Research Was Confederate nationalism weak or resilient?

Brit123

Cadet
Joined
May 17, 2021
I find that a lot of historiography seems to argue it was weak as Confederate lost the war. However surely it was resilient given that they kept fighting through 4 years of bloody conflict until they were literally unable to fight anymore?
Im really interested to hear other people's opinions on the topic.
 

Lubliner

Captain
Forum Host
Joined
Nov 27, 2018
Location
Chattanooga, Tennessee
I find that a lot of historiography seems to argue it was weak as Confederate lost the war. However surely it was resilient given that they kept fighting through 4 years of bloody conflict until they were literally unable to fight anymore?
Im really interested to hear other people's opinions on the topic.
Welcome from the Railroads and Steam Locomotives Forum. I find the deep southeast up to Virginia fully committed to the cause. All the border States and even Alabama were fractured politically, as well as Arkansas.
Lubliner.
 

A. Roy

Sergeant Major
Forum Host
Joined
Sep 2, 2019
Location
Raleigh, North Carolina
I find that a lot of historiography seems to argue it was weak as Confederate lost the war.

I don't see this idea advocated much by historians, if at all. Can you give an example of a well-known historian making this argument? Seem way over-simplified. Maybe I just don't understand what you're trying to say...

Roy B.
 

atlantis

Sergeant Major
Joined
Nov 12, 2016
I think it was more resilient among the non slave owners/small slave owners than the large slave owners.
 

jackt62

Captain
Joined
Jul 28, 2015
Location
New York City
The concept of a Confederate nationalism has been of interest to a number of historians, for example, Gary Gallagher who has written about this subject. The issue seems to be to whether and/or to what extent a unique "national" identity was forged among the southern Confederacy. Despite efforts to create this identity, southerners and northerners maintained many identical characteristics, not least of which was a shared history deriving from the founding fathers and the Constitution in addition to a common language and similar religious beliefs. So many of the issues that separated north and south were more economic and social, rather than arising from any deep seated differences in ancestry. Whether or not the average southern farmer or tradesman felt a strong identity to a new Confederacy is debatable. Ties to state and region were probably more important.
 

John Winn

Major
Joined
Mar 13, 2014
Location
State of Jefferson
The concept of a Confederate nationalism has been of interest to a number of historians, for example, Gary Gallagher who has written about this subject. The issue seems to be to whether and/or to what extent a unique "national" identity was forged among the southern Confederacy. Despite efforts to create this identity, southerners and northerners maintained many identical characteristics, not least of which was a shared history deriving from the founding fathers and the Constitution in addition to a common language and similar religious beliefs. So many of the issues that separated north and south were more economic and social, rather than arising from any deep seated differences in ancestry. Whether or not the average southern farmer or tradesman felt a strong identity to a new Confederacy is debatable. Ties to state and region were probably more important.
I was just going to say something to that effect. I think there was strong support for the general cause but that's not the same as support for a strong central government. Somebody whose name I always forget famously said "state's rights killed the Confederacy." It also messed up the railroad grid and, in North Carolina, kept needed supplies from being distributed to non-NC troops (as a couple of examples).
 

Zack

Sergeant
Joined
Aug 20, 2017
Location
Los Angeles, California
Not to offer a cop out answer, but pretty deeply divided. One interesting topic I've been reading about recently is accusations from wealthy Southerners that the poor were not enthusiastic or doing their share.

As just one example, quoting from The Women's Fight by Thavolia Glymph Chapter 2 (I'm on Kindle so don't have a page number):

Mary Rhodes [of Alabama] devoted a considerable part of her reminiscences to the problem of poor women for whom she had little sympathy. "The wife of the soldier whose family had been supported by his labor had to be cared for, now that their means of support were cut off," she acknowledged, and supported efforts to furnish them with corn, salt, and meat. But while some recipients of welfare might be deserving poor, she believed that too many were simply welfare cheats and traitors to the Confederate cause. She disparaged them as "corn women," a "feature of the times." The women Rhodes criticized were in fact the wives and daughters of mostly small nonslaveholding farmers who lived in the Alabama counties north of her home whose household economies relied more on grain crops than cotton. While she allowed that their husbands made "good soldiers many of them," and that some were "really needy, and they were supplied abundantly," too many "soon became perfect nuisances."

