Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Kanisorn Wongsrichanalai's "Northern Character"

Kanisorn Wongsrichanalai is Assistant Professor of history at Angelo State University. He is co-editor (with Lorien Foote) of So Conceived and So Dedicated: Intellectual Life in the Civil War–Era North.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Northern Character: College-Educated New Englanders, Honor, Nationalism, and Leadership in the Civil War Era, and reported the following:
Page 99 opens with Harvard graduate Henry L. Abbott admitting that he was “constitutionally timid” and “not warlike.” Yet, he felt bound by duty to volunteer to defend the Union in the midst of the American Civil War. Northern Character is about the development and application of a northern code of honor among the North’s elite population of young men who attended and graduated from colleges and universities at a time when few Americans had similar opportunities. I refer to them as the New Brahmins.

The young men who graduated from Harvard, Bowdoin, and other elite schools received not only a classical education but, more importantly, learned how to behave as gentlemen. Their code of conduct revolved around the term “character,” which called for gentlemen to act in accordance with an idealized internal compass based on educated thought. They internalized codes of proper behavior but also articulated for themselves a vision of American nationalism that they drew upon to make the case for the Union’s survival.

Page 99 perfectly represents the moment of crisis for the New Brahmins as they considered their options and wondered whether to join the fight. Would they behave consistent with the sentiments that they had espoused as college men? Here was a true test of their character.

When the Civil War began, these young men had the option of staying on the home front. Their position in society as members of the professional class—physicians, merchants, and attorneys—allowed them the possibility of hiring substitutes. Many of their class did stay on the home front and, as their parents argued, could serve the cause of the Union in other ways. But the New Brahmins took their college lessons seriously. On page 99, we find William Wheeler, a Yale graduate, informing his mother, “I have felt all along that it was my duty to go, and that it would be disgraceful if I did not” while Amherst student Christopher Pennell asked his father, “What is a person worth at such a time, if he do[es] not strain every nerve to uphold the stars & stripes[?]” Driven also by a sense of masculine bravado, Pennell reported that “men of the most talent, the soundest minds, the men, in short, of College are signing [up.]” Meanwhile, former Harvard student Robert Gould Shaw, later the commander of the famed 54th Massachusetts Volunteers, the first African-American regiment raised in the North, wrote that he would “not be satisfied to stay at home idle when such a war is going on.”

New Brahmins, who viewed themselves as society’s leaders, thought that their example would also lead others to join. They feared that complacency in the North would endanger enlistment efforts and hinder the war’s swift prosecution.

The war also offered the New Brahmins a very public way of demonstrating their character. Since the code of character emphasized internal thoughts and actions based on individual analysis, much of it was often hidden from the outside world. This is one key way that northern character differed from southern honor, which was all about the external displays and acting in accordance with the dictates of the crowd. The war allowed New Brahmins to act in accordance with their internal beliefs in a very public manner. “You must feel with me in my happiness!” Yale graduate William T. Lusk exclaimed, explaining that he was “going to see real danger, real privation, real work—not as a mere Carpet-Knight, talking valorously to girls, but going forth in all humility to help to conquer in the name of God and my Country.”
Learn more about Northern Character at the Fordham University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue