The Lazy Redeemer: Paul Ortiz tackles William Watson Davis and the Mythmaker’s Myopia

Ed Note — This essay is written by Dan Weinfeld. I just happened to post it for him.

Anyone with a passing interest in Civil War and Reconstruction-era Florida soon runs into William Watson Davis’s Civil War and Reconstruction in Florida (“CW&RF”).

Davis’s monumental tome and John Wallace’s Carpetbag Rule in Florida are the Scylla and Charybdis of Florida’s nineteenth century historiography: two inescapable and treacherous dangers that the contemporary researcher must confront and eventually navigate.

By 2014, one might have expected that Davis’s gargantuan book (778 pages!) with its antiquated style would be relegated to the libraries of the handful of Dunning School scholars and Floridiana collectors. Davis, however, is possibly more influential than ever. The simple reason for Davis’s relevancy is that CW&RF is fully and freely available and searchable on Google books.

In the most alarming of ironies, the great “revisionist’ works of Florida history that take on and take down Davis (Richardson’s The Negro in the Reconstruction of Florida, Shofner’s Nor is it Over Yet, Brown’s Florida’s Black Public Officials, 1867-1924, and Ortiz’s Emancipation Betrayed) are not readily accessible to the curious non-academic reader. Meanwhile, that same reader can’t help but stumble across CW&RT online.

I imagine with horror thousands of history essays churned out by Florida middle school students relying entirely on CW&RF after research and cut & paste courtesy of Google.

Another reason for CW&RF’s survival is the fact that Davis is an engaging and provocative writer. Davis certainly grew up reading Gibbon and the great historical stylists of the past. Like them, Davis seamlessly interspersed sharp opinions, often deliberately provocative, and entertaining asides into a linear narrative not burdened with theory or, for that matter, historiography.

It was an impressive achievement for an author still in his 20s.

Shofner’s Nor is it Over Yet is a masterpiece that will not be supplanted in the academic world anytime soon. But Shofner’s magnum opus is not as intellectually accessible or nearly as entertaining to read as Davis’s CW&RF.

All this is to say that Dr. Paul Ortiz’s impressive and inventive essay about a creaky old history book released in 1913 could not be timelier.

Ortiz, of course, is one of the pre-eminent academics working in post-Civil War Florida history. He is uniquely qualified to comment on Davis. The esteem Ortiz holds among his colleagues is attested to by his selection to contribute the Davis piece to The Dunning School: Historians, Race and the Meaning of Reconstruction, a collection of essays by prominent Reconstruction scholars released in late 2013 by the University of Kentucky Press.

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Ortiz starts by describing the nearly universal acclaim received by CW&RF upon its 1913 publication and the place of honor it held for more than one half century.

Davis’ grip over Florida history was so firm and his influence so complete that, as Ortiz, points out, CW&RF was not only a “product of its times,” but also “helped to shape those times.”

Ortiz then places Davis in the context of those times: investigating Davis’s biography and quoting letters that describe Davis’s youth in rural Alabama in the 1890s, precisely when Jim Crow legislation across the South relegated African Americans to society’s furthest margins as a legal underclass.

Davis’ first published essay, discussing the Deep South lumber industry that enriched his father, plainly reveals that the young Davis fully embraced the prejudices of his time and place toward African Americans.

But Davis was no rube: he excelled at Auburn and then in the graduate history program at Columbia — where he became a favored student of William Dunning. Davis later studied at the Sorbonne before taking up the position of professor of history at the University of Kansas where he taught for decades.

In his discussion of CW&RF, Ortiz starts by conceding Davis’s alleged strengths.

In an otherwise impressive essay, Ortiz is at his weakest in trying to make a case for Davis’s Civil War narrative.

It is surprising that Ortiz gives Davis as much credit as he does. I disagree entirely with Ortiz’s assertion that Davis’s “use of existing sources is impressive.” One can track the footnotes for entire major sections and find that Davis cites only one or two primary sources.

For example, in the section that Ortiz commends where Davis discusses slavery as a casus belli for the Civil War (pp. 36-46), Davis noted only two newspapers as primary sources.

Similarly, the pages that address the Reconstruction era violence in Jackson County (pp. 567-578, 582-83) rely almost exclusively on the Congressional KKK Hearings of 1872 as a documented source. Davis makes his use of this one source even more problematic when, as Ortiz points out, Davis ignores testimony by blacks contained in the report.

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reader is particularly dismayed that Ortiz falls for Davis’s insinuation that the financial machinations of David Yulee led to war.

While it is possible –- as Davis contends — that Yulee cynically promoted secession as a ploy to escape railroad company debt, Davis offered nothing substantive to support this smear.

