Layers of Loyalty: Confederate Nationalism and Amnesty Letters from Western North Carolina

By McKinney, Gordon B. | Civil War History, March 2005 | Go to article overview

Layers of Loyalty: Confederate Nationalism and Amnesty Letters from Western North Carolina


McKinney, Gordon B., Civil War History


In November 1863, North Carolina governor Zebulon B. Vance reported to a correspondent that there was "an astonishing amount of disloyalty" to the Confederacy in the mountain counties of western North Carolina. (1) Problems related to conscription and desertion led Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and other Confederate leaders to reach the same conclusion. Two months later, Vance, a native of western North Carolina, wrote to former North Carolina governor David L. Swain, another western North Carolinian, offering a brief comparison between the patriots of the War for Independence and Southerners during the present conflict. He concluded: "Liberty and independence can only be gathered of blood and misery sustained and fostered by devoted patriotism and heroic manhood. This requires a deep hold on the popular heart, and our people will not pay this price." (2) After Hood's defeats around Atlanta in the summer of 1864, Vance wrote to Swain again and observed that "the great popular heart is not now and never has been in the war. It was a revolution of the politicians; not the people." (3) Thus, the most acute political observer of western North Carolina during the war started part of the great debate about the commitment of Confederates to their new nation.

Modern historians have access to much more written documentation than Vance did when he made his assessments. Essays by Gary W. Gallagher, Drew Gilpin Faust, and Benjamin L. Carp explore the same themes that Vance did and have come to profoundly different conclusions about the nature of Confederate nationalism. They point out the significant and consistent support that the Confederacy enjoyed among the white population of the eleven states of the attempted new nation. Recognizing that some areas of the South were dominated by the opponents of the proposed Southern nation--eastern Tennessee and northwestern Virginia, in particular--they still maintain that a real and substantial Confederate nationalism existed between 1861 and 1865. (4) Other scholars, including Paul Escott, William W. Freehling, and Richard E. Beringer and his colleagues, have concluded with Vance that popular support for the Confederacy was never robust and was eroded by the obtuseness of the Richmond government and military defeat. (5)

While the two schools of scholars appear to disagree considerably, they do share substantial areas of agreement as well. All would agree that white Southerners felt threatened by political and ideological developments that took shape in the nonslave states after 1830. They would also agree that there appeared to be substantial enthusiasm for the Confederate cause after Lincoln's call for troops in April 1861. All these scholars would undoubtedly agree that without the adoption of conscription in April 1862 and unpopular taxing policies, the Davis administration could not have sustained the new government for as long as it did. None of the later observers would dissent from the idea that many Southerners had a strong--and perhaps primary--loyalty to family, neighborhood, and state. Nor is there any real dispute that the Confederate leadership, including Lee, Davis, and Vance, was convinced that desertion seriously weakened the war effort. The differences that the scholars claim to see in the viability of Confederate nationalism come more from disagreements about the significance and meaning of these factors than the events and commitments themselves.

For one group of historians, however, Vance's assertions have a strong resonance. These are the scholars who have concentrated their attention on the mountain South--the area that Vance understood best. Daniel Crofts and William Freehling have amply documented that the people in the highlands, along with others in the upper South, were reluctant Confederates. (6) Some mountain residents such as Andrew Johnson, William G. Brownlow, and the founders of the state of West Virginia were outspoken unionists who refused to accept the idea of a separate Southern nation.

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