Conscription. Nationalization. Industrial growth in the cities. Proletarian labor unrest. Popular resistance against an overbearing government. The fracturing of class structures by the experience of total war.
None of these are trends usually associated with the polity that was the Confederate States of America. And yet, the experience of war made for strange policy bedfellows. In The Confederacy as a Revolutionary Experience, first published in 1971, Emory M. Thomas moved away from the usual debates about political philosophy, or states’ rights. His work approaches the Confederacy as a political reality experienced by millions of Southerners. The work is detailed, well-researched, and objective. As such, his thesis is likely to ruffle feathers amongst partisans of North and South alike. His nuanced investigation of Southern class and social structures, and of their geopolitical interests in North America, will not satisfy the need for moral aggrandizement which modern discussions of the South require. However, he likewise refuses to embrace the “Lost Cause” narratives of many “unreconstructed” Southerners; Thomas views this as a post-war rewriting of the Confederate experience, which decisively transformed many aspects of Southern life. In particular, he firmly rejects the notion that slavery was a marginal rather than a defining consideration of the conflict.
Most importantly, these changes were often distinct from or even contrary to the stated aims of secession to preserve the Southern way of life. The work presents a strong overview of how secession moved from the fringes to the establishment, the ideology behind the project, and the economic, social, and political results of North America’s first total war. This review will examine each of these three major aspects. The Confederacy as a Revolutionary Experience is a vital work for anyone seeking to understand how political projects are achieved, as well as the power of even pre-20th century states to direct and shape the life of a people.
Thomas first tries to define what made the South distinct. The real question, he surmises, is what Southerners believed made them distinct. A number of things arise in Southern thought: states’ rights, agrarian social order, the “peculiar institution” of racial slavery, the sense of an aristocratic heritage and culture, and the existence of particular Southern “habits of mind”. Of course, these traits were in fact shared to varying extents with non-Southern regions, and not all Southerners necessarily participated in all these phenomena. Nevertheless, these were traits prominent within Southern culture and would become unifying ideas in the Southern imagination. This consciousness of distinction would entail first Southern nationalism within the Union and ultimately the idea of secession.
In terms of a political project, secession enjoyed a lifetime from the 1820s until 1865. It began as a marginal ideology and saw popularization through the public thinkers and rhetoricians known as “Fire-Eaters”. With conditions ripening for its reception among populace and decision-makers alike, it became expansive enough to see moderate and extreme factions grow within it. It finally took on the status of hegemonic orthodoxy in media, academia, and political establishment. Upon withdrawal from the Union by the several Southern states, and the formation of the Confederate polity, it became political reality. It was militarily defeated in 1865. From then on, it has lived on as memory and myth. Despite the existence of many Southern nationalist writers and groups, it has never since developed the mass cohesion and power which it once enjoyed.
John C. Calhoun is still remembered today as one of the most prominent exponents of Southern interests. Thomas reminds us that Calhoun began his career as a strong Unionist throughout the War of 1812, up until he began serving as Andrew Jackson’s vice president. The Nullification Crisis, which pitted South Carolina against the Federal government, would establish him as a defender of Southern interests. Under his guidance, South Carolina was able to establish the precedent of state nullification in 1832. From then on, Southern nationalists would see themselves as taking Calhoun’s states’ rights principles to their supreme conclusion. The 1830’s would also see the rise of the early Fire-Eaters, with prominent Southern partisans arising across several states. South Carolina arguably led the charge, with Robert Barnwell Rhett’s Charleston Mercury agitating for independence through the 40s and 50s.
However, Rhett (born Smith) was known as a firebrand even during the 30s, declaring the possibility of secession a “happy termination” during the Nullification Crisis. Virginia had Edmund Ruffin, a prominent farmer who became a travelling speaker in the 1840s; he would see his victory in 1861, when he fired the first gun from Fort Sumter in his mid-60s. William Lowndes Yancey emerged from Alabama to become the great educator of the South about her political interests. He would lead seven delegations out of the 1860 Democratic convention, ensuring the Republican victory which sparked the move to secession.
These were joined by numerous journalists and politicians, especially in the 1850s, discussing everything from political structure to economics. The radicals of secession did more than just craft rhetoric. They plotted the logistical and administrative means of Southern independence. It was they who settled upon the Confederate structure with unified Southern action, rather than fragmented state actions or a unitary Southern republic. The latter had been suggested to prevent the possibility of the Upper South abolishing slavery after independence was achieved. Yancey recommended that Virginia and other border states remain in the Union as a buffer region, while seceded lower states built and strengthened an independent Southern union. Their influence would spread in a ripple: throughout the 50s, unionists who made their views public were pressured out of newspapers, universities, and social clubs.
However, Thomas emphasizes that the Fire-Eaters were defined by their outsider status. To be one was to doom any chance of rise in party structures. Most importantly, their ideological victory would not result in personal rise. Rather, the implementation of the Confederacy fell to a more moderate coalition, often only secessionists at the 11th hour. Jefferson Davis and his vice-president, Alexander Stephens, had been “doctrinaire states’-righter[s]” but hardly Fire-Eaters. This trend is of course common in all revolutions and radical shifts in administration. We may think of the various anti-Jacobin reactions in France, Stalin’s putsch against the more radical Trotsky, or Hitler’s purge of the NSDAP’s left wing. Because of this shift, the radicals lost their influence almost at the moment of secession. While the states did secede in two waves, Yancey’s strategy was not followed. Thomas cites one estimate that up to two-fifths of the Montgomery convention which crafted the Confederacy had supported cooperation with the Union.
Having walked the historical path to the Confederacy’s birth, Thomas now turns to the South’s position in the coming storm. At the moment of secession, the South was possessed of at least two assumptions which would be proven badly wrong during the course of war. First, the Confederate military establishment began the war thinking in terms of conventional warfare. Second, it had been a common refrain among the firebrands that “a nation of farmers shall never go hungry”. The first seemed confirmed after initial victories like Manassas. But the Union war machine would demolish these notions by 1862, with Richmond facing George McClellan’s approaching army: over 100,000 men marching to put down what they saw as seditious rebellion. The second assumption would be a fatal mistake. Southern farms were not chiefly related to foodstuffs. Thomas writes:
Southern capital had long been invested in land and slaves, singularly unliquid assets. The land and slaves…produced raw staples which were useless in the raw and which as a general rule were refined outside the South. On the eve of the war, Southern soil grew an estimated four-fifths of the world’s supply of cotton. Yet Southern cotton mills were valued in 1860 at about one-tenth of the total valuation of cotton mills in the United States. And armies could neither wear nor shoot cotton bales…Southern farmers raised hemp, but the Confederacy suffered from a severe shortage of rope. There were some sheep in the upper South in 1860, but Southerners had invested $1.3 million in woolen mills compared with $35 million elsewhere in the United States. From the height of hindsight then, we can see that the Southern agrarian economy in 1861 offered little to a blockaded Southern nation about to engage in protracted, total war.
It was these military and economic disadvantages which would become the major drivers of the internal Confederate revolution. These would reshape life in the South to a huge degree, and leave behind the lofty goals of states’ rights and the preservation of Southern life. This brings us to one of the biggest and most undeniable markers that the Confederate project entailed not only external but internal revolution. On April 16, 1862, the Confederate Congress enacted military conscription in order to strengthen its forces. The contradictions of the time are embodied in this decision: never before had this step been taken on the North American continent. A major shift toward the mass warfare of the 20th century was made not by Lincoln’s expansionist Union, but by the polity meant to defend states’ rights and traditional American liberties. Nor were these men fighting in state militias. Supported by the Confederate Congress, it was the practice of the Davis administration to muster men into the Confederate States army. The shift seen in Napoleonic Europe towards mass national armies entered Confederate American military praxis, states’ rights or no.
At the same time, the Confederate military brass shifted to a strategy of revolution. In doing so, Thomas points out that they took much from the experience of 1776, not then so far distant in national memory. While Lincoln had to systematically win wars and eventually recapture territory, the South theoretically had to merely hold out. Thomas discusses the responses to this strategic shift across three sections of warfare: army, navy, and guerrilla fighters. Albert Sydney Johnston led his troops in spring of 1862 against the Union forces outside Richmond in surprise strikes, losing his life but driving them into Tennessee. Robert E. Lee similarly initiated the Seven Days Battles, launching repeated assaults against McClellan’s Army of the Potomac and driving it to behind Union gunboats across the James River. The Confederate strategy was to focus not on holding territory, but on striking at vulnerable enemy targets. The depth of this revolutionary strategy is embodied in the fact that, as Thomas reports, both Lee and Davis were willing to give up Richmond if the situation required it – though fortunately for them, this did not come to pass before the end of the war.
