I’ve always been a wee bit of a Celtophile. I’m listening to my wife’s Gaelic Storm Pandora station as I write these words. We named our daughter Ceili (Kay-lee), which is Irish Gaelic for a party with traditional music, dancing and storytelling. I cut my storytelling teeth on the tales of another Celtpophile, Robert E. Howard, and named our dog Conan (Gaelic for “Little Wolf”).
It’s more an affinity than a matter of heritage. My ancestry is a mutt-mix of English, Irish, Scotch-Irish, Swedish and German, with the German predominant on both sides of the family.
I’m inclined by affinity to gravitate toward the so-called Celtic-Southern Thesis, which posits that 18th Century immigrants from the Celtic regions of Britain moved into the Southern backcountry and formed the predominant culture, which carried over many Celtic traits. The foremost proponent of this thesis was Grady McWhiney (pronounced Mc-Winny) who wrote a book that has become a sort of origin story for Southern nationalists, “Cracker Culture: Celtic Ways in the Old South.”
So the Frontier Partisans of the southern backcountry, the ancestors of the branch of my family that wound up migrating to that mini-Dixie in southern Indiana are Celts, right? Heroic, touchy of their honor, violence-prone, inclined to herding rather than agriculture, sensual, music-loving, storytelling badassess — cool!
Yet, much as it appeals to my romantic, Celtophile nature, I just can’t buy it as history.
By the 18th Century, the north British borderlands and Northern Ireland were no longer specifically Celtic, nor had been for hundreds of years. The denizens of those lands who came to America under the broad handle Scotch-Irish were by all reckoning a mixed people. And a quick look at the names of prominent Frontier Partisans of the Old Southwest show that many nationalities were represented on the frontier south of the Ohio River.
Sam Brady, Sam Houston, Ben McCulloch — there’s Celt in there for sure. But Boone and Ballard are English names. Michael Stoner and Kaspar Mansker? German. The Wetzel brothers? German Swiss. Crockett? That’s a French Huguenot name (David Crockett’s paternal ancestors had left France for Ulster and thence came to America).
Some of the proponents of the Celtic-Southern Thesis get around this mash-up by saying these people are “culturally Celtic.” The arrivals from North Britain inherited or adopted Celtic folkways in the old country and the other ethnic groups on the frontier adapted to the dominant culture formed by these “Celts.”
Well, OK, I guess. There are certainly cultural affinities that are traceable through ballads, musical styles and folkways, though I think it would be more accurate to simply accept these as “British.” For example, the Child Ballads that connect Appalachia to the old world have English as well as Scottish (and perhaps Irish) roots.
Part of the problem is defining what we mean by “Celt.” Celts are not really an ethnic group; it’s a linguistic designation. If you’re looking at Celts purely linguistically, there weren’t many in 18th Century America. There certainly weren’t a lot of Gaelic speakers in the Southern highlands (there was an enclave of Highland Scots in North Carolina). You would search in vain for Gaelic place names in Appalachia.
David Hackett Fischer’s “Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America” gets at the cultural roots of the distinctive upland Southern yeoman culture through a regional rather than “racial” analysis that hits closer to the mark. He notes that North Britain had a distinctive regional culture that evolved through centuries of invasion, colonization and cultural exchange among Celtic peoples, Norse, Saxon, Norman French ALL of whom contributed to that culture. The people McWhiney and others are calling “Celts” were no longer the Celts of yore themselves.
Robert E. Howard wrote an amusing letter to a friend regarding the wearing of the green:
“How many of those who wear purely Gaelic surnames don’t have the blood of Danes, Welsh, English or Dutch in them? Blasted few. I’ll admit my blood is more or less mixed up — but how many people in Europe and America are not of mixed bloods? If nobody but a pure Celt wore the green, it wouldn’t be worn except perhaps by a few savages living in the Connaught hills. A man has too many grand-parents to be pure blooded anything. (Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard, v. 2, p. 33)”
So we’re back to “culturally Celtic.” Mighty loose, that, and ultimately can mean whatever proponents of a Celtic South want it to mean.
The thesis steps around other North American enclaves that have much stronger claims to being authentically culturally Celtic — the Canadian maritime provinces for instance. That’s because they cut against the grain of what the Celtic-Southern Thesis is setting up: a cultural explanation of the American Civil War.