She continued:

While some "were true and staunch to the cause," too many "grumbled and 'wished the thing over anyway,' as they had to work so hard and the war would not benefit them. Already it had deprived them of many things; they had nothing to gain, nothing to lose, and as to love of country, they had none of that. ... 'they hated all rich people' ...'the Yankee was fighting for money, and the Southern man for his n******, or fear of the conscript officer,'" Rhodes offered.

Rhodes goes on and on but I don't want to quote ad infinitum.

Poor women were accused of begging their husbands to desert from the army and of hiding deserters from authorities. Poor white and small slaveholding white Southerners suffered disproportionately from state violence during the war as a result. For example, a letter to Governor Vance of North Carolina stated that in the Piedmont, "militia soldiers preyed on women who were 'in no fix to leav [their] homes and [on] others [who] have little suckling infants not More than two months old." The writer continued that local officials, "were gathering up women suspected of harboring deserters and 'Boxing their jaws and nocking them about as if they were Bruts.'" The wife of one suspected deserter leader was tortured by militia soldiers; they had her "tied by her thumbs together behind her back & suspended her with a cord tied to her two thumbs thus fastened behind her to a limb so that her toes could just touch the ground." (quoted in The Women's Fight).

Not to mention the bread riots in Richmond and other food riots across the South.
 
Last edited:

American87

Sergeant
Joined
Aug 27, 2016
Location
PENNSYLVANIA
I find that a lot of historiography seems to argue it was weak as Confederate lost the war. However surely it was resilient given that they kept fighting through 4 years of bloody conflict until they were literally unable to fight anymore?
Im really interested to hear other people's opinions on the topic.

It was resilient. They formed the Solid South in Politics for A Hundred Years, and their memory Of the War is much fonder than ours is in the North, with some notable exceptions of course.
 

Zack

Sergeant
Joined
Aug 20, 2017
Location
Los Angeles, California
So I'd say nationalism was pretty mixed and was shaken by food shortages and other deprivations as the war progressed. The breaking point came at different times for different people throughout the South. Thavolia Glymph writes:

When elite women were forced to beg and steal to feed themselves and their children, to trust that the people they had once claimed as slaves would voluntarily continue to put bread on the their tables, they reached their limits. In the years after the war they would tell a different story of steadfast patriotism, but even before then, as Drew Faust writes, their 'dedication to the cause proved to be conditional.' The conditional had proven unsustainable.

The moment when dedication to the cause of the Confederacy seemed unsustainable arrived earlier and with greater force for poor women. On farms small and large, corn shortages exacerbated overall food shortages for all. The loss of husbands, fathers, and sons to military service, impressment of black labor by both armies, the enlistment of black soldiers in the U.S. Army, and wartime emancipation meant crop reductions not one of cotton but of corn. This, together with the loss of local markets for whatever surplus poor people were able to produce, added to the distress on the home front broadly and for the poor especially.
 

Paul Yancey

Sergeant
Joined
Jan 13, 2019
Location
Kentucky
In his book The Confederate War, Gary Gallagher makes a strong case that Confederate Nationalism was much stronger and widespread among both the soldiers and the citizenry than most modern historians will admit. I quote from the book :

As with the question of will among white southerners, the currently dominant thinking about Confederate nationalism assumes a high point early in the war, followed by a steady dissipation beginning in the months following First Manassas and continuing to Appomattox. Too often historians identify an absence of nationalism as both cause and symptom of Confederate failure.. The Confederacy lost because its people never developed a true sense of nationalism; if they had their struggle would have been determined enough to achieve independence. Many works that posit an absence of Confederate nationalism overlook or minimize two salient points. First, Confederates by the thousands from all classes exhibited a strong identification with their country and ended the war still firmly committed to the idea of an independent southern nation. Second, although these people finally accepted defeat because Union armies had overrun much of their territory and compelled major southern military forces to surrender, that acceptance should not be confused with an absence of Confederate identity.

