Disaffection, Persistence, and Nation: Some Directions in Recent Scholarship on the Confederacy

Article excerpt

Thirty years have passed since Emory M. Thomas's The Confederate Nation, 1861-1865 appeared on the historiographical landscape. Some of its themes had been present in his earlier The Confederacy as Revolutionary Experience, and together the two books heralded the emergence of a major figure in the field. (1) Factors weakening the Confederacy loomed larger than evidence of Rebel persistence or strength in the scholarly literature at that time, but Thomas took seriously the idea of national sentiment in the seceding states. When defeat apparently stalked the slaveholding republic in the spring of 1862 and "their national experiment seemed almost a failure, Confederate Southerners began to respond to their circumstances by redefining themselves--or, more precisely, by defining themselves as a national people." The cruel pressures of war obliged them to "define themselves in deeds. Accordingly the Confederacy acted out its national destiny." Destiny took Rebel armies to Appomattox and Durham Station, final stops on a road marked by catastrophic human and material loss, class struggle, debates about civil liberties, and wrangling over a 'Mate rights political philosophy" that gave way as pressures mounted to establish "a centralized, national state." In the end, "ex-Confederates who accepted defeat and reunion were often unable to accept the consequences of being a vanquished people." (2)

David Williams's Bitterly Divided: The South's Inner Civil War traverses much of the same ground as Thomas's work, offering a convenient point of departure to consider the trajectory of recent scholarship on the Confederacy. The author or editor of four previous books dealing with various aspects of Confederate history, Williams complains that generations of historians have emphasized the war "waged with the North" rather than exploring how the "South was torn apart by a violent inner civil war, a war no less significant to the Confederacy's fate than its more widely known struggle against the Yankees." Resolutely focused on that "inner civil war," Bitterly Divided creates an impression of overwhelming internal fracturing that renders the presence of U.S. armies strangely irrelevant. Across a chaotic home front, men and women of the "plain folk" join black and native minorities, arraying themselves against selfish slaveholders who somehow manage to fight a four-year war while also avoiding direct military service. "Most responsible for the Confederacy's creation," the planter class "excused themselves from the draft in various ways, then grew far too much cotton and tobacco and not nearly enough food. Soldiers went hungry, as did their families back home. Women defied Confederate authorities by staging food riots from Richmond, Virginia, to Galveston, Texas. Desertion and draft evasion became commonplace.... Many deserters joined guerrilla bands.... which controlled vast areas of the southern countryside." Native Americans also "increasingly resisted Confederate authority," and African Americans, especially slaves, did their best to undermine the war effort. "From its beginnings, the Confederate cause lacked support from a majority of southerners," concludes Williams, and that, "to a great extent, explains why it was lost." (3)

Two questions come immediately to mind regarding Bitterly Divided. First, does it make a fresh contribution methodologically, evidentially, or analytically? This can be answered with a simple no--though, quite remarkably, a starred review in Publisher's Weekly predicted the book "will be a revelation even to professional historians" because Williams pulls together "the latest scholarship with his own research" to expose "the deep, often murderous divisions in Southern society." With Williams's "long overdue work" at hand, enthused this individual, "the history of the Civil War will never be the same again." (4) Bitterly Divided cites no manuscripts, includes fewer than ten references to the Official Records, quotes from only a handful of other published primary materials, and relies overwhelmingly on secondary materials that emphasize Confederate disaffection. …