Honor and Humiliation: James Chesnut and Violent Emotions in Reconstruction South Carolina

Anna Koivusalo


Reconstruction has been seen as the period of redeeming lost southern honor. I argue, however, that the Reconstruction struggle was not simply about restoring pre-war honor to defeated Southerners, for the Civil War had not terminated or subdued honor. Rather, its contents, the idea of what was honorable, underwent changes. These changes were observed and lamented by James Chesnut, Jr. (1815–1885), a politician from South Carolina. Honor can be seen both as a source of emotion guidelines and as a tool used for navigating between acceptable and unacceptable emotions. By expressing acceptable emotions, an individual could claim ownership to honor and attempt to achieve life goals. During Reconstruction, the role of honor and the importance of honor-related emotional expression intensified. Because of major changes in society, individual goals changed and the necessity of forceful alteration to the understanding of honor arose. It became transformed, borrowing from violence, racism, and a more acute fear of shame. Aiming to preserve white supremacy, many white Southerners readjusted their honor ideals and emotional expression. Nonetheless, some moderate individuals, like Chesnut, found it difficult to adopt these new ideals and thus all but lost their political power.


Southern honor; history of emotions; James Chesnut Jr.; U.S. Reconstruction; white supremacy

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ISSN: 0044-8060
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