Dixie’s War: The Historiography of the Confederate States of America

The American Civil War is a subject that brings to mind images of soldiers in blue and gray lining up and firing at one another, the heroic and gallant military commanders on horseback commanding from the front, and political titans such as Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis guiding the course of the war from their respective capitals. It was an event which captivates American memory, but it is often an event which has become simplified in the public’s mind as well as in popular culture. The abolitionist North fought for freeing the slaves, while the misguided South fought over state’s rights and slavery. However, the Civil War was much more nuanced than is popularly believed, and in reality, the Confederate States of America—nor the United States of America for that matter—were not a unified monolith. The Southern Confederacy was in fact deeply divided throughout the Civil War. This time period within the South has been covered in different ways in the last fifty years. Emory Thomas’ 1979 The Confederate Nation: 1861-1865 provides an excellent bedrock for the historiography of the Confederate States, offering a concise and detailed history of the entire short-lived country. George Rable’s 1994 The Confederate Republic: A Revolution Against Politics builds upon the work of Emory Thomas’ work, narrowing his focus on the political world in Richmond during the American Civil War, as well as the phenomena of Southern nationalism. Finally, William Freehling’s 2002 The South vs. The South: How Anti-Confederate Southerners Shaped the Course of the Civil War examines the conflict and the Southern Confederacy within the border states, an addition which builds on Thomas’ overall history and Rable’s political history. It focuses on a region which is often not explored within the context of the Confederacy. These texts all provide a glimpse into this internal conflict and political situation in the South during the Civil War. From the border states of Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri, to the internal political machinations of the newborn Confederacy, and to the disaffection the actions of Richmond caused within the country, we can see how historians have explored this largely unknown chapter of the American Civil War, which is often ignored for the more popular military histories that dominate the subject.

The earliest text to be examined in exploring the historiography of the Confederate States of America is Emory Thomas’ The Confederate Nation: 1861-1865, a work which thoroughly discusses the political and military situation facing the Southern Confederacy during the years immediately preceding and during the American Civil War. Thomas in his work seeks to answer several questions, first and foremost being why the South lost the conflict despite the advantages he sees within it. For example, outside of the military aspects of the war, Thomas argues that the Southern nationalism among whites was greater than Northern nationalism was among their equivalents in that region of the country. Instead, Thomas explores how different factors, from the failures of the South to gain international support for the institution of slavery to the corruption of those in and out of government as well as countless other reasons for the loss of the Confederacy.[1] Thomas for a historian of his time appears to be following an interpretation that would be found closer to the present than in the 1970s, a time just shortly after the Civil Rights Movement came to an end, and as the common interpretation of the war was being challenged. Here, the historian examines the conflict not just from a perspective of the rise of Southern nationalism, but also the economic, political, and social reasons for the failed existence of the Southern Confederacy. This holistic approach is a bedrock to future examinations of the Confederate States of America, for which future authors such as George Rable and William Freehling built their historiographic contributions on. Without Thomas’ work, this understanding of the South in the early-1860s would be lacking, and instead the common myths perpetuated by “Lost Cause” supporters would have been more powerful.

It is of no surprise that Thomas starts his narrative of Confederate history in 1859, a year in which he gives great importance in his text, and for which he uses to provide the reader with the context of the South’s economy, its relationship with the North, and to recognize that year as a turning point. Two major figures are used as parallels to one another to depict the state of the country during this time period, the first being Virginia planter and agricultural scientist Edmund Ruffin, and the other radical abolitionist John Brown. These two men could not be any different, but in Thomas’ narrative style, these two men represent where the United States was, and where it is going. As Ruffin lamented that Southern independence was a failed cause near the end of his life, Brown launched his infamous raid at Harpers Ferry. Both men were radicals on opposing sides of a political issue. Although Brown failed in his ultimate task to ignite a slave revolt, he did light the match that would start the American Civil War in just a year and a half.[2] Through Edmund Ruffin, Thomas fully explores the mindset of the planter class, their yearning for Southern independence, and how their actions ignited the flames of Southern nationalism, which he describes as if it were a religion, and not a political ideology.[3] The author makes a valuable addition to the story of the American South by showing the different lives of these two radicals, and showing just how far secessionism was entrenched in white Southern society, while in Northern society, abolitionism did not have nearly as much a stranglehold.

