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Builders of the South

ISSUE:  Spring 1926

Memories and Memorials of William Gordon McCabe.
By Armistead Churchill Gordon. Richmond: Old Dominion Press. Two volumes. $10.00.

Southern Pioneers in Social Interpretation. Edited by Howard W. Odum. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. $2.00.

Frequently it has been asserted, and often admitted, that the post-bellum South has been relatively barren of distinctive personal achievement, even in realms of thought and action where the South once ruled supreme. Whether or not it be true that the soil from which once sprang so splendid a host of statesmen and warriors has been so impoverished that it could produce only mediocrities, it is indubitable that few men of national distinction have recently appeared. Southern problems since the War have been essentially local in character, and southern leaders have inevitably been on the whole provincial. The task of rebuilding a shattered civilization has been heroic but not spectacular, and many of those who wrought wisest will doubtless long remain unsung. The story of the unobtrusive heroes of the peace is, however, beginning to be told. And the lengthening southern roll of honor appropriately includes, not blatant demagogues and fire-eating fomenters of race hatred, but, increasingly, teachers and other quiet molders of life and opinion who builded much better than they knew.


The biographer of William Gordon McCabe, soldier, schoolmaster, and scholar, writes with little mind to carping critics outside southern borders. Himself a custodian and exemplar of the best Virginia tradition, Mr. Gordon has given a perhaps too-detailed description of a gentleman of the Old School who bore that tradition as proudly through the poverty of peace as he had borne it through the perils of war. Yet the story of Gordon McCabe is a powerful rebuke to superficial criticism. Virginia was his country, and as he was proud of her and her history, so may she be justly proud of this classicist honored of Gilder-sleeve, himself “the kindliest soul that ever cussed or killed a Yankee,” of this notable schoolmaster who taught his boys that they couldn’t all be scholars but they could all be gentlemen.

The two volumes are as autobiographical of McCabe as the author could make them, and they constitute not merely a remarkable collection of personal memorabilia but also a veritable treasure-house of Virginia history and tradition. Gordon McCabe, the son of an Episcopal clergyman, antiquarian, and man of letters, was saturated with the history and traditions of the James River Valley. He attended John B. Cary’s Hampton Military Academy, was a tutor at Westover, came to the University of Virginia during its golden age and there enlisted in the Confederate cause, Mr. Gordon has made the story of McCabe’s life during these years inseparable from the larger history of the times, political, educational, and literary, and McCabe’s war diary and letters written from “Rebel Hall”, Charleston, and Petersburg form a delightful commentary upon the War between the States. He noted with philosophical gayety the loss one by one of his beloved volumes, companions of the camp, and when surrender was imminent broke his sabre before he should be forced to give it up.

After the War he established the University School at Petersburg, which he later moved to Richmond, and became noted as a capricious, exacting, inspiring teacher. Under distressing physical conditions he trained scholars and gentlemen. He taught a generation of southern boys to love the classics and emulate Robert E. Lee. Master of his own unique school, many years Visitor of the University of Virginia, and intimately associated with the educational activities of the state throughout his life, he strove to rebuild the civilization he had vainly fought to save. Passionately local though his spirit was, he became an inveterate traveler and the friend of innumerable distinguished literary and military men in England and America, and he continued his own literary activities until the end. President of the Virginia Historical Society for many years, he sought to perpetuate the history of the state for which he had been willing to die. Never would he say he was “glad the war ended as it did.” In 1860 he wrote, “The South approaches nearer the Periklean Age of Athens than any other confederacy since then,” and after fifty years’ study of the War he was yet convinced of the righteousness of the southern contention and held that it was not good that a righteous cause should perish from the earth.

He served the South by conserving the priceless old tradition. Thanks to him and others who placed a like emphasis on “culture, intellect, and honor,” the new edifice of southern civilization, in so many ways less stately than the old, has been built in part at least of materials mellowed by age and seasoned by adversity.


The volume, “Southern Pioneers,” though it tells of leaders now departed, is not a memorial but a prophecy. The nine pioneers, whose work is here briefly described by eight writers, were all in some measure forward-looking; their lives were inspirited by hopes of a new day, as McCabe’s life was enriched by memories of the old. He did not speak of the Forgotten Man; they dwelt little upon the Lost Cause. The book is obviously propaganda—very good propaganda too—and is designed not so much to answer northern critics as to stimulate southern zeal. In an introductory chapter the editor admits the dearth of first-rate leaders in the South, and attributes this to failure to make adjustments to economic and social change, lack of experiences and training, lack of real universities, lack of stimulus and appreciation. He deplores the negative and sensitively defensive spirit which has prevailed in the South, but sees in the constructive services of the heroes of this volume a promise for the future.

The same spirit of frankness combined with zeal characterizes most of the biographical sketches. Gerald W. Johnson uses Woodrow Wilson as a text for a good sermon on southern failure to live up to Wilsonian ideals, despite lip-service. Robert D. W. Connor, somewhat more on the defensive, explains why Walter H. Page, who had outgrown southern particularism, was so unsuccessful in his efforts to convince the southern mummy that it was a mummy, but gives the brilliant North Carolinian credit for having taught the South (in part) to see herself as others see her, for having inspired the men who actually rebuilt his native state, and for having aroused northern interest in southern health, agriculture and education. President Edwin A. Alderman gives his personal remembrances of Governor Charles B. Aycock, who “became the Lord Chatham of a reawakened American state,” and did so much to make the present era North Carolina’s golden age. Jackson Davis tells the thrilling story of Seaman A. Knapp, a northerner who became “our greatest agricultural statesman,” and brought new life and hope to countless discouraged southern farmers. John D. Wade writes cleverly of Augustus B. Longstreet, but does not convince us that the orthodox judge, minister, and college president was much of a pioneer, though the author of “Georgia Scenes” was one of the first American realists. The constructive services of Booker T. Washington in teaching his race—more than anyone else has done—the dignity of labor and in furthering cooperation between blacks and whites, are very appropriately described by Monroe N. Work. The “constructive realism” of Joel Chandler Harris is described with becoming sympathy by Julia Collier Harris, and the little-known services of Madeline McDowell Breckinridge, “herald of community service,” are treated less successfully by Sophonisba P. Breckinridge. In the last essay Robert D. W. Connor tells how Edward Kidder Graham used the University of North Carolina as an instrument to aid the South “in passing from a culture of leisure and caste to a culture of democracy and work.”

The essays are uneven and some are commonplace, but almost every one of them is challenging. They represent the gospel of “uplift” in an appealing form. They are so vital that the reviewer is not tempted to indulge in trivial criticisms and sophisticated sneers. The splendid memorial Mr. Gordon has erected to his friend shows how the best southern culture can be projected into a new age; the story of southern pioneers shows that honor will not be lacking to men who really build. Both books should be welcomed by all lovers of the South, old and new. The significant leaders of the future South will be Janus-like in the sense that they will look backward with the one and forward with the other.


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