Just as Davis could only see blacks through the prejudices of his time, it should at least be considered that Davis’s accusation of war profiteering by Florida’s Jewish senator and railroad developer reflected similar chauvinism.

Ortiz gets on a much stronger and convincing track when he arrives at Reconstruction and addresses Davis’ pervasive bias against African Americans. Ortiz exposes how prejudice forced Davis to contort his logic and contradict himself. While Ortiz went out of his way to find value in Davis’s Civil War narrative, he finds nothing to redeem Davis’s account of the Reconstruction era. As Ortiz astutely points out, Davis’s argument underlying this half of the long book -– that radical reconstruction damaged Florida –- relies on the entirely erroneous premises that Florida’s “carpetbagger” government was radical and that blacks dominated state

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CW&RT takes on a different connotation when viewed in light of recent work on historical

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memory. Ortiz alludes to this when pointing out how Davis “relied heavily on interviews with surviving protagonists of Reconstruction.”

Davis concedes his reliance on oral history in his preface when he lists his interviewees. A number of these individuals –- apparently all Southern whites — were well known.

For example, for Jackson County background, Davis interviewed, among others, Mrs. Fanny Bryan Chapman, the Milton family, and “Thomas” Barnes. This Barnes, as Davis concedes later in the text, was probably Joseph B. Barnes (a son of Thomas Barnes) who Davis describes as having been “young Conservative Regulator” (p. 573).

(Editor’s note — Dan is too modest to say, but as author of The Jackson County War, he is almost certainly the foremost expert on the the Jackson County War, Florida’s defining and most violent Reconstruction event.)

Barnes was likely the source of much of Davis’s “insider” knowledge about the Jackson County War.

Mrs. Chapman was in fact one of the heroic resisters during the height of violence in 1869, but by 1913 the outspoken and independent octogenarian was penning nostalgic essays about ante-bellum life for the UDC and other publications.

David’s interview of Senator William Milton, the grandson of Florida’s wartime governor John Milton and son of Marianna mayor and Regulator-sympathizer William Milton, reminds us of the past’s ability to roil the future, especially in Florida, where

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At the time of the Davis-Milton interview, Milton was helping craft the legislation that brought the boys reform institution –- later known as the infamous

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Dozier school –- to Jackson County.

Just as Davis ignored primary sources that challenged his world view, Davis did not bother with interviewees who might question his predetermined narrative.

For example, in an act of unforgiveable historical malpractice, Davis neglected to interview “carpetbagger” Congressman William J. Purman. Davis makes Purman one of the villains of his work without bothering to talk to him or to his wife, Jackson County’s Leadora Finalyson. Both were alive and well and living in Washington D.C.

Davis also could have easily tracked down African-American journalist and editor T. Thomas Fortune, who frequently wrote about his Reconstruction-era Florida childhood in Jackson County, Jacksonville and Tallahassee. Fortune was living and writing in Harlem while Davis worked on his dissertation a few city blocks away at Morningside Heights. This illustrates Davis’ bewildering failure of initiative and lack of historical curiosity.

CW&RT starts to make more sense when considered as a fusion of Davis’s selective use of primary sources with oral testimony. Ortiz’s emphasis on understanding the context of Davis’ emergence from the Jim Crow South takes on additional significance when considering that Davis’s elderly white interviewees’ memories were similarly shaped by the “victory” of

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white redemption, reflexive disdain for black capabilities, and an instinctive rationalization of the Regulators’ brutal tactics.

Imbued with the stories of Reconstruction heard during his 1890s youth, Davis found the corroboration he sought in the tales of aged Southerners remembering their daring feats during dreadful nights four decades earlier.

While CW&RT has limited worth as an accurate account of history, it does indeed possess great value as a powerful reflection of white academic and popular consensus in 1913 about the events of Reconstruction. (Ed. note — This would flow

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directly into The Birth of a Nation, which exploded into American consciousness — north and south — in 1915 and led quite directly to emergence of the Revival Klan, the closest thing America ever had to an actual power-wielding, national fascist party.)

In another of those unfortunate ironies, Ortiz’s important essay will be locked away in an expensive university press book ($36 on amazon!) and will receive little public exposure.

CW&RF, on the other hand, free from the limitations imposed by copyright and publishers, will continue to influence the curious public. If it were up to this reader, every google click on CW&RT will first be redirected to Paul Ortiz’s “The

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Not So Strange Career of William Watson Davis’s ‘The Civil War and Reconstruction in Florida.’”

Dan Weinfeld

6 Comments

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