In the Critic’s Corner: Scholarly Interest in Confederate Nationalism

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Davis-CWN thumbnailAs part of our series with Civil War News, ECW is pleased to spotlight the work of our very own Steve Davis, a regular (and voluminous) contributor to the paper. Steve also gave us a peek at his work back in April 2018.

I contribute a regular column, “Critic’s Corner,” for the monthly newspaper Civil War News. I write about favorite books, old and new, and sometimes on what I happen to be reading at the time.

For instance….

In January 1862 a Georgian serving in Virginia wrote home about the sunny prospects for the Southern Confederacy. “I have no more idea that the Yankees will whip us,” he declared, “than that a chicken can teach Latin.”

I quote from a recent book, George C. Rable’s Damn Yankees! Demonization & Defiance in the Confederate South (2015) as a way of introducing a point that has recently struck me: the surge of academic interest in cultural expressions of Confederate nationalism.

Historiography routinely records historians revising the findings of earlier generations of scholars. Which is sort of reflected in what Henry Ford, the carmaker, once said: “history is more or less bunk.”


Thirty years ago I reviewed Why the South Lost the Civil War (1986), by Richard E. Beringer, Herman Hattaway, Archer Jones and William H. Still, Jr. I noted the authors’ argument that shaky nationalism, guilt over slavery and confusion as to why they were fighting all undermined Southerners’ spirit. The Confederacy, as they put it, “died of guilt and failure to will.”

Well, that take seems to be on its way out, to infer from a handful of books I’ve read or am reading.

One of my favorites is Damn Yankees! by Dr. Rable, now retired from the University of Alabama. He examined Southern newspapers, speeches, letters and diaries, searching for Confederates’ denunciations of the enemy. He found that the longer the war dragged on, the more poisonous and pervasive the anti-Yankee invective became.

(By the way, when George told his chicken-teaching-Latin yarn to the Atlanta Civil War Round Table, we all laughed.)

Jason Phillips, who teaches history at Mississippi State, is author of Diehard Rebels: The Confederate Culture of Invincibility (University of Georgia Press, 2007). He worked this book from his doctoral dissertation at Chapel Hill, which alone attests to academic interest in Confederate culture.

Dr. Phillips is at his best in describing Confederates’ characterization of Yankees. Southerners found them at once weak, brutal, “fanatical Puritans,” “brutish mercenaries,” “immigrant trash” and “cowardly shopkeepers.”

No wonder, as the wartime children’s math book taught, that one Confederate could whip ten Yankees!

…er, make that seven, at least in An Elementary Arithmetic, Designed for Beginners (Raleigh, 1864): “If one Confederate soldier can whip 7 yankees, how many soldiers can whip 49 yankees?”

This brings up another of my favorites, James Marten’s The Children’s War (Chapel Hill, 1998), which deals a lot with Confederate primers. It’s not so recent, but I turned to it while preparing a slide talk for the Georgia Obstetrical & Gynecological Society on women and children in the Civil War. President at the time was Dr. Cindy Mercer of Athens. I addressed her from the lectern when I told the story of the old slave woman on the plantation of Howell Cobb (also from Athens) who explained to the Cobb children that there’d be no Christmas toys that year because the Yankees shot Santa (the audience howled).

The title of Michael T. Bernath’s work tells it all: Confederate Minds: The Struggle for Intellectual Independence in the Civil War South (Chapel Hill, 2010). A reviewer for the Journal of American History judged, “this valuable work finally puts to rests the notion that the Confederacy was an intellectual wasteland and that Confederates had nothing to say aside from their rebel yell.”

…which is the point that Coleman Hutchison makes in Apples & Ashes: Literature, Nationalism, and the Confederate States of America (Georgia, 2012). The author, an assistant professor of English at the University of Texas, examines poetry, fiction, drama, music and criticism produced in the wartime South and finds that “Confederate literature was an essential vehicle for Confederate nationalism, a sinewy and multifarious phenomenon that historians have begun to take seriously.”

Way to go, Professor!

I find striking a statement that Dr. Hutchison makes in his opening pages:

This book is by no means an apology for the Confederacy or Confederate nationalism. I find almost nothing that is admirable in the politics and culture of the Civil War South. Much of Confederate literature was deeply conservative. Emerging from a fiercely nationalistic milieu, it resounds with both racist and racialistic rhetoric and makes the case again and again for an antidemocratic republic.

But here’s the clincher: “No matter how unsavory that story proves, I think it is important that it be told.”

Reading this, I couldn’t help but think that it’s peculiar: while everyday Americans are pulling down or hiding away Confederate monuments, a growing number of academic scholars are studying aspects of Confederate nationalism that led to those statues being raised in the first place. They are detailing Confederate culture without dignifying it.

The conundrum is ably expressed by Professor Aaron Sheehan-Dean in his Why Confederates Fought: Family & Nation in Civil War Virginia (Chapel Hill, 2007): “While it is certainly true that simple answers to the question of why men fought, such as ‘for their way of life’ or ‘for freedom,’ or even ‘for independence,’ conceal the reality of slavery, hierarchy, and inequality in the southern social order, it is equally true that people at the time incorporated the oppressive elements of the antebellum South within abstract frameworks such as democracy, self-determination, and cultural autonomy. The fact that we value those abstractions but not the uses to which Confederates put them complicates matters still more.”

Think about it.

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