Academic journal article Civil War History

"A Profound National Devotion": The Civil War Union Leagues and the Construction of a New National Patriotism

Academic journal article Civil War History

"A Profound National Devotion": The Civil War Union Leagues and the Construction of a New National Patriotism

Article excerpt

In December 1863, the Atlantic Monthly carried an unusual and striking narrative. The anonymous article told of the life and recent death of Philip Nolan, a young officer in the Western Division of the early-nineteenth-century army. An accomplice in the schemes of Aaron Burr, Nolan was convicted of playing a minor role in a treasonous plot. At his sentencing he was asked if he had anything to say that might suggest his abiding loyalty to the United States. But the young officer was tired of the service; he was tired of orders; he was tired of the trial, which seemed to drag on and on. In a "fit of frenzy," Nolan cried out, "Damn the United States! I wish I may never hear of the United States again!" (1) The presiding colonel was terribly shocked. He withdrew from the room. Returning minutes later "with a face like a sheet," the colonel granted Nolan's wish. He would never, by the authority of the court, hear the name of the United States again. Nolan spent the next fifty-five years on a series of naval vessels. The crews on those ships were forbidden to speak to him of the United States; the ships never docked at home until he was transferred to a new vessel. Deprived of a homeland, Nolan slowly and painfully learned the true worth of his country. He missed it more than his friends or family, more than art or music or love or nature. Without it, he was nothing. (2)

On his deathbed in 1863, Nolan was visited in his cabin by an officer on board the vessel. As the officer later reported, the cabin had been transformed into "a little shrine." The stars and stripes were draped around a picture of Washington. Over his bed Nolan had painted an eagle, with lightening "blazing from his beak" and his claw grasping the globe. At the foot of his bed was a dated map of the old territories. Turning to his visitor, Nolan smiled. "Here, you see, I have a country!" (3) Thus Philip Nolan became "the man without a country," and Civil War Americans learned a new way to envision their relationship with the nation: only through a collective national identity could one realize "self and freedom." Or, as the Reverend Joseph Fransioli argued in an 1863 sermon that later became a widely circulated pamphlet, "Deny the duty of loving your country, and you deny your own feelings; you deny mankind itself." (4)

As some but not all readers later discovered, there was no Philip Nolan. The article was in reality a short story written by Edward Everett Hale, Unitarian minister, member of the Boston Union Club, and executive board member of the New England Loyal Publication Society. Distressed by the war weariness and defeatism that had descended on the North, Hale had written the story to teach his readers the importance of loyalty to country. He intended that the story be read as fact and was upset when, through an editorial oversight, his name appeared in the index. Fiction or nonfiction, Hale's message struck a chord for a people struggling to understand the place of the nation in their lives. Within a year of its original publication, reprinted editions of "A Man Without a Country" sold half a million copies, and the story quickly earned a reputation as a minor classic. (5)

Although Hale was the sole author of this patriotic parable, his message was part of a larger mission assumed by the elite metropolitan Union Leagues in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. Begun as gentlemen's clubs in the midst of the social chaos generated by sectional conflict and civil war, these leagues quickly acquired a more complex character. The leagues brought an embattled intellectual and professional elite together with powerful business interests in a coalition to rally support for the Union and strengthen the national state. They constructed a new national patriotism on two distinct levels. First, through the creative appropriation of an upper-class institution, League founders hoped to cultivate a nationalist patriotism among the metropolitan elite, forging a cohesive upper class in the process. …

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