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

Welcome to the first of what will hopefully be a series of discussion forums on various interpretations of the Civil War.  For this first forum we will discuss Jason Phillips's "A Brother's War?: Exploring Confederate Perceptions of the Enemy" which appeared in Aaron Sheehan Dean's ed., The View From the Ground: Experiences of Civil War Soldiers (University of Kentucky Press, 2007). 

I initially planned on offering a few opening remarks, but have decided to contribute in the form of comments so as not to assume any position of authority on the topic at hand.  There will be two threads.  On this post the focus will be on Phillips's thesis, which can be found on p. 73 as well as other issues:

“As Southern men, Confederate soldiers drew their identity and
authority from the submission of white women, the inferiority of
blacks, and the ownership of land.  As the war worsened, the enemy
threatened to topple these pillars of the Old South.”

Feel free to address other substantive claims made by Phillips, including how Confederates perceived the enemy over time and the extent to which the demonization of Northern soldiers corresponded with a changing reality.  Finally, does the wartime evidence of Confederate perceptions of the enemy help anticipate the violence and bitterness of Reconstruction and beyond?

The second post will be used to discuss the overall contribution of Phillips's scholarship to our understanding of the Confederate experience.  There is also a third thread that should be used to discuss any other topics in the article that you would like to raise.

Click here for the second thread.

Click here for the third thread.

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

Purchase your copy today!

10 comments… add one
  • Anonymous Aug 24, 2008 @ 12:35

    There was a commercial during the Vietnam War era that pictured two leaders on a mountain top forced to fight one another rather than send the armies of two nations to fight. Above the two fighting men a narrator commented: “What if they gave a war and no one came?”

    In an ideal world, men, and now women, would sit down, think, make the right moral choices, and refuse to fight. Hopefully, the other side would do the same. Then war would truly end.

    No matter what the stated purpose of a war, men and women actually go into battle and risk their lives for very complicated reasons that have been explored by thinkers and artists throughout history. That does not negate the central thesis that slavery was what the Civil War was truly about. Slavery is what the war was about. That is certain, in my opinion. The ability to penetrate the minds of common soldiers through the letters and diaries they left behind and to say with absolute authority that the true motivation for fighting day in and day out and that the identities of those soldiers can be discerned is not so certain, however. Many of us are writing into Kevin’s blog, which is a sort of diary. We may think that we know each other from statements made, but do we really? Thank you for questioning yourself, and I will do the same. We are all looking back at another era and attempting to make it fit into a modern framework. It was just that–another era–and in order to even approach the understanding of it, we need to dispense with our modern viewpoints as much as is possible, view that era without a lens, and reserve our judgments for our own actions in our own time.

  • Kevin Levin Aug 24, 2008 @ 11:47


    Your are no doubt correct in pointing out the difficulties involved in analyzing an individual’s as well as a society’s ideological commitments, the articulation of which does often smack of an overly-academic endeavor. Still, as painful and as potentially alienating as the process may be, it must be carried out if we are to understand the complexity of local communities and nations. It is a little like “nailing jelly to the wall”.

    I think it comes down to the point you make which is that “the piece helps us understand the broad impact of being a member of a slave society.” We are fortunate in that Confederate soldiers (slaveholders as welll as nonslaveholders) during the post-emancipation phase of the war were very upfront about their commitment to slavery and their fears surrounding miscegenation. To what extent these fears occupied the same place in their outlook early on is a bit more difficult. I remember at one point in Chandra Manning’s study where she suggests that the articulation of defense of home was really about maintaining slavery. Well, maybe it was and maybe it wasn’t. Maybe they were just thinking about their loved ones. The point is that we should be very weary of any attempt at reductionism.

    I like your analogy with our own capitalistic society. It would no doubt take a strong push towards centralization to bring about the kinds of output that would count as an ideological commitment. Than again, perhaps it is at just these moments when we get to gauge the pervasiveness of certain ideological commitments even if their expressions are overly emotional.

  • Peter Carmichael Aug 24, 2008 @ 10:02

    Stephanie McCurry’s Masters of Small Worlds is the most satisfying explanation that I have read about yeomen farmers and their allegiance to hierarchical gender, racial, and class relations. It is worth reading, despite her lapses into painfully dense academic prose.

    Yeomen farmers were products of a slave society and Jason’s piece reveals how that world shaped Confederate perceptions and representations during the war. Those who have trouble with this point counter that if slavery was really a force of motivation for Southern soldiers, they would have made explicit connections to the institution in their letters (which they actually did) or they would have yelled before Pickett’s Charge: “Let’s storm Cemetery Hill for Slavery.” Their requirement of Confederate soldiers is unreasonable and unrealistic. People accept the world into which they are born for the most part, and because they take it for granted they rarely comment on the underlying assumptions of their particular society in ways that make direct connections between political action and motivation. Jason shows us through deep analysis of Confederate letters that comments about race, women, and Union invaders reveal an ideological consensus that rested upon the instittion of slavery (Jason, I believe, is a materialist who sees social relations and an economic system, such as slavery in this case, as the producer of ideology) For those who disagree with the argument that slavery mattered in creating a unique Southern world view, I would like to know how they see or understand the creation of ideas or ideology in any given society.

