Discussion Forum No. 1 – Jason Phillips and Confederate Perceptions of the Enemy (Significance)

This second thread will focus on the contributions of "A Brother's War".  Did the article reinforce certain assumptions and/or did it broaden your understanding of the soldier's experience and the scope of the Civil War?  In short, is this an important piece of research?  Why or why not.

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Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

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4 comments… add one
  • Chris Slocombe Aug 22, 2008 @ 19:30

    I agree with you both. Jason Phillips’ article and book are very important to our understanding of Confederate soldiers and the Civil War in general. Most importantly, Phillips’ work bridges the artificial divide between what was the “Civil War” and what was “Reconstruction” as those components of US history relate to Confederate soldiers. Although formal military conflict ended in 1865, the Civil War did not really end when the Confederates surrendered. It simply took on a different form. Phillips’ reminds us that for Confederate soldiers the end of the military conflict did not actually mean the end of resistance.

    Second, I thought that the “powerful abstractions of the enemy” that Phillips says characterized Confederate perceptions of Yankees is important and timely. These abstractions that are “endemic to warfare” are important today because we do a version of the same with our enemies, particularly in the Middle East. The matter now is a question of degree.

    This kind of article is valuable because it neatly summarizes important information and then adds something new. This deserves a wide reading, though it would not be well received by the general public. I understand the desire (and perhaps the need) to over-romanticize the Civil War into a brother’s conflict or a gentleman’s war. Heck, it was because the war seemed so neat that helped me become interested in the conflict when I was younger. Many people do not want to ruin a good story; you wouldn’t see this kind of material at too many Civil War Roundtables I don’t think. Reading Burkhardt’s “No Quarter,” Manning’s “What This Cruel War Was Over,” and Phillips’ “Diehard Rebels” form a powerful punch if read one after the other. There has been a lot of good research lately about Confederate soldiers. It was time.

    I found Phillips’ exploration of the Confederate religious press and their fanaticism fascinating. This is an area that needs more exploration.


  • Kevin Levin Aug 22, 2008 @ 18:03


    I completely agree with your observation that Americans tend to perceive their civil war through the lens of brothers/reunion as opposed to the violent and bitter event that it was.

    It is indeed strange, especially in contrast to the way we perceive civil wars elsewhere. We have little difficulty assuming the worst about societies that end up in such nightmarish scenarios. Just think about Iraq. The divide between black and white and North v. South may not be as entrenched as that between Islamic sects, but it was sufficient to lead to a 4-year war that cost the country dearly and which exposed left a lasting imprint. Americans, at times, even seem to celebrate our civil war since it gave us men like Lincoln, Jackson, Lee, etc. Thanks for the comment.

  • Beth Parnicza Aug 22, 2008 @ 17:51

    I do think that Jason Phillips’ article and research are relevant and, indeed, important. As I read the article, I remember asking myself why Phillips had done this research. Was it really necessary? I didn’t feel as though I was being convinced of anything that I didn’t already believe. But at the same time, this kind of research and article is necessary. Especially with the general public, it’s often important to consider that these men were not friends. If the fighting was brother against brother, it often turned the brothers into bitter enemies, rather than loving, disagreeing siblings. I know many people (again, think general public) tend to look at the war through rose-tinted glass. These men were not victims, with only this pesky war interfering with their brotherly love, and it is important that we remember and reinforce this point with such articles as Phillips’.

    The idea of a brothers’ war filled with underlying affection is quite appealing to people, for obvious reasons. It’s that warm, fuzzy feeling from watching the closing scenes of Ken Burns’ Civil War featuring the reenactment of Gettysburg (opposing veteran to veteran love included, of course) that is extremely appealing. It is very easy to forget the rancor these men had for each other. And of course, not all opposing soldiers hated each other. I do believe that under completely different circumstances, most of the men could have gotten along. The simple fact is that they were not in different circumstances and many of them hated each other. Not that I am out to squash warm, fuzzy feelings about the War, but they are not really appropriate in this case. Phillips’ article seems to highlight the general feelings of most soldiers—the norm, rather than the exception.

    Phillips’ article also helps to explain, as Kevin mentions in his post, the trends of Reconstruction even through to today’s Lost Causers. I will not soon forget a woman I encountered in my line of work this summer who took personal offense to the graffiti left in an old Virginia home by wounded Union soldiers. I, of course, would not understand, being a Yankee, but she knows what those scoundrels did to the South. This does not sound like feelings of brotherly (or sisterly) love, and this kind of resentment continues to exist today. Of course, the Lost Cause has more complex roots than this, but if we want to trace many of today’s sectional and racial feelings to their origins (or at least a major stage in their development), articles such as Phillips’ are certainly necessary.

  • Kevin Levin Aug 22, 2008 @ 17:05

    Arguably, there is a natural tendency to carve up the timeline into distinct phases such as the one between the Civil War and Reconstruction. We can structure our classes more easily and use the distinction to draw causal and other kinds of connections between events. Unfortunately, such sharp distinctions often makes it difficult to perceive continuity or extend a relatively narrow research project passed an artificial cut-off point.

    The distinction between the Civil War and Reconstruction obscures more than it reveals. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox supposedly ushered in peace and our popular memory highlights moments that reflect the beginnings of national reunion and reconciliation. Jason Phillips reminds us that Confederate perceptions of Union soldiers and the North in general allow us to better understand the difficulties of Reconstruction as well as the level of violence that defined the period to 1877 and beyond into the Jim Crow Era.

    The coming of emancipation and the utilization of blacks in the Union army unified the white South against the dangers of miscegenation and the leveling of the society and these challenges persisted into the 20th century.

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