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Aristocrats and Yeomen How Virginians Came Together to Defeat the Yankees

By Rick Williams
March 01, 2005

Those who have lived in Virginia for any length of time, or studied its political history, realize that Virginia is really two states culturally and politically. Call it a blue state within a red state.

What we refer to as the “Golden Crescent,” which sweeps from Northern Virginia southwestward taking in Richmond, and then southeastward taking in Norfolk and the Tidewater area, is, for the most part, populated by those who don’t have deep roots in our state. Those who live in these areas and do have roots there are, for the most part, aristocratic in their heritage. Many of them are descended from the wealthy English landed gentry — “FFV’s” — First Families of Virginia. Lees, Carters, Randolphs, and Shirleys are names that come to mind. Many of the spiritual and philosophical descendants of these families, along with most of those living in the Golden Crescent, have embraced a much more liberal brand of politics than people in other parts of Virginia.

The rest of the Commonwealth — the central Piedmont region, Southside, Southwest Virginia and, of course, my beloved Shenandoah Valley — comprise the bulk of the rural areas with a primarily yeoman heritage. Most are descendants of the Scots-Irish — particularly those in the Valley and Southwest Virginia — who migrated down the great wagon road from Pennsylvania in the 18 th century.

This is a broad generalization, and there are exceptions to some of these geographic definitions; but for the most part it is reality. If a conservative candidate can pull a high percentage of his base from rural areas, he can overcome the densely populated areas of Northern Virginia which tend to vote much more liberally.

Guardians

The aristocrats of Virginia have become the guardians of the secular, and the yeomen have become the guardians of the sacred. Just convince enough of those Scots-Irish descendants that some liberal elitist (Aristocrat) is going to restrict our gun rights, mess with our religion, or harm our families, and we’ll come out of the woods and mountains like an army of ants. Much of this analysis applies to other states as well, particularly those in the rest of the South and the Midwest. These Scots-Irish descendants, now 30 million strong in America, came in the mass migration from Northern Ireland that occurred in the 1700s. As former Secretary of the Navy James Webb noted in a recent Wall Street Journal piece:

…the Calvinist “Ulster Scots” decided they’d had enough of fighting Anglican England’s battles against Irish Catholics. One group settled initially in New Hampshire, spilling over into modern-day Vermont and Maine. The overwhelming majority — 95% — migrated to the Appalachians in a series of frontier communities that stretched from Pennsylvania to northern Alabama and Georgia. They eventually became the dominant culture of the South and much of the Midwest. 1

This cultural phenomenon and voting bloc is under the radar in most political war-rooms. It has mistakenly been viewed as “angry white men,” the “redneck vote,” and “the Christian right.” Those labels are only partially correct — “redneck” being the only acceptable racial slur in America today — and most who apply them fail to see the whole picture. Webb explains further:

This mix of fundamentalist religion and social populism grew from a people who for 16 centuries had been tested through constant rebellions against centralized authority. The Scots who headed into the feuds of 17th-century Ulster, and then into the backlands of the American frontier, hardened further into a radicalism that proclaimed that no man had a duty to obey a government if its edicts violated his moral conscience…. The Scots-Irish political culture is populist and inclusive, which has caused other ethnic groups to gravitate toward it. Country music is its cultural emblem. It is family-oriented. Its members are values-based rather than economics-based: they often vote on emotional issues rather than their pocket books. Because of their heritage of “kinship,” they’re strangely unenvious of wealth, and measure leaders by their personal strength and values rather than economic position. They have a 2,000-year-old military tradition based on genealogy, are the dominant culture of the military and the Christian Right, and define the character of blue-collar America. They are deeply patriotic, having consistently supported every war America has fought, and intensely opposed to gun control…. 2

Most political scientists and historians mistakenly lump the Scots-Irish (Presbyterians) 3 together with those of British descent who, in Virginia, are primarily Episcopalians (Anglican), or with the predominantly Catholic Irish. These ethnic groups share some common cultural traits, but there are distinct differences. As already noted, much of the Aristocratic British culture has evolved into the modern political elite, typified by the political philosophies of Northeastern liberals and Golden Crescent Virginians.

The Heart of the Matter

This elitist philosophy is anathema to the Scots-Irish, and was the impetus for the centuries of conflict with England most recently epitomized by Mel Gibson’s film, Braveheart. Webb also describes the Scots-Irish mindset in his recent book, Born Fighting How the Scots-Irish Shaped America:

They were the kind of people who would fight like madmen, then after it was over, look down at a dead friend or relative and cry like babies. They were the kind of people who would die in place rather than retreat if they had given you their word that they would be there for you. And they were not the kind of people you would ever, ever, want to set in action against you. 4

That last sentence is especially true. Just read the comments of Union soldiers who had the misfortune of facing Scots-Irish Stonewall Jackson’s army. As one Ohio soldier wrote, “ Jackson was on us and fear was on us.” Another Union soldier, commenting on his unit fleeing from Jackson’s army at the battle of Chancellorsville, said his former unit resembled “close-packed ranks rushing like legions of the damned” as they fled in utter terror from the onslaught of the yeomen warriors, their Rebel yell unmanning the battle-hardened Federals 5; another Yankee reporting that “all of the Confederates roar like beasts.” Poor chap; he should have stayed in Boston sipping tea and reading Thoreau.

