinschaft_ and _gesellschaft_. The small-town living of
      _gemeinschaft_ was characterized by "a network of social relations
      marked by mutuality and emotional bonds" and the big-city experience of
      _gesellschaft_ by "an artificial construction of an aggregate of human
      beings characterized by competition and impersonality."[1] Bender
      further argued that communities typically evolve from _gemeinschaft_ to
      _gesellschaft_. But, Hubbs contends the opposite for Greensboro; he sees
      the locality evolving from "voluntary associations" to "traditional
      notions of loyalty" over time, a reverse of Bender's process (p. 300).
      While Hubbs does address Bender in his work, he does not convincingly
      demonstrate the absence of a Bender-like _gemeinschaft_ community in
      Greensboro during the entire antebellum period.

      Another question emerges from how Hubbs frames his analysis. He argues
      that self-interest was antithetical to community-building in Greensboro.
      But, could self-interest have actually been community in Greensboro?
      Southern historians have argued that individualism has been a dominant
      trait of southerners growing out of the frontier experience, but does it
      necessarily follow that no community exists where individualism is
      strongest? Clearly, communities dominated by self-interested individuals
      could thrive in the South, otherwise the Whig Party and the national
      market would not have penetrated sections of the southern countryside
      during the antebellum years. Could the self-interest of some members of
      a community in fact bring greater cohesion and loyalty to the whole by
      providing benefits like internal improvements and educational
      institutions to local places?

      While some of the evidence Hubbs presents contradicts his central
      argument that a united community was absent in antebellum Greensboro,
      Hubbs has produced an interesting and nuanced narrative that deserves
      high praise. Hubbs is arguing for more reflective thought when
      historians use the term "community" and for this he should be commended.
      Hubbs forces us to think in spatial terms about when and where community
      developed in the South, and community studies historians should strive
      to produce such conscientious theoretical frameworks. Nineteenth-century
      community studies scholars and Civil War historians of all backgrounds
      should move Hubbs's study of Greensboro into the must read column of
      their book lists.


      [1]. Thomas Bender, _Community and Social Change in America_ (Baltimore:
      Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), 7, 17.

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