Class in the Southern Confederacy is a major point of discussion early on in Emory Thomas’ text, and describes the disparity among Southern whites—not to mention the disparity between whites and blacks—that existed in the region. According to the statistics laid out by the historian, “Still, in 1860, there were 1.5 million heads of families in the South, and of these only 46,000 met the rule-of-thumb criteria for planter status: land and twenty or more slaves. Only about one-fourth of the South’s heads of families in 1860 owned any slaves at all, and of these an estimated 60 percent owned no more than five.”[4] Thomas uses the pre-war South to lay the groundwork for the political, economic, and social situation facing the region during the Civil War. In placing emphasis on planter Edmund Ruffin and later on the class disparity among Southern whites, the author plants the seeds for later discontent within the Confederacy at wartime. This class disparity within the Confederacy has its origins in the economic nature of the South prior to the war, with industrialization of the mostly agricultural society becoming an extremely so process. According to Thomas, this was because the planters could make more money off of slavery and the products made by that institution.[5] This was to the detriment of other white Southerners who were not landed and did not own slaves. Already, before the war even begins, the Confederacy has a significant class divide between the wealthy planters who profit from slavery, poor whites who lack opportunities to advance because of the lack of industrialization, and black slaves, who toil on the land, face family separations, and often even worse from those who hold them in bondage. Thomas clearly and methodically explores class before the war and contributes to the historiography the context around why class played a large role during the conflict. In fact, a significant portion of the dissent within the Confederacy is based on class, the wealthy planters often benefitting from war profiteering and avoiding conscription while everyone else suffered in some way, shape, or form.

Although Thomas does well do describe the economic and political conditions of the Confederacy, he does end up taking a deep dive into the military defeats that were interspersed with the increasingly rare military victories that came to the South. Despite this, the author manages to create a good balance that is necessary in fully understanding the state of the Southern Confederacy. In between extremely riveting descriptions of Confederate military losses in Kentucky and Missouri in the months following the First Bull Run, he then shifts the lenses of his text to the everyday goings-on in Richmond and within the halls of the Confederate Congress. He then further explores the South’s issues with supplies, not just for the military but also for the civilian population, including on the food markets. Prices doubled and, in some cases, even tripled on products such as coffee, flour, and butter.[6] Thomas skillfully combines reports on the Confederate economy and supply issues with the military campaigns of the war as well as the political intrigue of Richmond and the relationships between each of the states, weaving a complicated portrait of the South during the American Civil War.

Historian George Rable, meanwhile, takes the discussion of the Southern Confederacy in an entirely new direction in The Confederate Republic: A Revolution Against Politics, which explores political life within the South during the American Civil War. Continuing Emory Thomas’ work in exploring Southern nationalism, Rable states that “Confederate politics has hardly been a neglected topic in Civil War history. Biographies and monographs have probed the operations of the Confederate government, analyzed the conflicts between Jefferson Davis and his critics… Yet there has been no comprehensive work on Confederate politics itself because historians have generally neglected the interplay of ideology and practical politics during the war.”[7] Rable contributes greatly to the historiography of the Southern Confederacy, moving away from Thomas’ general history of the war and instead narrowing the focus to political life in the South during the American Civil War. There is no great military narrative or even a deep dive into the economics of the South, but instead a body of research dedicated to exploring the political structures and life in the Confederate States. Although this does remove some of the context that a historian like Emory Thomas could provide, the narrow focus allows the reader to fully immerse themselves in the subject area, and it allows Rable in particular to add a new perspective to the largely ignored historiography of the Confederate States of America.

Perhaps the most fascinating area that Rable explores are the internal politics of the Confederacy during wartime, especially in the period after the struggle to establish a constitution and a new government in Richmond. In the early fall of 1862—almost a year and a half since the American Civil War began—the war prospects of the Confederacy were significantly improving. Here Rable explores how before, during, and after the Battle of Antietam, President Davis grappled with political chaos within the country. The increasing power of Richmond and the centralization of power within the capital infuriated the states, as did the conscription laws which were often severe for most people except for the wealthy aristocracy. At one point after Antietam, government officials in Texas even considered secession from the Confederacy. As a result of the battle and the response in Texas, the central government of the Southern Confederacy grew even more powerful, taking with it what little power the states already had.[8] Rable contributes to the historiography of the Confederate States of America through this deep dive into the time period around the Battle of Antietam in late-1862, illustrating the relationship between Richmond, the states within the Confederacy, and the people of the country who often suffered at the hands of this centralization of power. Whereas Thomas gives a holistic approach to the Confederacy’s history, exploring every facet of the country’s brief history, Rable’s research narrows down to the relationship of power between the central government and the states, and how it influenced the course of the war.

Southern religion and the fall of the Confederacy are also explored by George Rable, especially as it relates to the end of the American Civil War and the downfall of the Southern Confederacy and ties into religion. In October 1864, just months before the fall of Richmond and the end of the war, President Davis issued a proclamation of national worship to affirm their faith in God, and to ask for him to intercede on the South’s behalf in the twilight months of the war. In addition to reflecting the desperation of the central government and the political culture of the country, it also contributes to rising Southern nationalism that engulfed the region after the conflict. The role of religion played a role in this trend, and according to Rable this call to prayer was meant to urge God to help restore the South to the economic and social tranquility of the antebellum period.[9] As if it were a common theme running through texts exploring the Confederacy, the author then takes a deep dive into the issues of desertion and the conscription laws, noting how even as the army appeared to dissolve before the Union forces in late-1864 and early-1865 the central government failed to take into account the mistakes of the past. Davis refused to extend conscription laws to all classes and threatened to use even more force to destroy any signs of dissent from newspapers and politicians.[10] In his contribution to the historiography, George Rable manages to explore many of the issues which Emory Thomas explores, yet from the perspective of the ruling political class in the capital, from religion, nationalism, the fall of the Confederacy, supply, and conscription. This is valuable as it shows the relationship between the seat of power in the South, and the failures of the Confederacy to wage a successful war effort.

Southern nationalism was one of the major impacts of the war that had staying power even after the conflict. Although this nationalism had its origins in the antebellum period as the product of increasing sectionalism between the different regions of the United States of America—something which Rable does explore—the text pinpoints the true origins of this phenomena to 1861 and the construction of the Confederate government. The use of symbols, patriotism, and the development of a political culture all contributed to the development of Southern nationalism. However, Rable states specifically that “The Confederate Constitution stood as a point of pride, a perfection of republicanism rightly understood. Building on the work of the American founding fathers, the delegates of the Montgomery convention had applied the lessons of recent political history…from these beginnings there grew a nationalist political culture—perhaps best reflected in the quiet dignity of the 1861 state and national elections—that emphasized the importance of political and social unity.”[11] In addition to the development of a nationalist political culture, this nationalism also spread through society at large through newspapers, churches, and schools, propagated by journalists, preachers, and teachers, respectively. Despite this unity among Southern loyalists in the Confederacy, the war was still lost, but this peculiar form of nationalism survived. From Rable’s perspective, it is necessary to understand Southern nationalism to understand the Confederacy and indeed the South after the war. Although a significant portion of this nationalism was created during wartime, its continuation afterwards is seen by Rable to be seen as nothing short of being a support of the “Lost Cause” mythology that developed around that country.[12] Throughout his text, George Rable built on Emory Thomas’ research, contributing to the latter’s holistic approach to the Confederacy a deep exploration into the political class of the South and the development of Southern nationalism, both vital in understanding this region and period of time during the American Civil War.

In William Freehling’s The South vs. The South: How Anti-Confederate Southerners Shaped the Course of the Civil War, the author explores the largely unexplored internal conflicts that plagued the Confederate States of America throughout the American Civil War. This work by Freehling is the most recently researched and written of the three sources being used to explore the historiography of divisions within the Confederacy and is the most well-rounded and interdisciplinary. The author methodically explores first the divisions in the border states and then divisions within the Southern Confederacy itself. Most fascinating was his examination of Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri, three of the four border states which at one point or another were forced to decide over whether or not to support the United States or the Confederate States. While Freehling argues that while a military history of the conflict is necessary and fascinating, a true history of the conflict must “illuminate the home front. Events beyond the battlefields partially determined military verdicts. Furthermore, home front and battlefront, when their stories became intertwined, unveil defining aspects of Civil War America, beyond the soldiers’ ordeals.”[13] Although he does concentrate on military aspects of the war, Freehling also explores the home front as well as the causes of this division within the pre-war South. For good measure, the border states are explored in depth, President Jefferson Davis and others in the Confederacy and within these states considered them to be Confederate and occupied by the United States of America. When Freehling writes of the South waging war against the South, he does not just mean the internal political divisions, but he also means the states who fought for and against the Confederacy, such as the aforementioned border states. Freehling’s position within the context of the historiography of the Confederate States of America is fascinating and is the most recent of the authors explores. Whereas Emory Thomas’ history takes a holistic approach in exploring every feasible angle of the Confederacy’s existence, and George Rable’s work takes a deep dive into the political machinations of the Southern Confederacy and the rise of Southern nationalism, William Freehling devises a history that examines the home front as well as the Confederacy’s desperate struggle to survive the American Civil War. Although Thomas and Rable do discuss the border states, Freehling truly takes a deep interest in the region and contributes to the historiography of the Confederacy, building on Thomas’ work.