So how did these two divergent cultural groups of Virginians — the warrior yeomen and the wealthy aristocrats — come together to fight, and almost defeat, a numerically superior and better organized Federal army?

Enter Robert E. Lee. Though Lee was most definitely an aristocrat, he was certainly not of the modern bent. Lee also had Scots-Irish blood, from his mother’s side. He was a descendant of Robert the Bruce, the man who finished what William Wallace of Scotland had started and finally ascended to the Scottish throne. Lee would choose a military career, graduating second in his class from West Point, go on to serve with distinction in the Mexican War, become a respected engineer, return to West Point to serve as Commandant, quell John Brown’s domestic insurrection at Harper’s Ferry, and become what General Winfield Scott called, “the greatest military genius in America.”

During Colonial times, and the years leading up to the War Between the States, the divergent citizenry of the Old Dominion had agreed to a marriage of convenience. The landed gentry of eastern Virginia, with its plantation-based economy, had allowed the Scots-Irish to stream into, and even dominate, the western part of the state mainly because of Indians. Again, James Webb describes this uneasy relationship:

They were told that they could practice their religion in the mountains even if it was not “lawful,” [Ed., there was a state church still in Virginia during this time] so long as they did not seek to infect the more ordered societies along the coast. And they were expected to reciprocate by both staying in the mountains and keeping the Indians at bay…the Eastern Establishment looked down on them, openly demeaning their religion and their cultural ways, and at bottom sought to use them toward its own ends. 6

By the time “John Brown’s body lay a moldin’ in the grave,” much of this tension between the mountain yeomen and coastal aristocrats had eased. They now had a common enemy and would use their respective strengths to repel an invading force that sought to disrupt both ways of life.

The Aristocrat and the Yeoman

Lee represented the aristocratic region and culture of Virginia, and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson the yeoman tradition. Born into the mountainous region of what today is West Virginia, Jackson struggled through most of his childhood as an orphan. Jackson’s background was as different from Lee’s as night is to day. Only God providentially intervened by allowing Jackson to gain an appointment to West Point where he settled on a military career, also distinguishing himself in the war with Mexico. Thus God set in motion events that would bring together not only two of the most brilliant military strategists in world history, but also two of the world’s best examples of Christian manhood, representing two classes of people and two cultures.

Despite the differences in culture, they shared three things: a deep love for Virginia, an abiding and active faith in the Son of God, and fierceness in combat. These two Christian warriors also shared mutual respect and admiration. Jackson once told an associate: “So great is my confidence in General Lee that I am willing to follow him blindfolded.” 7 And Jackson wrote his wife Anna that Lee was “a better officer than General [Winfield] Scott.” 8

As Jackson lay dying after the battle of Chancellorsville, Lee told Confederate Chaplain Beverly Tucker Lacy, “He has lost his left arm, but I my right arm.” 9 And when Jackson died, Lee, bowed down with sorrow and grief, told his brother Charles, “I am grateful to Almighty God for having given us such a man.” 10 When he tried to discuss the matter with General-Reverend William Nelson Pendleton, Lee was so overcome with emotion that he wept openly. And the aristocratic Lee was so confident of his yeoman lieutenant that he told his brother that if Jackson had been at Gettysburg, there would have been a certain Confederate victory.

Their relationship paints a beautiful picture of how Christ is no respecter of persons and how God can unite Christians from different backgrounds to accomplish a task, glorify His name, and demonstrate to the world the amazing harmonizing power of the Gospel — even in the midst of a tragic and bloody war.

Notes


1 James Webb, Wall Street Journal, “Secret GOP Weapon: The Scots-Irish Vote,” October 19, 2004.

2Ibid.

3 Though the overwhelming majority of the early Scots-Irish in America were Presbyterians, within a few generations they had branched out into other Christian denominations, most notably the Baptists and Methodists. Even so, reading the names of the membership rolls of many Presbyterian churches in Western Virginia reveals many of the same surnames that would have been on those rolls in 1800.

4 James Webb, Born Fighting — How the Scots-Irish Shaped America, ( New York: Broadway Books, 2004), 89-90.

5 The author recognizes the bravery of the many Union soldiers who fought for the North and no disrespect is intended. Providence was indeed smiling upon the Confederates at Chancellorsville — at least until Jackson was shot by one of his own men. Had Jackson lived, President Zell Miller might be sitting in the White House today — in Richmond.

6 Webb, 129.

7 Stonewall Jackson to Colonel Alexander Boteler.

8 James I. Robertson, Stonewall Jackson The Man, The Soldier, The Legend (New York: MacMillan Publishing, 1997), 218.

9Ibid., 746.

10Ibid., 754.


Topics: American History

Rick Williams

Rick Williams is a businessman, writer, and publisher (VirginiaGentleman.com). He is the author of The Maxims of Robert E. Lee for Young Gentlemen, published by Pelican Publishing (ISBN 9781589803107) and co-authored Christian Business Legends published by the Business Reform Foundation (BusinessReform.com). He does not advocate secession but he would like to be left alone.

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