John D. Cox. Traveling South: Travel Narratives and the Construction of American Identity Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2005.


In Traveling South, Cox argues that narratives of Southern travel contributed to the construction of national identity. Looking at travelogues, slave narratives, and diaries written between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, Cox examines the ways in which writers viewed the South as geographically American, but also a region that was distinctly "other." Cox devotes his final chapter to Union soldiers, which he refers to as "tourists with guns (and pens)." He argues that Union soldiers traveling to the South during the Civil War discovered similarities between themselves and Southerners that helped to foster or reinforce an American national identity.


Cox’s argument relies significantly upon the postwar reminiscences and memoirs of his subjects, thus relying upon a corpus of texts written and published during an era of romanticized and reconciliatory views of the war. The intention of most of these texts was generally to promote a reunified country, free from the sectional difference which had led the nation to war. His vision of postwar reunion is largely idealistic and does not match up with the realities of the sectional violence of the Reconstruction era.


Union soldiers during the Civil War . . . frequently argued in their journals and travel narratives that the two regions shared much and should be maintained as a single nation. Confronted with the break-up of their country, Union soldiers used their narratives . . . to strive to reincorporate the South and to identify and celebrate those aspects of the region that they found most "American." [17]

By far, the four years that witnessed the largest movement of travelers through various parts of the South were those between 1861 and 1865. During these years, approximately two million northern visitors, most members of the Union Army, traveled to or through at least one of the southern states. . . . Only rarely had most of these visitors, the overwhelming majority of whom were young or middle-aged men, traveled outside of the vicinities immediately surrounding their birthplaces. Their beliefs about the American nation, and about the cultures, environment, and populations of regions other than their own, depended largely on newspapers, travel books and other texts, and the stories and stereotypes circulated within and among their communities. [165]

Having engaged in a four-year war in order to keep their nation unified, these soldiers discovered through their movement across the entire country both the vastness and the diversity contained within its borders. Like the numerous travelers to the South before them, these soldiers shifted and enlarged their perspectives on their nation and their national identity, expanding their views of what the United States was and should be. Thus, one of the most significant aspects of the American Civil War was simply this movement of an unprecedented number of individual travelers, as well as the incontrovertible result that the movement of the Union Army had on the land and society through which it passed. [166]

Earlier writers traveled to the South to confront what they saw as the nation’s internal “other,” concluding that the region needed to be transformed in order to become sufficiently “American.” . . . [T]he war was frequently defined as one between a particular group of southerners and the rest of the country rather than between North and South; for instance, many soldiers described their enemy as “secessionists” rather than as “southerners.” Most narrators also included descriptions of the large number of “Unionists” in the South, many of whom were even members of the Confederate Army. The South was not so different that it should not be unified with the North, these authors concluded. Only a few rebellious members of southern society were irredeemably “other,” so the war to preserve the Union was both justified and worthwhile. . . . In order for them to conclude finally that the South was indeed part of the same nation as the North, however, many of these writers had to revise their ideas of the basic characteristics of their nation. Travel gave them that opportunity, as they confronted qualities clearly not their own and attempted to reconcile these qualities with the values and goals that they saw as forming the core of the American nation. [167]

Soldiers do not travel (rather than move) only when they act in direct contradiction to their orders. Nonetheless, because much of the movement in which they participate is not determined by their individual wills, soldiers are rarely viewed as tourists. . . . At least during their free time, soldiers regularly acted the part of tourists. Even when they were moving as a unite, though, many soldiers took notice of the surrounding countryside or stopped to speak with people they met. As Thomas Clark argues in his forward to Travels in the Confederate States, “Soldiers did not necessarily give up their powers of observation just because they were being moved about as involuntary travelers under the dictates of military discipline” (vii). [171]

Not only the natural environment links the two regions but also those features of the landscape constructed by the members of the republic; not only mountains and rivers but also roads and telegraphs join North and South. . . . This desire to join the two regions is common in many of these Union narratives, and writers frequently focus much of their narratives on those connections between the two regions and the qualities that North and South share. A common ancestry, racial, cultural, and historical, was one of the primary links posited by these writers, as they attempted to show that southerners were essentially the same peoples as inhabited the northern states. [179]

[W]ar is all about the occupation of territory by one army instead of another. Thus, the movement of the Union Army literally reconfigured the land over which it passes as American instead of Confederate. The landscape had threatened to become something other than American until Union troops occupied it and marked it as once again a segment of the United States. [191]

If the American South, the internal “other” in the accounts of so many northern writers, has gradually come to be identified, and to identify itself, with the United States, these accounts [of Union soldiers] certainly played a part in that transformation. [192]