Honor in the Nineteenth Century

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IndianaBoy

Cadet
Joined
Jul 15, 2018
There have been several threads, recently, about "Was So-and-so an honorable man?" People then give evidence for and against. But if there was any discussion about what honor is, I missed it. Do social historians have any clear ideas on what's honorable, especially in Civil-War-time America?

Some details are clear: an honorable man is brave, keeps "his word" (serious promises), and is polite to ... some people (women and social superiors?) An honorable woman is all that and chaste as well. Beyond that, it's kind of unclear, at least to me.

What was honor? Was honor an issue below a certain social level? Were there written codes? Or was it as nebulous as being "cool" in our time?
 

Drew

Major
Joined
Oct 22, 2012
The correct question, really? It means, for starters, you “keep your word.” That was currency.

Now, Yankees insisted on written contracts, witnessed in writing by third parties, because one’s “word” had no currency in their world.

I guess I’m not surprised this is still a mystery to many of you.
 
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The correct question, really? It means, for starters, you “keep your word.” That was currency.

Now, Yankees insisted on written contracts, witnessed in writing by third parties, because one’s “word” had no currency in their world.

I guess I’m not surprised this is still a mystery to many of you.
Oh, you mean like Lee's oath to the United States?
 

unionblue

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Location
Ocala, FL (as of December, 2015).
The correct question, really? It means, for starters, you “keep your word.” That was currency.

Now, Yankees insisted on written contracts, witnessed in writing by third parties, because one’s “word” had no currency in their world.

I guess I’m not surprised this is still a mystery to many of you.
Come on, Drew!

Are you implying that Southerners never, ever, insisted on written contracts with one another, witnessed in writing by third parties?

What I consider a mystery is the far fetched idea that you actually suggest this.
 

Drew

Major
Joined
Oct 22, 2012
Oh, you mean like Lee's oath to the United States?
Lee resigned his commission in a straightforward way and picked his side. This is really off topic, Mr. Copperhead.

The thread as I read it is conceptual and again, I’m not surprised you’ve trouble grasping it.
 
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Drew

Major
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Oct 22, 2012
Come on, Drew!

Are you implying that Southerners never, ever, insisted on written contracts with one another, witnessed in writing by third parties?

What I consider a mystery is the far fetched idea that you actually suggest this.
UB, I’m going to dig a book off my shelf and share a passage with you. Not tonight, I need to go to bed, but you have my Word I will bump this thread and share it with you.

Hint: A Yankee had figured something out about the South. Stay tuned....
 

unionblue

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Ocala, FL (as of December, 2015).
"The safety and honor of a Republic must rest upon the morality, intelligence and patriotism of the community."

Jefferson Davis in a speech to the Mississippi legislature, March 10, 1884, nearly two decades after the Civil War.
 
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unionblue

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"I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your communication demanding the evacuation of this fort [Sumter]; and to say in reply thereto that it is a demand with which I regret that my sense of honor and of my obligations to my government prevent my compliance."

US Major Robert Anderson, in a message to Confederate brigadier general Pierre G. T. Beauregard.
 

mofederal

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Location
Southeast Missouri
https://www.marylutyndall.com/2012/05/code-duello-rules-of-dueling.html

The Code Duello was written down, but it was a book of the rules regarding duels. This was the Irish Code Duello written in 1777. It was more or less followed by most everyone country in the world. It was published in a Navy handbook given to Midshipmen joining the US Navy until 1862, when dueling was banned in 1862. The above is a link to the 22 rules regarding duels. A new and more American version of the code duello was written by South Carolina Governor Lyde Wilson in 1838 Since dueling is so often connected to honor, many actual referred to a duel as an affair of honor. So Now the question as asked above is what is honor. This is a question that varied from man to man in the upper social classes. There seemed to be no universal answer to what honor meant to a person or how they interpreted it.
 

Eleanor Rose

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central NC
There have been several threads, recently, about "Was So-and-so an honorable man?" People then give evidence for and against. But if there was any discussion about what honor is, I missed it. Do social historians have any clear ideas on what's honorable, especially in Civil-War-time America?