    Every white man in the South knew what was at stake in 1861–the survival of slavery whether they liked it or not. Every soldier in Vietnam knew that they were part of a global war against Communisim (As we know from the multitutde of memory studies that what veterans say after the war about motivation and what they say during the conflict is rarely consistent) To expect veterans of either conflict to delineate the issues, emotions, and interests behind their personal motivation is an unreasonable expectations. I think Jason’s piece helps us understand the broad impact of being a member of a slave society(and that means all whites regardless of class status—would we suggest today that a poor person is somehow not part of our capitalistic society or at odds with the dominant values and aspirations of the US just because he or she exists in impoverishment outside the market)

    I am troubled by the use of identity in soldiers studies, including Jason’s and my own. Identity is too fuzzy. Do people really die for identity, which seems to be part of the trendy and sloppy use of culture to describe everything so in the end it describes nothing. Can we really speak of a Confederate identity and what are the risks when we do?

  • Anonymous Aug 23, 2008 @ 8:49

    You’re welcome, Kevin. Will do. Thanks for answering and clarifying.


  • Kevin Levin Aug 23, 2008 @ 7:19

    Sheree, — Thanks for the comment. I don’t want to speak for Lizzie, but it would be a mistake to think that she leaving no room for exceptions or the possibility of more local studies of gender equality. The question at hand it whether the perceptions of Confederate soldiers, as Phillips and others suggest, were shaped by a commitment to a strict racial and gender hierarchy. He clearly believes this to be the case.

    I would ask that we keep this particular thread focused on Phillips and move other issues to the third thread. Thanks again for the comment.

  • Sherree Aug 23, 2008 @ 7:08

    Hi Lizzie,

    Your comments are thoughtful and well expressed, but not entirely accurate-at least as far as my part of the country goes, ie, the mountains of Virginia.

    Wives of “yeoman” farmers were anything but submissive to men. They had too much work to do, including helping the men in the fields. This created an equality of gender in fact, if not in expression and in law. My own great great grandmother was a midwife and the local herbal doctor. She delivered over four hundred children in her lifetime, including her own grandchildren. She treated numerous men and women when they were sick, entering the public arena. She milked the cows, fed the chickens, brought up ten children, helped plant tobacco, and sat with my great great grandfather every night and reviewed and discussed the day’s events, then told her life story and that of my ancestors to her grandchildren, under whose tutelage I had the honor of coming of age. Some of those stories included the interaction of my ancestors with the black men and women of our area who founded their own community after the Civil War–a community that included a general store run by a black man who was the grandson of a freed slave–a general store where my ancestors and other white men and women traded and socialized with black men and women when invited to do so by the black community during the Jim Crow era, and down through my mother’s generation. As long as we, as Americans, continue to attempt to understand our past in Manichaean terms, always looking for a scapegoat upon which to pin the sins of the past, we are not going to achieve that discussion on race that Senator Obama so rightly says that our country needs to engage in. There is no doubt that the Southern United States was the heart of the evil of slavery, and I can think of no other word than “evil” to describe the horrors suffered by the ancestors of African American men and women. The rest of the country was involved in the “peculiar institution” as well, however, providing the life blood to this national shame, as were European nations, Muslims prior to the European slave trade, and some African nations themselves. The slave trade was a worldwide affair that found its ugliest expression in the Southern United States, the legacy of which has still not been corrected and justice brought to the millions of African men and women forcibly brought to this country. To blame the upholding of slavery and even the ability of the Civil War itself to be waged upon the South’s yeoman farmers is truly a remarkable assertion, however. I work with many Vietnam veterans. Not one says he went to war to fight communism, although that was the government’s stated purpose for the war. A simpler, less abstract reason, such as being drafted, is usually the reason given. I understand that modern research involves the study of diaries and letters left behind by common soldiers, and that those diaries and letters reveal the widespread support of the common soldier in the South for the preservation of slavery. Fair enough. Now, take into consideration that much of the culture of the South was preserved through oral history, and there is yet another side of the past not being represented. I have given you one exception to what is now considered the rule. Perhaps there are other exceptions, and exceptions that do not involve the neo Confederate view of reality. Thank you for your time and for your comment.

  • Lizzie Dietzen Aug 22, 2008 @ 16:44


    Thank you for your detailed questions.

    I did not mean for it to appear as if I were asserting that Confederate soldiers joined the ranks to preserve slavery; that was not my intent. I was exploring the social and economic relationship between yeomen and planters prior to the war.

    True many yeomen lay outside the realm of slavery, but I firmly believe the hierarchical structure still existed in those areas. Political rhetoric played on racial fears, so I think the many yeomen were concerned with the prospect of racial eqaulity.

    For the third point, I think you are correct in that most were concerned with taking care of their families, so my assertion that many aspired to become a slaveholder may have been to broad. But arguably, possessing slaves and land equals power and wealth; and who wouldn’t want that? But true, most yeomen were overwhelmed with the task of simply surviving.

