I spent yesterday finishing a review of Inside the Confederate Nation: Essays in Honor of Emory M. Thomas which is edited by Leslie Gordon and John Inscoe for Civil War Book Review. I will post the essay when it is published, but wanted to share some thoughts that did not find a place in the review. The collection is exceptionally strong. Questions of identity and nationalism connect in various ways to my current research projects so I jumped at the chance to review this book. A free copy with a value of around $50 was another incentive. Taken as a whole the essays reflect both a step in a new direction and a reaffirmation of Thomas’s scholarship as understood in his major works, The Confederacy As A Revolutionary Experience and The Confederate Nation.
What I mean to suggest here is that over the past few years historians have become seduced by the question of nationalism. Thomas brought the ideas of change and conflict to the study of the Confederacy. He examined the ways in which the uncertainties of war challenged and shaped the way white Southerners identified with the Confederacy. This stands in sharp contrast to recent studies which purport to identify whether Southerners managed to create a robust nationalist ideology or whether they managed to create a nation. The question typically arises in the context of discussions about how to explain Confederate defeat. The seduction involves reading back into the past from a point where Confederate defeat is a given with the goal of uncovering the salient condition(s) that explains that defeat. Problems with this approach abound. First, it is unclear what a sufficient nationalist ideology even looks like, not to mention that it begs the question of whether the satisfaction of that condition would or could have brought about Southern independence. Second, it is extremely difficult to weigh competing explanations for defeat by appealing to some missing or insufficient factor. In other words how do you compare the relative worth of different claims as to what’s missing from a successful formula? The broader problem is that the approach steers clear of the obvious point that the Confederacy came close to victory on a number of occasions. And if the experiment had proven successful we would not be debating various internal weaknesses. The North suffered from some of the same problems in addition to the challenge (recently examined by Mark Neely) of a two-party system. If the North had lost the war these historians would be arguing for the same conclusions, but in reference to Lincoln’s Administration and the North.
The "lack of will" thesis can be found in older studies such as Richard Beringer’s et. al Why the South Lost the War and in Paul Escott’s After Secession. More recent studies include William Davis’s Look Away! and I recently reviewed David Eicher’s explanation for Confederate defeat in Dixie Betrayed, which I found to be seriously lacking. Mark Weitz argues that the calls from loved ones on the home front lured Confederates away from the ranks in his study of desertion, More Damning Than Slaughter: Desertion in the Confederate Army. The overall problem is that this approach ignores the complexity surrounding the way that white Southerners juggled the demands of war and their connection to both state and national governments. In the case of Mark Weitz’s study, the fact that Confederates deserted does not necessarily imply an insufficient will to fight. It could mean any number of things. Thomas’s own scholarship and the content of the essays collected in his festschrift attest to constantly shifting identifications, morale, and the importance of local conditions. The essays suggest that the focus has shifted away from the question of whether the white Southern experience reflected the creation and maintenance of a nationalist ideology to the more empirical question of how Southerners identified with the cause. The cultural examination, with its emphasis on description rather than conceptual analysis, leaves plenty of room to acknowledge the contingencies of wartime experience and the numerous challenges that white Southerners faced as they thought about their identities as members of a family, local community, state, and nation. In short, it was never all or nothing.
My review of the book will provide plenty of examples to flesh out some of these ideas. Stay tuned.