Simms and the Civil War: The Revolutionary Analogy

By Watson, Charles S. | The Southern Literary Journal, Spring 1992 | Go to article overview

Simms and the Civil War: The Revolutionary Analogy


Watson, Charles S., The Southern Literary Journal


In the first part of his career, William Gilmore Simms, the leading novelist of the antebellum South, commemorated the great war for independence by recounting exciting battles and heroic deeds. (1) After the sectional conflict worsened, he retained his principal subject, but with a radical difference. Now he used the American Revolution to guide the South in its fateful conflict with the North. He drew a parallel with the present in each of his last Revolutionary novels as one critical issue after another arose: the Compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act, Secession, and, following the Civil War, the Lost Cause.

It has long been suspected that Simms was indirectly commenting on the present in his last Revolutionary novels, but demonstration of this theory has been lacking. Heretofore, scholars have mentioned briefly, but without elaboration, the Revolutionary analogy in Simms's novels. William R. Taylor, noting that South Carolina orators compared current crises with the Revolution in 1844, 1850, and 1860, concluded that Simms likened conflicting loyalties in Katharine Walton (1850) to those experienced by Southerners during the debate over the Compromise of 1850. According to J. V. Ridgel Simms in the same novel identified Revolutionary patriots with rebellious South Carolinians of the 1850s. C. Hugh Holman wrote that Simms, used the Revolutionary novel in the decade before the Civil War to rally South Carolinians to "their embattled traditions and institutions." (2)

What is lacking in these valid but brief statements is an examination of all of Simms's last Revolutionary novels in their contemporary contexts in order to grasp the specific timeliness of each. When they are analyzed in the light of succeeding sectional crises, it becomes clear that Simms is responding to each with a relevant depiction of the American Revolution. He exhorts Southerners to follow the precedent of that great conflict in each of his last Revolutionary novels from 1850 to 1866: Katharine Walton (1850), Woodcraft (1852), The Forayers (1855), Eutaw (1856), and Joscelyn (1866).

Simms explicitly recognized the parallel between the Revolution and the present in the pages of the Southern Quarterly Review, the leading political journal of the South, which he edited from 1849 to 1855. In reviewing the Fourth of July oration by his friend the secessionist William Porcher Miles, delivered in 1849, he praised the speaker for stressing the "parallel" between the Revolution and events of the present. He ridiculed those who objected to remarks on the current crisis in a speech recalling the past. "We were required to enjoy an unmixed sentiment of pride and triumph in past achievements, without any regard to the present cares and anxietes. As if this were possible!" What better use of the anniversary of "American freedom" could be made, he asked, than "habitually to compare its objects and acquisitions with the degree of security which we enjoy under its supposed guarantees" at present? (3)

In an article on the Southern Convention, which was called to discuss the Compromise of 1850, Simms pointedly compared the Revolution to the present. Just as it had required the colonies twenty years, from 175 6 to 1776, to assemble for a general meeting, it had taken the Southern states an equal number of years, from 1830 to 1850. He further compared the relations between the colonies and Great Britain to those between the Southern and the Northern states. "So far, the history of our relations with the Northern states is a precise counterpart of the case of the whole of the colonies of Great Britain prior to 1776, with the mother country." In both cases, he pointed out, there had been "unjust legislation and continual encroachment" of the stronger upon the weaker. (4)

Taking inspiration from the Revolution was by no means confined to issues of the Southern Quarterly Review. The widespread expression of this sentiment permeates the Fourth of July celebrations of the time. …

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