Fractured Historiography of the Confederacy

In the latest issue of Civil War History (Project MUSE subscription required), University of Virginia professor Gary W. Gallagher reviews major trends in the historiography of the Confederacy. Here are a few excerpts about some of the key earlier trendsetters. Explaining defeat is always more challenging than explaining victory.

Thirty years have passed since Emory M. Thomas’s The Confederate Nation, 1861–1865 appeared on the historiographical landscape. Some of its themes had been present in his earlier The Confederacy as Revolutionary Experience, and together the two books heralded the emergence of a major figure in the field. Factors weakening the Confederacy loomed larger than evidence of Rebel persistence or strength in the scholarly literature at that time, but Thomas took seriously the idea of national sentiment in the seceding states. When defeat apparently stalked the slaveholding republic in the spring of 1862 and “their national experiment seemed almost a failure, Confederate Southerners began to respond to their circumstances by redefining themselves—or, more precisely, by defining themselves as a national people.”…

David Williams’s Bitterly Divided: The South’s Inner Civil War traverses much of the same ground as Thomas’s work, offering a convenient point of departure to consider the trajectory of recent scholarship on the Confederacy. The author or editor of four previous books dealing with various aspects of Confederate history, Williams complains that generations of historians have emphasized the war “waged with the North” rather than exploring how the “South was torn apart by a violent inner civil war, a war no less significant to the Confederacy’s fate than its more widely known struggle against the Yankees.” Resolutely focused on that “inner civil war,” Bitterly Divided creates an impression of overwhelming internal fracturing that renders the presence of U.S. armies strangely irrelevant….

Internal fissures serve as the interpretive touchstone of a rich body of older work, a brief review of which reveals that Bitterly Divided plows in deep existing furrows. As early as 1867, editor Edward A. Pollard of Richmond’s Examiner denied that northern manpower and resources had settled the issue. “The great and melancholy fact remains,” Pollard observed in The Lost Cause, “that the Confederates, with an abler Government and more resolute spirit, might have accomplished their independence.”…

In 1937, while Margaret Mitchell’s pro-Confederate epic Gone with the Wind sold in huge numbers, pioneering African American historian Charles H. Wesley challenged the Lost Cause narrative of noble Rebels struggling against impossible odds. “Historians of the Confederacy have based their works mainly upon the military subjugation of the South and the heroic actions of its defenders and have neglected the contributing social factors,” maintained Wesley in The Collapse of the Confederacy….

Twenty-eight years later, Carleton Beals reprised much of Wesley’s argument in War within a War: The Confederacy against Itself. “This book is about those people who resisted, because of their love for the Union, or civil rights, or because they believed the struggle to be a ‘rich man’s war, poor man’s fight,’” wrote Beals, who featured “mountain people,” opponents of conscription, African Americans, and others at odds with the Confederate government….

Two historiographical waves established a durable framework within which many advocates of internal failure have examined the Confederacy. Between the mid-1920s and the mid-1940s, a number of scholars joined Wesley to mount a powerful collective assault on Lost Cause mythology. Although they sometimes deployed simplistic class models to support the idea of a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight, their findings contributed importantly to topics such as conscription, state rights as a divisive ideology, desertion, persistent unionism, resistance among slaves (what W. E. B. Du Bois called “The General Strike”), class tensions, and corrosive guerrilla warfare. The fact that all major titles by these authors have been reprinted at least once suggests their continuing influence.

A flurry of studies in the 1970s and 1980s, spurred in part by the new social history’s emphasis on people outside the traditional power structure, expanded on the earlier literature. Some of this work can be read as a direct or indirect response to Thomas’s The Confederate Nation, 1861–1865. Authors and editors drove home the point that no one should think of the Confederacy as a society united across boundaries of region, class, race, and gender. In a category by itself was Why the South Lost the Civil War, by Richard E. Berenger, Herman Hattaway, Archer Jones, and William N. Still—a detailed and thoughtful, if not ultimately persuasive, brief for the centrality of internal causes of Confederate failure. This prize-winning study attributed defeat to the impact of southern religion, an absence of nationalism, and, despite a level of commitment that absorbed the deaths of approximately one-quarter of all military-age white males in the Confederacy [emphasis added], weak popular will….

Drew Gilpin Faust weighed in on the topic of Confederate nationalism at the end of the 1980s. Suggesting that the “creation of Confederate nationalism was the South’s effort to build a consensus at home, to secure a foundation of popular support for a new nation and what quickly became an enormously costly war,” she identifies religion as critical to a conception of nation predicated on defining Confederates as God’s chosen people. Faust also notes the centrality of slavery to the Confederate consciousness and warns against working backward from Appomattox to yoke discussions of nationalism to those about why the Rebels failed. Her conclusions, however, stress the ultimate weakness of nationalistic sentiment in the southern republic….

The more recent “cutting-edge” literature on internal dissent … has appeared at a steady rate over the past dozen years. A full discussion lies beyond the scope of this essay, but some trends are evident. It has long been a commonplace that the hill country and mountains of the Confederacy functioned as centers of antiwar and anti-Davis administration activity. An array of recent scholarship has examined the war in Appalachia, confirming deep divisions in mountainous regions but also finding evidence of strong support for the Confederacy. Works on North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, and Georgia create a composite picture affirming John C. Inscoe and Gordon B. McKinney’s observation that “within the southern highlands, the war played out in very different ways for western North Carolinians than it did for East Tennesseans or north Georgians or western Virginians or Eastern Kentuckians.” The authors might have added that within each of these five populations the variety of reactions to the war and its trials also defy easy characterization.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under nationalism, scholarship, slavery, U.S., Virginia, war

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s