Honor and the Dishonorable Institution


Imagine steering down the James River, nothing but virgin forest lining the banks.  You dock your craft and walk up the hill from the small beach.  As you crest the ridge, you catch sight of the most magnificent home you have ever seen, rising from the river like a graceful naiad.

This is William Byrd’s Westover as he would have wanted you to see it. Westover is a grandiose home, large and imposing on the riverfront and well-suited to its owner: the flamboyant William Byrd II. It was his diary that Colonial students read and discussed, especially notes on his relationship with his wife, Lucy. Their marriage was a turbulent one, and a very interesting example of the power struggles that could occur in 18th century Virginia homes.

It is not only Westover’s occupants that were bold and ostentatious, however. Even its outbuildings screamed of power and wealth. In particular, students examined the outhouse, a building which measured larger than the average farmhouse of the day and included seating for five, as well as a fireplace to heat it in the winter.

Westover Plantation


The surviving slave house at Bacon's Castle

Along the same lines, the Civil War class continued yesterday’s examination of what a man’s house said about him — or what he wanted it to say about him — but looked at a different angle: what slave quarters say about the people who built them, as well as the people who had to live in them.

The slave quarters at Bacon’s Castle (which the Colonial class visited last week) date from approximately the 1850s. It is pretty rare for slave quarters to survive into the present day (they are not known for the quality of their construction) so it is a great opportunity to get to go inside an original building that enslaved people inhabited. When you feel for yourself how hot, dirty, and cramped the rooms are for only five minutes, you gain a greater appreciation of what the people who lived there had to go through.

The quarters at Bacon’s Castle, being of a relatively late construction, reflect design changes that are quite telling. Placement within view of the house, single entrances, and a raised floor which prevents burying things all indicate increased fear of slave rebellion. Contrasting this are features such as whitewashed walls, brick chimneys, and larger living areas, indicating a desire to make slaves more comfortable. This has to do with ‘paternalism’, the ideology that white slave owners were like fathers to their enslaved population, with a duty to provide for their well-being. This was a way that slaveowners justified themselves in their own minds.

Their presentation of their own homes and their slaves’ was one aspect of how Southern plantation owners upheld their honor. Honor, as students read and discussed today, was not a mere theoretical ideal to (especially) Southern gentlemen in the 19th century. It was a real part of everyday life, and a matter of life and death. Through visits to Chippokes Plantation and Bacon’s Castle, two homes involved in a deadly duel between two young men, students saw how questioning a man’s honor was a threat to the very core of his identity.

Chippokes Mansion and the Bacon’s Castle slave house

Finally, students got to experience a live duel between two of their own! After discussing the concept of duelling and “satisfaction”, a few of our gentlemen put on a short drama for us, illustrating the potential causes and protocols of a duel. Fortunately, no one got shot! They instead received a refreshing spray of water on this hot day, a much happier ending than the young man we talked about at Bacon’s Castle.

An Affair of Honor


Published in: on July 5, 2012 at 4:44 pm Comments (0)