FW: Myers on Hubbs, _Guarding Greebsboro_ [book review]
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Subject: Myers on Hubbs, _Guarding Greebsboro_
H-NET BOOK REVIEW
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
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
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." 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.
. Thomas Bender, _Community and Social Change in America_ (Baltimore:
Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), 7, 17.
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