    But again, I am not talking about why these men joined the ranks. Reasons for the inception of war and reasons for joining the ranks are often very different things. I guess I was just trying to assert that Cobnfederate soldiers had a vested interest in the social strata of the Old South.

  • David Levin Aug 22, 2008 @ 13:34

    Hello Lizzie
    My comments are more or less questions. For point 1, Did the yeoman farmers support the land owners because the majority of them were simply poor or at the very least operated very small farms that did not produce much wealth for their families. If so,is the fact that they worked for the land owning aristocracy a sign of economic necesity and not one that would produce a significant type of loyalty that would be worthy of going to war? There is a dependency of the farmers towards the landowners for one’s livlehood, but would that entail going to war?

    For the 2nd point, yes i would think that many yeoman farmers who grew up in a world of slavery would expect slavery as the norm, however, was there a large portion of yeoman farmers who lived very separate lives in small communities where they did not have as much contact with the large plantations and or communities with large numbers of slaves? If so,since these people kept pretty much too themselves within those small communities, would the hierarchy of southern society or the social standing of blacks not effect them as much as others? In other words, would their concerns be about hierarchy, social standings of blacks or simply economic survival?

    For the third point, did yeoman farmers truly aspire to be slave-holders themselves? Or were most of their thoughts consumed by the conerns of simply feeding their families and getting through a drought or bad harvest.Did most poor farmers come from generations of other poor farmers?

    I guess what i am asking is, going back even to the 18th century in the south, were most yeoman farmers concerned with survival and their farms producing enough food to feed their families and hopefully sell some of it for profit? I am sure a good majority wanted to keep blacks in their place within the south, but were their reasons for going to war initially more to preserve the independence of their state/homes or to keep blacks enslaved?

  • Dan McCown Aug 22, 2008 @ 10:51

    Points 1; 2; 3? Not sure if I were a twenty year old Confederate soldier from Mississippi, and fighting at Spotsylvania, those points would be sufficient motivation for me. What points were motivating the Federal troops?

  • Lizzie Dietzen Aug 22, 2008 @ 9:24

    First addressing Phillip’s thesis: I find that though it is a direct and broad assertion, it is very true.

    Southern men of all classes drew authority and identity from their property: slaves, women, and land.

    Yeomen farmers, who comprised the majority of the ranks in the Confederate armies, had a significant interest in slavery. This counters the common perception that the average Confederate soldier had no interest in the institution. The point that I will try to prove here is that both the planters and those who comprised the Confederate ranks had an equal interest in keeping blacks in their inferior position and preserving slavery.

    In antebellum society, yeomen farmers supported the economic structure of the South. They became somewhat loyal to the slaveholding aristocracy for a few reasons:
    1)Planters occasionally hired the sons of poorer neighbors to do odd jobs around the plantation. So in a way many became dependent on the paternalistic graces of planters. This I suppose shows more of a loyalty to the planters as opposed to the institution of slavery itself
    2)Yeomen farmers grew up in a world where slavery was the norm. Who wouldn’t, after all, accept the world into which they are born? Because of this, many whites in the South enjoyed the idea that though they were poor and despondent, they were held in higher esteem on the social and economic ladder than slaves. Hierarchical relationships characterized the South and allowed for a distinct paternalistic society to develop. Strict hierarchy in the South countered the North’s “work hard and you can become your own boss” ideology. So the inferiority of slaves is necessary in order to maintain this structure.
    3) It also can be argued that non-slaveholders could see themselves as aspiring slaveholders and supported the submission of slaves because of the hope of becoming part of the powerful plantation elite.

    Racism and fear of racial amalgamation plagued both planter and yeomen Southerners alike, creating a bond that forged a distint political unity throughout the war between the white Southerners.

    Confederate soldiers also drew their authority from the submission of white women. In the antebellum years, Southern women were expected to reside strictly in the domestic sphere. But when war came and as the manpower was drained from family farms or local industries, women were forced to enter a new and dominant role in society. Many scorned this transition of women from the private to the public sphere though it was necessary to sustain the Confederate war effort.
    To demonstrate this idea further, many men were disgusted with the dominant role of women after the Richmond Bread Riot in 1863. Undoubtedly many Confederate soldiers and political leaders were alarmed at the abrupt transition from a peaceful, submissive woman to one that became vociferous and arguably violent against the government.
    Submission of white women was also necessary to protect them against slaves. Charles Dew demonstrates this superbly in his book “Apostles of Disunion.” Without paternalistic protectors white women would fall prey to the “savagery” of blacks.

    Ownership of land is undeniably inportant. In the South, land and ownership of slaves equals power and money.

    Emancipation threatened not only the South’s economic structure but also had a considerable effect on the psyche of Southern men. Yeomen farmers feared racial equality and the loss of their dominant social position over those in bondage. Former slaves could theoretically own land which became distasteful for many to imagine. The pure white woman would also be threatened and would fall prey to free slaves. The transition from a slaveholding paternalistic society to one where power would no longer be defined by ownership of land or slaves did indeed shatter the pillars of the Old South.

Leave a Reply to David LevinCancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *