Shifting Grounds: Nationalism and the American South, 1848-1865

Shifting Grounds: Nationalism and the American South, 1848-1865

Shifting Grounds: Nationalism and the American South, 1848-1865

Shifting Grounds: Nationalism and the American South, 1848-1865

Synopsis

Between 1848 and 1865 white southerners felt the grounds of nationhood shift beneath their feet. The conflict over slavery that led to the Civil War forced them to confront the difficult problems of nationalism. What made a nation a nation? Could an individual or a group change nationality atwill? What were the rights and responsibilities of national citizenship? Why should nations exist at all?As they contemplated these questions, white southerners drew on their long experience as Americans and their knowledge of nationalism in the wider world. This was true of not just the radical secessionists who shattered the Union in 1861, but also of the moderate majority who struggled to balancetheir southern and American loyalties. As they pondered the changing significance of the Fourth of July, as they fused ideals of masculinity and femininity with national identity, they revealed the shifting meanings of nationalism and citizenship. Southerners also looked across the Atlantic,comparing southern separatism with movements in Hungary and Ireland, and applying the European model of romantic nationalism first to the United States and later to the Confederacy. In the turmoil of war, the Confederacy's national government imposed new, stringent obligations of citizenship, while the shared experience of suffering united many Confederates in a sacred national community of sacrifice. For Unionists, die-hard Confederates, and the large majority torn between thetwo, nationalism became an increasingly pressing problem. In Shifting Grounds Paul Quigley brilliantly reinterprets southern conceptions of allegiance, identity, and citizenship within the contexts of antebellum American national identity and the transatlantic "Age of Nationalism," shedding newlight on the ideas and motivations behind America's greatest conflict.

Excerpt

Between 1848 and 1865, white southerners felt the grounds of nationhood shift beneath their feet. As the conflict over slavery led to secession and civil war, their allegiance was transferred from the United States of America to the Confederate States of America and back again. But it was not only formal political loyalties that changed. the intellectual and cultural grounds of nationhood shifted as well. White southerners were forced to engage more directly than ever before with the problems of nationalism: the problems of collective identity, of political loyalty and the responsibilities of citizenship, of what it meant to be a distinct nation, of why there should be nations at all. They would have been little surprised by the modern conceit of the nation as an invented or constructed artifact. the making and unmaking of nations was part of their daily lives.

Charles Fenton James, a Confederate soldier from Virginia, understood this viscerally. From the trenches near Richmond in February 1865, beleaguered not only by federal troops but also by desertions and desperation among his own comrades, James wrote to his sister with a prescription for Confederate success. in the process, he revealed an understanding of nationalism that was interwoven with the fabric of his life, and hers. the fate of the Confederacy, he told her, rested in the hands of all white southerners. “Let ‘duty before pleasure’ be the motto of all,” he wrote. “There is work for all. There is a responsibility resting upon all and let no one shrink from meeting it.” This appreciation of the responsibilities of citizenship was shaped by the lessons of other times and places. “Edmund Burke,” he explained, citing the eighteenth-century British politician, “said that ‘nations are never murdered but they sometimes commit suicide.’ God forbid that we should be guilty of such folly. Nero fiddled while . . .

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