Celts, Calvinists, and Culture War

In 1982 Grady McWhiney, then one of the deans of southern and Civil War history, and his student Perry Jamieson published Attack and Die: Civil War Military Tactics and the Southern Heritage. The controversial book made a splash in the military history and in Civil War historiography. The work’s central thesis was that the Celtic influenced history of the Southern states conditioned them to believe in the effectiveness and superiority of vigorous offensives. Put simply, “the Confederates favored offensive warfare because the Celtic charge was an integral part of their heritage.” Southern generals lived by the charge and the Rebel yell, and, as McWhiney and Jamieson noted, they died by it, in staggering numbers.

The Southern Celtic predilection for charges against fortified positions and superior numbers eventually led to catastrophic manpower deficits. Near-suicidal charges worked, but usually only when they had accompanying elements of shock and surprise. The morale needed to sustain the esprit that motivated the South’s great charges faded in the face of defeat. “The tragedy for the Confederates,” wrote McWhiney and Jamieson, “was that they rushed confidently and courageously against the more numerous Yankees but failed to defeat them.” Primordial Celtic influence, however, shackled Southerners to their flawed strategy. “Southerners, imprisoned in a culture that rejected careful calculation and patience, often refused to learn from their mistakes.” The Confederates “continued to fight, despite mounting casualties, with the same courageous dash and reckless abandon that had characterized their Celtic ancestors for two thousand years.”

The Celtic South has long interested laypeople, scholars, and even politicians. The association of the Scots-Irish South Celtic influence has long socio-cultural standing. The religion of Southern Celts, it has long been assumed, was Calvinist Presbyterianism. James Webb, former U.S. Senator from Virginia, like McWhiney and Jamieson saw in the colonial Presbyterians the same elan that typified Celts from the Romans to the Modern Era. The experience of Scot-Irish Presbyterians in Ulster and then later in the United States, argued Webb in his Born Fighting: How The Scots-Irish shaped America, mirrored the experience of the Scots who fought with William Wallace against King Edward I Longshanks of England. The colonial fighting spirit that sustained the American Revolution, Webb proposed, came chiefly from Celtic-influenced Founding Fathers like Patrick Henry who preferred to fight Scots-Irish soldiers in the revolution. Presbyterians in the American Revolution could be counted on for “conspicuous acts of bravado.”  They emphasized “boldness and raw audacity” that Webb admitted could be an intellectual, military, and sociological weakness of Celtic Calvinism.

Professor James Shelton Reed of the University of North Carolina noted in a perceptive review of Webb’s book that it obviously foreshadowed the rise of Trumpist politics and the specific brand of Christian culture warring that accompanied Trump’s rise, but he noted that it was “not entirely clear what Webb wants us to do.” Obviously, wrote Shelton, Webb wanted “to alert politicians and the media to the presence, grievances, and influence of this largely neglected and ignored American ethnic group, and who could object to that?” Webb however offered a major obstacle to addressing the wrongs committed against conservative folk Calvinists was the the uncooperative and often reckless spirit that came with Celtic Calvinists and their folk descendants. Webb related an account of Phyllis Deal from Clintwood, West Virginia, “who was asked by a big city reporter if her traditional Appalachian foodstuffs were being marketed through local food cooperatives. “No, she answered. ‘There’s a traditional resistance to cooperatives in our area. We’re just not very cooperative.’” Webb commented: “Dear Mrs. Deal: I admire your independent spirit. But it’s time to get more cooperative.”


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