A precise breakdown of how many Confederates did or did not develop and maintain strong feelings of national identity lies beyond the reach of historical sources and methodology. The conclusions and quotations in this book were drawn from the letters and diaries of more than three hundred men and women. As always, the paucity of testimony from the yeomanry and from poorer Confederates frustrates efforts to speak confidently about them -- although the steadfast military service of scores of thousands of men from these groups certainly implies impressive ties to their country. Members of the slaveholding class left a far richer literary legacy, which together with testimony from nonslaveholders and the actions of men and women from all ranks of society--whether serving in the military, complying with the onerous material demands of the central government, or otherwise sacrificing for protracted periods-- suggests widespread and tenacious devotion to the Confederate nation.
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
The concept of nationhood that we consider normal did not exist pre-1860. Witness the professional officers that resigned because of a greater loyalty to their state. During & after the CW there was a change from “these United States” to “the United States.” It seems trivial, but the distinction is profound.

The very name of the Confederacy enshrined the individual sovereignty of the states, not a unified nation. In fact, the CSA never had sovereignty over its own territory. West Virginia is the poster child for CSA disunity. In fact, the entire swath of land from Western Virginia all the way down to Northern Alabama never accepted CSA sovereignty.

In the West, when the CSA lost control of territory, soldiers from there went home. No loyalty to the CSA was in evidence. Jefferson Davis stated that 3/4th of the CSA army was AWOL. In the Army of Tennessee, a surprising number of officers were shot for encouraging or facilitating the desertion of their men.

In deed, a hard knot of men stayed in the ranks to the very end. A certain number of POW holdouts refused to sign loyalty oaths even after the war was over. They exasperated their guards who only wanted to go home.

Even during the heady days following secession, loyalty to the CSA was never strong. As events showed, with time that loyalty was shown to not be in any way robust. As Falstaff would have said, “ What is loyalty to the CSA… air, a trim reckoning. Who hath it? He that died on Wednesday, therefore I will have none of it.”
 

jackt62

Captain
Joined
Jul 28, 2015
Location
New York City
The southern Confederacy maintained much of the symbolism and identity of the "old" United States. Reverence and homage to the heroes and beliefs of the American Revolution and the founding fathers did not change when the southern states seceded from the Union. In fact, the Confederate Constitution was basically a carbon copy of the US Constitution, with the exception being greater protections for the institution of slavery. A dedication to strengthening and preserving chattel slavery was the primary reason for the secession and founding of the Confederacy, rather than a passionate interest in carving out a new nationalism. The planter class was primarily interested in protecting their economic interests; military officers who spent much of their careers in the US Army resigned to follow their individual state's path come what may; the loyalty of the bulk of southern yeomen and subsistence farmers was to their communities, neighbors, and social systems. The rise of a Confederate nationalism was perhaps nothing more than a pipe dream.
 

atlantis

Sergeant Major
Joined
Nov 12, 2016
The concept of nationhood that we consider normal did not exist pre-1860. Witness the professional officers that resigned because of a greater loyalty to their state. During & after the CW there was a change from “these United States” to “the United States.” It seems trivial, but the distinction is profound.

The very name of the Confederacy enshrined the individual sovereignty of the states, not a unified nation. In fact, the CSA never had sovereignty over its own territory. West Virginia is the poster child for CSA disunity. In fact, the entire swath of land from Western Virginia all the way down to Northern Alabama never accepted CSA sovereignty.

In the West, when the CSA lost control of territory, soldiers from there went home. No loyalty to the CSA was in evidence. Jefferson Davis stated that 3/4th of the CSA army was AWOL. In the Army of Tennessee, a surprising number of officers were shot for encouraging or facilitating the desertion of their men.

In deed, a hard knot of men stayed in the ranks to the very end. A certain number of POW holdouts refused to sign loyalty oaths even after the war was over. They exasperated their guards who only wanted to go home.

Even during the heady days following secession, loyalty to the CSA was never strong. As events showed, with time that loyalty was shown to not be in any way robust. As Falstaff would have said, “ What is loyalty to the CSA… air, a trim reckoning. Who hath it? He that died on Wednesday, therefore I will have none of it.”
I would submit that without conscription/impressment loyalty would have deepen. Also leaving the destruction of property to the union forces would also helped spread support for the confederacy.
 
