Nations of American Rebels: Understanding Nationalism in Revolutionary North America and the Civil War South

By Carp, Benjamin L. | Civil War History, March 2002 | Go to article overview

Nations of American Rebels: Understanding Nationalism in Revolutionary North America and the Civil War South


Carp, Benjamin L., Civil War History


Men have fought to overturn their government on two major occasions in American history: the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. The Revolutionaries of 1774-83 and the Confederates of 1860-65 declared independence from oppressive governments they perceived as having failed to protect their rights. Men and women of these rebellions claimed a distinctive, new identity, and soldiers took up arms by the thousands to redress their grievances. Many of them failed to return home--no other wars have inflicted as great a proportion of casualties on the American populace. The complexities of motivation, mobilization, support, loyalty, internal conflict, identity, and ideology have troubled historians for decades. Yet no question is as puzzling as the degree to which those who seceded from their nation's governments had developed a nationality of their own.

This essay argues that nationalism flourished during the two wars to a greater extent than historians typically admit, and analyzes its characteristics among Patriots of the 1770s and Confederates of the 1860s. Historians of the Civil War might benefit from a closer look at the Revolutionary period, while scholars of the Revolution might learn from debates on the question of Confederate nationalism. By looking at these two instances in which Americans attempted to secede, scholars can better identify the problems inherent in nation building, identity formation, and conceptions of politics, dissent, federalism, and sovereignty. Such a comparison also discourages the evaluation of national identity based on victory or defeat, while reaffirming the importance of protecting interests against outside threats in the formation of that identity.

This type of comparison is obviously vulnerable to criticism. The apple of Revolutionary nationalism may seem irrelevant to the orange of Confederate nationalism, and neither may resemble more modern incarnations. Two periods of history inherently have such vastly different contexts, issues, and circumstances that they may be incommensurable; thus the specter of anachronism haunts every turn. We might argue that French aid was the only thing that saved the Revolutionaries, who had rapidly cobbled together their American unity and identity in the space of two years. The Confederates, on the other hand, withstood thousands of casualties in support of a Southern identity they had fostered over the course of at least a generation. Nationalism was a better-developed phenomenon in the nineteenth century than the eighteenth, and the Confederates self-consciously built upon the Patriots' precedent (as did the supporters of the Union). With these qualifications in mind, this essay focuses on the similarities between the processes of secession, mobilization, and nation building during the two conflicts.

Scholars have disagreed on the definition of nationalism. For the purposes of this essay, nationalism (whether an ideology or a political practice) is a voluntary, collective identification with a nation and a commitment to that nation. This concept draws on Benedict Anderson's description of a nation as "an imagined political community ... both inherently limited and sovereign." He adds, "regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings." (1)

Patriots and Confederates did a great deal of both killing and dying as they undertook the twin tasks of separation and nation building. In the process, their nationalism had two facets: centrifugal separation and centripetal unity. After reviewing the literature on these two wars, this essay will address a series of related topics. First, it evaluates the benefits of analyzing nationalism in terms of interests rather than culture. …

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