Thinking About Confederate Identity and Nationalism

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.

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5 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin Jul 12, 2006 @ 10:22

    Hiram, — You stated more clearly the point that I was trying to make. Of course I agree that the questions of motivation for deserting are distinct from their effect on the combat effectiveness of the army. And I agree in reference to the actions of those on the home front. Again, I was simply trying to point out that the actions of those falling in both groups should not necessarily be reduced to one factor. Various kinds of identifications are no doubt complex and difficult to understand conceptually.

    On a different note, when will you be revealing your identity? Perhaps you can turn it into a contest. We could guess based on various clues from your posts. The winner would receive a framed piece of your son’s Civil War art.

  • Hiram Hover Jul 12, 2006 @ 9:39


    To pick up on your point about desertion and the lack/loss of will thesis—it seems to me that too much work today focuses on questions of consciousness—what did people think?—to the exclusion of questions of action—what did they do? I’m not suggesting that historians ignore questions of nationalism, identity, ideology, etc., but that we acknowledge the difficulty of specifying and generalizing about them, and that we evaluate people’s deeds alongside their thoughts. Civil War era Americans were no different from folks today—they could hold different and even contradictory ideas about the same issue at the same time, and the balance among those ideas could change over time and in different contexts. Whatever they thought and felt, though, at some point they had to act, and their actions either advanced or impeded the war effort.

    In terms specifically of desertion, and explanations of Confederate defeat: yes, a deserter could possess any of a number of motives, and so we can’t immediately infer that he lacked the will to fight. On the other hand, whatever his state of mind, the act of desertion was a tangible blow to the Confederate ranks. Likewise, those who withheld taxes, supplies, slaves, etc., from the Confederate or state governments harmed the war effort. It doesn’t seem to have been uncommon then (as more recently) for people to claim that they supported a war, but opposed their government’s way of fighting it. The tension at the heart of such statements is important to acknowledge, and indeed doing so might open up a new avenue for investigating claims of support for “the cause.” But ultimately, if such statements cloaked resistance to the government’s prosecution of the war, then those folks were impeding the war effort, their protestations of abstract support notwithstanding.

  • Kevin Levin Jul 12, 2006 @ 6:47

    Hi Will, — Thanks for calling me on this. All I meant is that it is a mistake to simply interpret desertion as a reflection of a lack of will to continue the fight or belief in the Confederate cause. It almost seems that the fact of desertion alone is a sufficient condition for the “lack of will” thesis or that the soldier in question no longer identified with the goals of the war. I tried to suggest in the post that soldiers and those on the home front were pulled in a number of different directions. And while it may appear that those pressures are conflicting on one’s identity it may have more to do with the contingencies of war and multiple allegiances from the family to the state to the nation. I recommend William Blair’s _Virginia’s Private War_, J. Tracy Power’s _Lee’s Miserables_ and Peter Carmichael’s “So Far From God and So Close to Stonewall Jackson: The Executions of Three Shenandoah Valley Soldiers” in the _Virginia Magazine of History and Biography_ (Vol. 111, No. 1 [2003]). What I am suggesting is that desertion reflects a much more complicated reality than simply pro-home v. pro-Confederate.

  • Will Keene Jul 12, 2006 @ 2:03


    You wrote “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.”

    Would you consider expanding on this? I am stumped as it seems to me that desertion is indicative of insufficient will to fight relative to other demands.


    Will Keene

  • sumir sharma Jul 11, 2006 @ 23:15

    Dear Kevin,

    I do not try to sound modest yet it is true that I stand nowhere in scholarship on Civil War in comparison to you. However, one of your comments has attracted my attention, which is: “The North suffered from some of the same problems in addition to the challenge 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.”

    While I prepared American History (a paper in Punjab University Chandigarh India; titled USA 1864 to 1963, with specified twelve topics covering the whole period leaving no space for the teacher to stress upon important stages and development and restricting a teacher by the demand of the students to get them answers to those questions only which may appear in examination), I was held back by the event of 1864. In our university they ask only three types of questions (the paper setters are mostly from JNU Delhi or Delhi University) namely Civil War as a conflict of Nationalism versus sectional interests, Civil War as a result of political events since 1820 or Civil War as a result of Slavery as a cause. Sorry, if you are not impressed. I can not help because it is a ground reality here.

    I was not able to do full justice to this topic because I was not able to demonstrate to the students that why did CSA emerge. Then in 2003, I achieved success when I started with a discussion wherein I took the issue that what would have been the result had CSA won the war. Some of the intelligent students were happy because they were able to explain the significance of many quotations and events before the end of Civil War. They were able to write good answer on Reconstruction Congress Plan also. In the same discourse, I had also taken up a presentation (it is no power point or anything like that stuff. It is merely your ability to speak and use chock on the black board here.), wherein I started with a stand that in 1860, there were many factors which favoured the success of South. Therein I tried to present as if North was quite weak before South because there were many factors against it. I took the case of Lee siding with South.

    In both the presentations I had been stressing upon my students to imagine and think about a situation wherein if South would have won then what could be the arguments of the historians on the reasons of Civil War.

    Any how, the above selected line by you attracted my attention because while explaining the results and causes of Civil War, I often tell them to think that what would have been the arguments if South had won. On my side, I have to speak in Punjabi and in spite of my best efforts the student do not explore net or libraries. They prefer help books, (question answer forms called Kunjis in India) and they join history courses only to show continuity of study to the embassies of Canada and America as my beloved Punjabis from Doaba and Malwa regions want to migrate to these countries.


    Sumir Sharma.

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