Real Southern Sport

A review of Maxcy Gregg’s Sporting Journals, 1842-1858 (Green Altar Books, 2019) Suzanne Parfitt Johnson, Editor. Foreword by James Everett Kibler, Jr.

The exploration of everyday life in a given historical period is often based upon the letters, diaries, and business ledgers and journals of the past.  Historians in the last four to five decades have also incorporated the findings from other fields of learning such as architecture and archeology to reconstruct the textures and rhythms of the lives of the people of the past.  The antebellum South, not unlike ancient Greece, was primarily an out-of-doors culture.  This was not only true of the countryside but held true for many city folk as well.  Climate certainly played a role in this, but so too did the roots of Southern culture be they in the agrarian backwaters of the British Isles or the river valleys and coastal regions of Africa.  Until the advent of air conditioning (a device whose origins are to be found in the infernal regions), most Southerners who found themselves indoors wanted to be outdoors.  Southerners, from the Chesapeake Bay to the Bayous of Louisiana were avid sportsmen, hear I mean the blood sports of hunting and fishing, who were also keen naturalists and observers of the natural world.

Suzanne Parfitt Johnson has edited Gregg’s hunting journals of one such sportsman form antebellum times, the prominent South Carolinian, Maxcy Gregg.  Gregg is best known as a prominent lawyer, fire eater, and Confederate general before his death at the Battle of Fredericksburg.  Maxcy Gregg was also a resident of the city of Columbia where he practiced law, a fact that gives his sporting journals even more value.  Gregg’s journals illustrate how close he is to his country kin in worldview and culture and how dominant agrarian values and culture among city dwellers in the South.  Gregg complains of his urban “confinement,” the “rascally” and the tedious lawyer trade that he pursues.  Every reasonable opportunity is taken by Maxcy Gregg to go afield.

As Dr. Kibler notes in his foreword, Gregg’s journals are rich sources on the customs, topography, ornithology, climate, flora and fauna of the Carolinas, Georgia, and Mexico.  Gregg’s grandfather, Jonathan Maxcy, was the first president of South Carolina College.  Maxcy Gregg was a student of the first rank when he attended South Carolina College.  He also did not receive his diploma, protesting a coin toss in is favor that resulted in his being named the top student in his class.  Gregg thought the faculty needed to make the hard choice between himself and his academic rival–he wanted no academic prizes gained by the whims of madam fortune.  This incident revealed in Gregg both high principle and a certain intransigence, traits one expects in a future fire eater.  Gregg’s academic credentials shine through in the journals in his meticulous descriptions of weather, location as determined by latitude and longitude, his facility with the Latin names of birds, and his astronomical observations of rare Aurora Borealis over the city of Columbia.

Suzanne Johnson’s introduction provides a wealth of information on Maxcy Gregg’s family, education, and the culture in which he lives.  She is correct in stating that for the men and women of Gregg’s class, life was duty and obligation to family, firm, city, and state.  The civic life of those antebellum Southerners who were thus engaged was far richer and far more burdensome than what we find today among our professional and political elites.  Gregg had a keen interest in military affairs and enthusiastically served in the local militia and in both the Mexican War and the War Between the States.  He was less enthusiastic about politics and the constant maneuvering of politicians to fulfill their personal ambitions.   Contrary to the popular views of many, the Southern elite rarely had the time or inclination to sip mint juleps on the porch.  When time did present itself, Gregg preferred to spend it afield.  Johnson does well to point out an important element in Gregg’s journal, namely the observations he made regarding his personal health and the treatments he used to combat what was most likely recurring bouts of malaria.  We are reminded by Gregg that Charleston was unhealthy until the first hard frost, though Gregg and his contemporaries did not make the connection between the cold weather and the suppression of malaria and yellow fever bearing mosquitoes.  Calomel, essentially mercury, was Gregg’s preferred medicinal, and as Johnson asserts, he was fortunate that his ingestion of this “remedy” did not result in worse than lethargy.  It should also be noted that Gregg kept careful observations of the illness and injuries of his horses and dogs, as well as the treatments administered to the sick animals by his slave Peter, who acted as Gregg’s veterinarian.  Lastly, casual observations by Gregg on life in Columbia reveal a city where black and white, most especially children, engaged each other in their social lives and recreation.  Those truly familiar with the social history of the antebellum South will find nothing surprising about this, though it may challenge the less informed who equate the racial and class stratification of the South with segregation.