The role of the border states in the American Civil War is vital in understanding not just the military aspects of the conflict, but also the divisions within the South and the Confederate States of America. Their role was vital in determining the early campaigns of the conflict, Maryland especially so as if they had seceded, Washington D.C. would have been surrounded. For this reason, Freehling argues that “As the war began, Lincoln considered Border South neutrality as malignant as disunion. Yet Lincoln treated the malign with remarkable tact.”[14] Unlike the other texts, Freehling moves beyond the Southern Confederacy itself and treats the issues in the border states as if they were the domestic issues of the Confederacy. Although Maryland quickly acquiesced and remained loyal to the United States of America, and Delaware did the same albeit more peacefully, the other two border states provided much more in terms of trouble with the issues of slavery and secession. Kentucky in particular “was the most enslaved and thus the most divided Border South state… [and] in contrast contained almost 20 percent slaves, less than 1 percent free blacks, and more slaveholders than any other southern state except Georgia and Virginia.”[15] The border states would provide for a significant amount of divisions within Southern and Confederate society. Although their war would not necessarily impact the Confederacy as internal troubles would in the Deep South and in other regions, Freehling nonetheless chooses to explore this as it contributes to the divisions in the South.

Although the Confederate States of America never truly had control over the border states, rarely penetrating into Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland after 1861, President Jefferson Davis considered his fellow slave states to be a part of the Southern Confederacy. Freehling appropriately discusses how Davis—like Lincoln—was obsessed with gaining the border states and bringing them into the fold. States such as Missouri and Kentucky possessed pro-secession governments that lacked the popular support of their state governments, and the Confederacy at their behest in 1862 attempted to march in as liberators. Freehling explains that when General Robert E. Lee invaded Maryland and attempted to foment a slaver’s revolt near Harpers Ferry in western Virginia that just as there were too few slaves for John Brown to stage a revolt, there were “too few masters to mass behind a slaveholders’ army.”[16] Attempts to integrate the border states into the Confederacy failed spectacularly. The Battle of Antietam was enough proof that Maryland was now loyal to the United States, as were other engagements across Missouri and Kentucky that guaranteed their loyalty to the Union by the end of 1862. Although there were pro-Confederate Southerners in Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri, Davis failed in almost every respect to establish a Confederate government in any of these states. Freehling pays important attention to these border states, an issue which Emory Thomas does not discuss much, and which George Rable barely mentions in their respective texts. Instead, Freehling contributes to the historiography of the Confederacy a unique perspective of the border states. Legally, the Confederacy saw these four entities as being a part of their nation, treating campaigns in the region as attempts to liberate their fellow citizens as opposed to the reality of them simply being an invading force. Therefore, unlike Rable and Thomas, Freehling views Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, and even Delaware as vital in understanding the Confederate States of America, as the South considered these states to be part of their newborn nation.

The desperate struggle for survival for the Confederate States of America in the final months of the country’s existence is depicted by Freehling as a chaotic period of time. The war had shifted from the border states and Virginia down into the heart of the South. The fall of Vicksburg in July 1863 cut the country in two, and General William T. Sherman in late-1864 sliced through the heart of Georgia, dividing what remained of the Confederacy east of the Mississippi River. Freehling discusses one person in particular who was instrumental in these final months, an Irishman who fought with General Joseph E. Johnson’s Army of Tennessee. In the waning months of the war, Patrick Cleburne made a radical proposal before Johnson and his officers and suggested that in this desperate situation, freedom should be offered to any black man who would be willing to raise up arms for the Confederacy. There was no doubt that this proposal was built into the increasing need for more able-bodied men, and with no help coming from Richmond, Cleburne found it to be a necessary sacrifice. Reaction to the proposal was mixed, some officers agreeing with it, but with Southern nationalism in place and seeking to continue the institution of slavery, and with wealthy planters unwilling to give up their slaves or provide room to any threat to their power, Cleburne’s proposal fell on deaf ears.[17] The Irishman’s suggestion was from a military perspective sound, the cultural fears that had existed in the South for generations of slaves being armed as well as the Confederate government’s immobility on the issue of conscription helped to tighten the noose around the country, guaranteeing its imminent collapse. Although Freehling’s history of the South during the American Civil War is primarily interested in the military campaigns that took place in the border states, his research also expands in both Thomas’ and Rable’s works, providing a deeper context into the final months of the Confederacy and the desperation which appeared to grip the South during that time period.