Some details are clear: an honorable man is brave, keeps "his word" (serious promises), and is polite to ... some people (women and social superiors?) An honorable woman is all that and chaste as well. Beyond that, it's kind of unclear, at least to me.

What was honor? Was honor an issue below a certain social level? Were there written codes? Or was it as nebulous as being "cool" in our time?
It seems honor and manliness have been intricately woven together forever. In many cases, they were interchangeable. When signing the Declaration of Independence, the American Founding Fathers “mutually pledged to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”

The word, honor, certainly does get used frequently on CWT, but most (me included) would find it difficult to clearly define it. If someone does hazard a guess, they’ll usually say that honor means being true to yourself or having integrity. It's important to understand that the modern definition of honor doesn’t really capture the concept of honor that our Founding Fathers swore upon. Only a few pockets of our society – one being the military - view honor as so many men from the past understood it and lived it. “Honor: A History” by James Bowman, is filled with fascinating insights into the history of honor.

In 19th century America, it was essential for a man to maintain his honor to get a good job and move within society. That meant men were highly motivated and incredibly vigilant about being viewed as honorable. It was for this reason that any injury or insult to one’s reputation required immediate action (think dueling). This retaliation was necessary if for no other reason than to prove a man had courage and that in itself made him worthy of honor.

While some folks still debate whether the Civil War was primarily about states’ rights or slavery, an argument can in fact be made that it was also largely about honor. Both sides saw and referred to the struggle as a duel. Bertram Wyatt-Brown, author of “Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South” said:

“For many, the Civil War was reduced to a simple test of manhood.”

Personally I think both the North and the South saw the war in terms of honor. I think what motivated the men to fight differed greatly.
 
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Yankee or Rebel has nothing to do with Honor. One side was no more honorable then the other. Why should we keep beating this dead horse. Mr. Webster defines it as a sense of what is right and just, integrity, dignity or sign of respect. Yes, one persons idea of what is right is not necessarily the same as others. Ego kicks in and nobody wants to be wrong. We constantly have posting like "Northern Aggression". Who burned Columbia?. These are all hot button topics. The end of the hostilities was in 1865, move on.
 

MattL

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Aug 20, 2015
Location
SF Bay Area
The correct question, really? It means, for starters, you “keep your word.” That was currency.

Now, Yankees insisted on written contracts, witnessed in writing by third parties, because one’s “word” had no currency in their world.

I guess I’m not surprised this is still a mystery to many of you.
Honestly I'm not sure which South you're talking about? I've dug through countless probate records, land deeds, court records, court minutes, etc of the South from the Civil War to back before the US existed. They certainly required things to be written, to be signed (often via a mark since most were illiterate), and required witnesses for all sorts of official documents like any other colony or State. Likewise they had plenty of legal challenges and issues, countless records of probates or land deeds challenged between people and various other issues requiring legal arbitration either by the JP, or the various judges/courts based on the specific context.

Fortunately for me and any other genealogists Southerners didn't just "keep your word" and did often require such paper trails, we would have been met with many dead ends otherwise.
 
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MattL

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Yankee or Rebel has nothing to do with Honor. One side was no more honorable then the other. Why should we keep beating this dead horse. Mr. Webster defines it as a sense of what is right and just, integrity, dignity or sign of respect. Yes, one persons idea of what is right is not necessarily the same as others. Ego kicks in and nobody wants to be wrong. We constantly have posting like "Northern Aggression". Who burned Columbia?. These are all hot button topics. The end of the hostilities was in 1865, move on.
I don't know, how you define what or isn't Honorable certainly determines whether X or Y were honorable in your opinion. Developing a contemporary baseline for such a term seems like a worthy subject. Likewise if a question is if X or Y is honorable to a persons specific modern sense of honor then that definition is equally important.