At its heart, Maxcy Gregg’s journal is a sporting journal and to the modern sportsman or conservationist it can be jarring to read.  I have hunted, cleaned, and cooked waterfowl and upland birds for many years, so there is little about life in the field that would give me pause.   What does arrest one about Gregg’s journal is that most of his kills are birds contemporary hunters no longer classify as game birds.  Robins, herons, goldfinches, larks, sparrows, swallows, and water birds of all varieties are all fair game (pun intended).  Gregg and his hunting partners have no qualms about shooting large numbers of what some contemporary bird hunters refer to as “tweety birds.” True, Gregg’s interest in ornithology provides a motive for some of the specimens he shoots, but the sheer numbers of taken on some of his hunts go well beyond what would be necessary for specimen collection.

If contemporary ideas concerning conservation were all but absent in Gregg’s day, hunter safety was a casual affair for Gregg and his companions. On two occasions Gregg records firing into bushes at game that he thought were sheltering there, but which he could not see. He did not seem too concerned with what might be down range from the bushes.  It was also both amusing and bemusing to read of Gregg firing buckshot and number four shot at diminutive birds songbirds, giving new meaning to the term overkill.  Dog training did not seem to be high on Gregg’s list either.  Bruno, one of Maxcy Gregg’s favored dogs, seemed to perform well enough in the field, but Bruno was fond too of fighting with other dogs.  Bruno’s “bad character,” as well as an unhealed wound, precluded him from joining his master on a waterfowling trip.  The sporting practices of Gregg and his associates are a good reminder that times do change, but I cannot resist one anachronistic comment on Gregg the hunter.  In today’s world, Gregg would be “that hunter” everybody gossiped about in the duck blind.  In fairness to Gregg, as time moves on he matures as a hunter and will occasionally forbear.  One such time was when a covey of quail took shelter in some brush and another was when he refused a shot on a wild sow with a farrow of three piglets.  All of this is a reminder that the sportsmen of Gregg’s day shot for sport, that is the challenge hitting a bird on the wing, and nearly everything on the wing was literally fair game.   Gregg is not alone in such practices.  His hunting partners do much the same, as did the naturalist John James Audubon.

Johnson does an excellent job of providing the necessary footnotes identifying important persons and places and their brief histories to provide the necessary context to Gregg’s journal.  In addition, it would be very useful if Johnson had also identified the birds Gregg calls by their colloquial names. For example, Gregg refers to grouse as “pheasants” and bobwhite quail as “partridges.”  Most hunters and other outdoor folk can decipher these given the context of where Gregg was hunting when he shot these birds.  I am less certain as to what a “Summer Duck” is, or an “English Duck” for that matter, though I suspect that these might be domesticated ducks of some kind. Also, the shift from blunderbusses and flintlocks firing loose pellets to percussion cap shotguns firing manufactured cartridges is worthy of a brief discussion, or at the very least an explanatory footnote or three.  This transition was an important development in sporting arms.  In Gregg’s case, it provided him with much more reliable performance in the field, a wider variety of shot size, and after making the change he enjoyed more successful shooting on the whole.  Gregg’s transition to the percussion cap shotguns might also suggest either a deepening commitment to the shooting sports, greater wealth and professional success, or both.  I also enjoyed the irony of the idealized Currier and Ives illustration of a quail hunt on the book’s cover.  The scene is one of unobstructed shooting in an idyllic park-like setting.  Maxcy Gregg spent many an hour in the field busting brush for quail and winding up scratched, cold, wet, and hungry for his efforts, so I imagine he would appreciate the irony as well.

Maxcy Gregg’s Sporting Journals is an important work for what it reveals both purposefully and accidentally.  Such works offer important windows into a world that is almost, though not completely lost to us.  As usual, Jim Kibler’s foreword is insightful and informative.   Suzanne Johnson’s introduction was superb in offering both important context for the journal as well as important insights on Maxcy Gregg’s place in Columbia society.  The footnotes were most useful in bringing to the fore vital information on Gregg’s outdoor ventures, as well as the people and places of the time.  Gregg’s journal is an outstanding source for understanding the sporting pursuits of an important South Carolininian, but as Johnson and Kibler suggest, it is more than just a sporting journal for the reader with a discerning mind.  It is a window into the everyday of antebellum culture in Columbia, South Carolina as recorded by one Carolina’s most intelligent, observant, and accomplished sons.  As such, it provides a very important addition to our knowledge and understanding of both the man, the place, and the time.

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