In a chapter of Freehling’s book entitled “The Harvest” the author explores the role of the war effort on the Confederacy, in particular how the Union’s active attempts to cause division not just in the border states but in the South proper were succeeding. In addition to escaped slaves being put to work in service of the United States, inflation and the blockade of the South as part of General Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan helped to squeeze the Confederacy’s war effort. In one instance, “wild inflation in Confederate prices turned one-penny candy into a one-dollar treat. A savage depreciation in slave prices simultaneously drove a prime field hand’s market value down ten times. As poverty spread, bread riots afflicted rebel cities and semistarvation depleted Robert E. Lee’s army.”[18] In addition to the economics of the Confederacy severely impacting the people and causing mass starvation, the war also created divisions among the Southern people. Multiple counties in the Deep South were in outright rebellion against the Confederacy within a year of Fort Sumter being fired on, with “Draft dodgers, draft rioters, and army deserters especially abounded in the white belt areas of Lower South states, including Jones County in southeastern Mississippi…Jackson County in northeastern Alabama…and the Wiregrass region of southeastern Georgia.”[19] It is clear through Freehling’s writings that the Southern Confederacy as a country was deeply and bitterly divided on the homefront, and that he has explored a subject in great detail that is often left unexplored due to the public’s and even historian’s fascination with military history and the battles of the American Civil War. From the border states of Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri, to the campaigns in the Upper South and the desperation that faced the Confederacy in its final months, Freehling offers a new chapter in the historiography of the American South during the conflict, and its domestic policies which had just as great an impact as the military triumphs and defeats.

The homefront for the Confederate States of America has been treated differently by historians over the last few decades. Emory Thomas’ 1979 The Confederate Nation: 1861-1865 provides an example of the South’s history during this time period. His work creates a bedrock upon which all the works after him follows, from the attention to the overall history of the Confederacy to the details involving the economy, politics, supply, and Southern nationalism. Historian George Rable’s 1994 The Confederate Republic: A Revolution Against Politics discusses the Southern Confederacy’s political culture and how it plagued the country from President Jefferson Davis’ centralization of power and its impact and the homefront, as well as the rise of Southern nationalism. Rable builds on Thomas’ work by going into detail on the political world that revolved around Richmond, from Confederate President Jefferson Davis to the Southern nationalists who oversaw the rise and fall of the region during the war. Finally, William Freehling’s 2002 The South vs. The South: How Anti-Confederate Southerners Shaped the Course of the Civil War takes a different approach to the homefront in the Southern Confederacy during the conflict and looks at the border states and tensions within the region throughout the course of the war, from poor whites to escaped black slaves. Whereas Rable takes a decisively political turn, Freehling builds on Thomas through his concentration on the military and the border states, contributing once more to the historiography of the Confederate States of America. These three texts examine just how historians have studied this aspect of the American Civil War over the last fifty years and shows the field’s ability to explore these different forms of viewing the war.

[1] Emory Thomas, The Confederate Nation: 1861-1865 (New York: HarperCollins, 1979), xii.

[2] Thomas, 3.

[3] Thomas, 4.

[4] Thomas, 6.

[5] Thomas, 16.

[6] Thomas, 156.

[7] George Rable, The Confederate Republic: A Revolution Against Politics (The University of North Carolina Press, 1994), 12.

[8] Rable, 185.

[9] Rable, 325.

[10] Rable, 330-331.

[11] Rable, 351.

[12] Rable, 352.

[13] William Freehling, The South vs. The South: How Anti-Confederate Southerners Shaped the Course of the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 2002), 12.

[14] Freehling, 64.

[15] Freehling, 69.

[16] Freehling, 76.

[17] Freehling, 207.

[18] Freehling, 159.

[19] Freehling, 162.

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