For promoters of the thesis, the Civil War was another phase in the age-old struggle between the disciplined, imperialistic Anglo-Saxons and the disorderly, liberty-loving Celts. This is where the wheels start coming off the cart. The thesis is used to underpin a neo-Confederate history of the War that elides the proximate causes and downplays (or seeks to erase) slavery as a cause. (If anyone really doubts the primacy of slavery as the fundamental cause of the conflict, read South Carolina’s declaration of secession. It spells it out plain. There were cultural differences, to be sure — profound ones. But the only difference that really mattered was that South Carolina was convinced that the Northern states, by electing Lincoln, had declared themselves unalterably hostile to slavery. No getting around it.)
One of the multitude of problems with the cultural conflict paradigm is that a great swath of the Southern highlands, the heartland of this “Celtic” culture, remained Unionist. West Virginia, East Tennessee, western North Carolina, northern Alabama, all had large populations of yeoman Southerners who wanted no truck with the Confederacy, resisted conscription into its armies and sometimes engaged in guerrilla warfare.
Attack and Die
Things get really goofy when the thesis is applied to military strategy and tactics.
McWhiney and Perry D. Jamieson wrote a book on the South’s “Celtic” way of war titled “Attack and Die: Civil War Military Tactics and the Southern Heritage.” The basic thesis is that the Confederate armies bled themselves to death in ferocious attacks that hearken back to the ancient Celtic forebears of the Southern soldier, that the South lost the war because they were too Celtic and the North too English.
Oh, come on, man!
While there is some mythic appeal to the notion of a millennia-spanning Celtic way of war, such notions don’t stand much scrutiny. The authors (certainly McWhiney) act as though there is some kind of mystic thread that runs unbroken from the 225 B.C. Roman defeat of the wild Gauls at Telamon through the Highland Charge at Culloden to Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. That kind of stasis doesn’t exist; it is the product of a myth-creating mindset.
Robert E. Lee was aggressive as hell, but it wasn’t because the Army of Northern Virginia felt the mystic tug of its Celtic heritage driving it toward romantic but inevitable self-destruction. He was leading a revolutionary army that was outnumbered and under-resourced, for whom a clock was ticking. He invaded the North twice hoping to force a decisive battle on enemy soil that would force the Federal government to recognize Southern independence and/or spark European intervention. He needed a knockout blow and he threw haymakers. They staggered the powerful foe, but couldn’t put him down, and the fighter broke his hands.
And it’s not as though “culturally Anglo-Saxon” Union troops eschewed “attack and die” tactics themselves. They were slaughtered in heaps in futile charges at Fredericksburg and Cold Harbor. In 1914, the French obsession with élan and the offensive led to mass casualties in the Battle of the Frontiers. Too Celtic? Nope. A near-fatal reaction to the defensive mind-set that had led to humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. Pancho Villa (not a Celt) scorned the defensive. He loved to attack with the kind of ferocity the Celts would appreciate. When he encountered World War I-style entrenchments, barbed wire and interlocking fields of machine gun fire, his attacks failed and his Division del Norte was destroyed. It just wasn’t “a Celtic thing.”
I understand the urge to legitimize the heritage and legacy of white Southern yeoman culture, a culture that had significant influence on the American frontier — a culture that is denigrated today in a way that would be unacceptable if applied to any other cultural or ethnic group.
McWhiney and his allies simply stretch their thesis too far for history. The Celtic-Southern Thesis is mythology.
That is not to say it is without value. There is an element of historical truth to it — there are some roots we could identify as “Celtic.” And the myth has power. There is nothing inherently wrong with cultural myths; all societies create them out of necessity, a fundamental urge to create a coherent identity. Though they can be manipulated for pernicious ends, such mythologies are usually harmless and sometimes beneficial.
How do I sort this all out for myself? My spirit resonates with the rough-hewn culture of the backcountry — and with things Celtic. Out on the Frontier of Myth, where archetypes live, I feel the mystic connections and am willing to imagine the frontier partisan as a “Celt.” Down on the rocky ground of History, things are more complex, less delineated. Down there, it’s a mighty mash-up of cross-cultural currents and things ain’t so simple.
I live on History’s flinty soil, yet regularly visit the Frontier of Myth. I try not to get them mixed up.