Many disputes are simply a matter of a lack of common terminology defined the same ways.
 

luinrina

Sergeant Major
Forum Host
Silver Patron
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Jul 30, 2018
Location
Germany
There have been several threads, recently, about "Was So-and-so an honorable man?" People then give evidence for and against. But if there was any discussion about what honor is, I missed it. Do social historians have any clear ideas on what's honorable, especially in Civil-War-time America?

Some details are clear: an honorable man is brave, keeps "his word" (serious promises), and is polite to ... some people (women and social superiors?) An honorable woman is all that and chaste as well. Beyond that, it's kind of unclear, at least to me.

What was honor? Was honor an issue below a certain social level? Were there written codes? Or was it as nebulous as being "cool" in our time?
Check out this thread: https://civilwartalk.com/threads/honor-dueling-and-slavery-in-the-antebellum-south.149060/ Granted, a lot of posts are more about duels than honor, but for the south, both were often closely intertwined.

The video in the original post is interesting. It's a lecture about honor in the antebellum south and I can fully recommend it. It answered a lot of questions for me.
 

Southern Unionist

First Sergeant
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Apr 27, 2017
Location
NC
From my perspective, the CW period concept of honor in the South was closely aligned with that of pride, as defined in the Bible as one of the seven deadly sins. It was that egotistical reaction that often causes men to project a macho image so enthusiastically that it can consume them and get them into deep trouble, but there's a subtle difference between the two words. Honor is more civilized and formal than pride. Of course they don't have to lead to bad things, if practiced in reasonable moderation and tempered with morality, intelligence, social skill, and common sense.

While the path to war in the 1840's and 1850's was surely paved with economic concerns about ending slavery, pride and honor increasingly took command of people's motivations and decision making, especially after the war started.
 
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Eleanor Rose

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central NC
I don't know, how you define what or isn't Honorable certainly determines whether X or Y were honorable in your opinion. Developing a contemporary baseline for such a term seems like a worthy subject. Likewise if a question is if X or Y is honorable to a persons specific modern sense of honor then that definition is equally important.

Many disputes are simply a matter of a lack of common terminology defined the same ways.
While the path to war in the 1840's and 1850's was surely paved with economic concerns about ending slavery, pride and honor increasingly took command of people's motivations and decision making, especially after the war started.
round1.jpg

LincolnDavis.jpg

The conflict between North and South was depicted by cartoonists as a fist fight
between Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis.​


In the South, William L. Yancey told the 1860 Democratic convention in Charleston:

Ours is the property invaded; ours are the institutions which are at stake; ours in the peace that is to be destroyed; ours is the honor at stake–the honor of children, the honor of families, the lives, perhaps, of all.”

The OP is a great question @IndianaBoy because the South’s culture of honor still influences it today. It seems the definition of honor in the North evolved during the 19th century while the South held onto the ideal of traditional honor. Based on my reading about the men who lived during this period, Southerners related more to the medieval honor code of Europe - big on public virtue and the chivalry of knights.

The code of honor for Southern men required having:
1) a reputation for honesty and integrity
2) a reputation for courage and strength
3) self-sufficiency and “mastery” (control over wife/children/slaves)
4) a willingness to use violence to defend any perceived slight

As in the days of medieval "knights in shining armour," might seemingly made everything right in the antebellum South.
Social psychologists have offered a good bit of research that supports the premise that the differences between the industrialized North and agrarian South led to differences in their honor codes. In the South, a man’s public reputation was the foundation of his honor.

Sources:
Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South by Bertram Wyatt-Brown
Plain Folk of the Old South by Frank Lawrence Owsley
Common Whites: Class and Culture in Antebellum North Carolina by Bill Cecil-Fronsman
 

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Southern Unionist

First Sergeant
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Apr 27, 2017
Location
NC
The code of honor for Southern men required having:
1) a reputation for honesty and integrity
2) a reputation for courage and strength
3) self-sufficiency and “mastery” (control over wife/children/slaves)
4) a willingness to use violence to defend any perceived slight
Common modern terms for the last two are mostly words that I can't repeat here. "Jerk" would be the mildest.
 
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