The Confederate Nation

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

The Confederate Nation marks a significant literary marriage: the uniting of Harper & Row’s always competent New American Nation Series with the writing finesse and insights of Emory M. Thomas, a highly respected authority on the Southern Civil War experience by virtue of his The Confederacy as a Revolutionary Experience, The Confederate State of Richmond: A Biography of the Capital, and other writings. The work constitutes an exciting contribution to our understanding of the South.

Despite the voluminous literature on the Confederacy, Thomas’ study answers a definite historiographical need. New findings in the 1970’s about diverse facets of the Civil War South, such as the wartime deterioration of slavery, structural problems in the Army of Tennessee, and the motivation for secession, require a fresh overview of the “Confederate Nation.” Were such an assimilation of materials all that Thomas’ work achieved, it would be well worth the effort; and though Thomas does present a very competent summary of the Southern wartime experience in its land, sea, diplomatic, political-administrative, and social aspects, his study is most noteworthy for its interpretive flair.

Thomas focuses upon the degree to which the Confederacy succeeded, in its brief history, in becoming a legitimate and distinct nation. To pursue this idea, he begins logically by assessing the roots of Confederate nationality in a substantial three-chapter analysis of the Old South and the secession movement. Although he acknowledges that Southerners were Americans as well as Southerners and that the South constituted a diverse society including a significant yeoman class, he nevertheless aligns himself firmly with that school of historical thought which has defined the antebellum South as a unique part of the United States.

Thomas argues that the Old South constituted “a unique social economy combined with a distinctive ’mind,’ religious spirit, life style, and culture. . . .” He stresses—in the manner of historian Rollin G. Osterweis—how romanticism led to jousting tournaments and appreciation of Sir Walter Scott rather than Northern-style reform movements; how slavery, “physical circumstances,” and a “folk culture” led to militarism, the code duello, and a personal emphasis upon violence which sought expression in the “classically Southern act” of Preston Brooks’s caning of Charles Sumner; how slaveholding undermined the work ethic in the South; how the staple-crop Southern economy retarded industrialization and urbanization; and how a minority status within the Union led to a genuine (rather than merely tactical) appreciation of the states’ rights political philosophy. Thomas agrees with historians such as Eugene D. Genovese who have argued that despite Southern participation in international trade, the Southern mentality was essentially precapitalist. Like Genovese, Thomas emphasizes the paternalistic side of the plantation system: emotions and a sense of responsibility toward one’s slaves interfered with the natural functioning of slave markets, and planters expressed a sense of noblesse oblige “toward their farmer neighbors.” Racial solidarity and self-interest committed most Southern plain folk to a political and economic system dominated by the aristocratic slaveholders. Wilbur J. Cash’s argument that many Southern planters were but a generation removed from the frontier is countered with a reminder that planters believed in the landed aristocratic ideal no matter how coarse their manners, and that they pursued class interests.

Within this schema, secession is presented as an essentially conservative movement intended to preserve a status quo. Thomas concurs with Michael P. Johnson’s recent study of secession in Georgia, which contended that planters controlled the secession movement and that they feared not only the threat from Yankee “money-grubbers” (Thomas’ words) to slavery and racial calm but that they also worried about a potential challenge to slavery from the poorer classes within the South. To prove the conservative implications of secession, Thomas emphasizes that Southern radicals who would have altered society by such programs as reopening the African slave trade did not control the Confederacy. Thus, the notorious radical South Carolina leader, Robert Barnwell Rhett, Sr., could not gain the presidency. The Confederate constitution, moreover, was a conservative document; and Jefferson Davis demonstrated in his inaugural address that the Confederacy was controlled by practical men rather than doctrinaires by stressing that Southerners had not overturned “the system of our Government” despite their invoking the right of revolution to justify their course of action. It is unfortunate that Thomas tarnishes his argument slightly by citing John A. Quitman’s failure to appear in the Mississippi delegation to the Montgomery Convention as part of his evidence that the Confederacy left the radicals behind. Quitman had died over two years earlier.

According to Thomas, the emergence of a distinct Confederate nationality in wartime was the product of adversity on the battlefield during the interim between victory at Bull Run in July, 1861, and the Peninsula campaign near Richmond in the spring of 1862. Most Civil War historians have stressed Union difficulties during this period, particularly George B. McClellan’s problems in mounting a significant threat...

(The entire section is 2239 words.)