Joined
May 12, 2018
I’d almost take the opinion that really Nationalism in America as a whole was somewhat weak, since the differences in society between the Northern and Southern states was enough to allow a Civil War. The “sectionalism” of the time period suggests that taken as a whole Americans did not have as strong a identity with the nation as later time periods. Given that starting point it’s no surprise that the CSA didn’t have much cohesion either.

The US has flirted with nationalism many times, but I think our naturally heterogeneous society prevents the formation of the kind of ethnostate that lets true nationalism take hold. Our conception of nationhood runs counter to that kind of concept of nationalism, although I think that nowadays we are less regional than we once were thanks to being more likely to have lived in several places in our lives and our greater worldliness than people from the 19th century.
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
I would submit that without conscription/impressment loyalty would have deepen. Also leaving the destruction of property to the union forces would also helped spread support for the confederacy.
Without conscription there wouldn’t have been much of an army. I am not entirely sure what your property distraction comment means.
 
Joined
Jun 9, 2021
This is an intriguing discussion, but I think part of the problem is the premise of the question complicates it: was there even an American nationalism that Southerners might draw from? As someone else noted, the heterogenous construction of American society before the war hindered nationalism, certainly it hindered it in the shape and evolution evident elsewhere, for example in Europe. American nativism, however, was virulent in the pre-war era, so even defining “American” was disputed due to heightened 1840s immigration. Without getting too deeply into the theoretical “weeds” about nationalism, I’m not sure it’s an appropriate term or applicable to understand what sense of belonging or attachments existed in the south, then or now. Perhaps, the question could be “was Southern sectionalism enough” (rather than nationalism) to sustain and overcome the South’s other weaknesses?
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
This is an intriguing discussion, but I think part of the problem is the premise of the question complicates it: was there even an American nationalism that Southerners might draw from? As someone else noted, the heterogenous construction of American society before the war hindered nationalism, certainly it hindered it in the shape and evolution evident elsewhere, for example in Europe. American nativism, however, was virulent in the pre-war era, so even defining “American” was disputed due to heightened 1840s immigration. Without getting too deeply into the theoretical “weeds” about nationalism, I’m not sure it’s an appropriate term or applicable to understand what sense of belonging or attachments existed in the south, then or now. Perhaps, the question could be “was Southern sectionalism enough” (rather than nationalism) to sustain and overcome the South’s other weaknesses?
I agree, one of the many unintended consequences of the Civil War was a sense of nationalism that had not existed before. An example of that was George Thomas’ reply to a question about the layout of a cemetery. He told the Chaplin in charge to mix’em up, we’ve had quite enough of state’s rights.

Here in Tennessee, the CSA never maintained sovereignty long enough to create firm bonds. Whenever the CSA abandoned an area of the state soldiers went home.

In any case, as Stephens declared in his keystone speech, a state created to preserve the right to hold human beings as property was balancing a a very narrow base to begin with.
 

A. Roy

Sergeant Major
Forum Host
Joined
Sep 2, 2019
Location
Raleigh, North Carolina
I was thinking about this thread earlier today, and what comes to mind for me is that perhaps the situation in the southern Confederacy was so tumultuous during its four years that there wasn't much of an opportunity for a strong and coherent national identity to develop. Maybe the leaders of the Confederacy and its states and its armies, and many of its citizens had a desire to develop and sustain a new nation, but there just weren't enough time and resources during the struggle to establish a lasting and stable nationalism. It's just a thought.

I don't know everything about the governorship of Zebulon B. Vance here in North Carolina, but I have read something of his history, and I came across his letter of 22 Sept. 1864 to his friend and former governor David L. Swain. Vance was lamenting the apparent unwillingness of citizens in Georgia to undertake guerilla action against Gen. Sherman's forces. In part, Vance wrote:

"It shows what I have always believed that the great popular heart is not now & never has been in this war! It was a revolution of the politicians not the people; was fought at first by the natural enthusiasm of our young men, and has been kept agoing by state & sectional pride assisted by that bitterness of feeling produced by the cruelties & brutalities of the enemy."

Roy B.
 
Top