Considering Confederate Nationalism

Drew Gilpin Faust, The Creation of Confederate Nationalism: Ideology and Identity in the Civil War South. Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1988.

Now 25+ years old, this collection of essays was originally delivered by Drew Gilpin Faust, (then a professor at Penn, now president of Harvard), as part of the Walter Lynwood Fleming Lectures.  In the year following the lecture series, Faust made some revisions and a few expansions here and there.  This slim (just over 100 pages including the index) volume contains four essays as well as a concluding section.  Faust asks some fascinating questions about the nature of nationalism within the Confederacy, including how can such nationalism exist in the first place, how was God invoked in relation to Confederate politics, and issues of slavery reform.

Faust begins her series with “the problem of Confederate nationalism,” pointing out that the most explanations as to why the Confederacy lost focus on ideology.  At the time of the lecture (spring 1987), Faust pointed out that the problem of southern nationalism was not much more understood than it had been since the early 1960s after David Potter laid in with concerns about whether such national claims were, indeed valid (2-3).  Her essay captures, through a variety of sources, how southerners sought to create images of unity and nationalism in the 1860s.  Faust’s point is that one must examine the process and structure of southern nationalism, not whether it was “genuine” vs. “spurious” (6).  Using everything from journalist’s articles to a hair sculpture constructed of locks of dozens of Confederate generals’ hair (8,9) Faust helps readers see how creating a national presence was conscience and key to Confederate success.  More than that however, Faust emphasizes that southerners identified with the American Revolution deeply, believing that Confederate nationalism was equivalent to that of the original thirteen states – true American nationalism, was the right and tradition of the Confederacy (14).  Faust makes important observations about the limitations of the national effort – with limited or no media (type, engravers, etc) how can you sell the images and story of nationalism?

I won’t belabor the point with examples from each essay: there are considerations of why southern nationalism must be correct because of the moral failings of the United States, the nature of avarice as a sin for the Confederacy, and of course Confederate ideology of slavery vs. reality.  Faust smoothly and capably interjects her sources (letters, newsprint media, songs, and more), clearly making her case that there were intellectual as well as community or social limitations faced in creating a nationalist doctrine (82-85).  Ultimately, Faust concludes, Confederate nationalism suffered from a prescribed unity that couldn’t work as the region failed to understand “those emergent social frictions that nationalism and national identity did much to foster” (eg, republicanism, evangelicalism, nationalist doctrines, 84).  For students and budding historians alike, dipping into any of these essays can reveal much about the history of how the Confederacy viewed itself.

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