The Confederate navy was even more decentralized in organization and mission. Its fleet was organized to focus on blockade running and raids. In this, they were joined by seagoing Southerners who tested their pirating skills. In terms of success, they performed extremely well. Thomas reports an average of five out of every six ships succeeding in running the Union blockades, “running in” goods to the Confederacy throughout the war. Irregular warfare was waged for profit as well as patriotism on land as well. Mosby’s Rangers (under Virginia farmer John S. Mosby) and Morgan’s Men (under John Hunt Morgan of Kentucky) were among the most famous of these groups, which would seize supplies, gather intelligence, and wreak havoc on travelling or retreating Union troops. This grim work of “bushwhacking” is echoed in similar irregular warfare tactics used before and since, such as by the partisans of WWII. Thomas notes that while most Southerners were engaged in conventional and not guerrilla warfare, military leaders like J. E. B. Stuart, Nathan B. Forrest, and Stonewall Jackson adapted similar tactics for their larger forces, becoming experts at delivering hard strikes and disappearing quickly with enemy supplies.
But however bootstrapping and nimble the Confederate solutions to their military problems, the true internal revolutions came from the measures necessary to support these forces. First and foremost, the Southern nation’s government realized it would have to rapidly make up for its lack of industrial power. Thomas notes that many of the larger towns and small cities of the South functioned essentially as networks between the rural areas. However, in 1861 the Confederate government imposed a cotton embargo, intending to use it as a bargaining chip for European support. The attempt failed disastrously, imposing an additional economic strain even as many were feeling the bite of no longer exporting beyond the South. The land of planters and farmers – masters of their rural domains – saw state governments limit the land which could be allocated to raw resource crops. More importantly, the absence of fathers and husbands from the land drove dislocation among families left behind. However, these would become important in the growth of Southern industrialism.
This discussion is one of the most interesting aspects of Thomas’ work, and he sees it as the strongest proof that the Confederate experience can properly be called revolutionary. The claim relies on two vital observations: the speed of industrialization and the central role played by the Confederate government itself. As Chief of Ordnance, Josiah Gorgas used his bureau to great effect and was able to effectively supply Southern forces with all manner of resources. Among the bureau’s enterprises were arsenals, iron works, and the Naval Iron Foundry in Alabama. The Nitre and Mining Bureau and the Quartermaster Bureau were respectively in charge of mines and clothing, and created enterprises across every Southern state. Private industrial power grew under this patronage, chiefly through government contracts. State governments established parallel industries. As a result, all levels of government required extensive growth in their civil services. Given the South’s famous modern abhorrence of “big government”, the power of the Confederate state proved ironically decisive in its economic life.
The mobilization of Southern society for labour and war rocked a recognized foundation of Southern life: class and aristocracy. Thomas notes that claiming a total revolution would be false. While elections of military officers did occur, the sons of the planter class were often the ones chosen. Farmers shifted from raw staples to food crop, but did not challenge the planter establishment. White and black labourers alike moved from the land to the town, but labourers they remained. Nevertheless, Thomas emphasizes important shifts in the nature of the hierarchy. The highly personal relationships of the South were shattered when planters and slave-masters were away for months and years. Wives were forced to abandon the fragility of the Southern belle and instead managed farms, or in many cases entered factories and parts of the civil services. Many Southerners found themselves working side by side with people from many other states for the first time, as cities saw their populations more than double. Class consciousness reared its head for the first time for many workers, with this era seeing rises in strikes and walk-outs. Thomas cites an 1863 article by Bohemian magazine:
Richmond is a world within itself. It is no longer the Richmond of old, it is the Confederacy – the world. Here we have all kinds and classes of people – representatives of nearly every race under heaven.
The closing chapters focus more directly on the questions of slavery and the black Confederate populace. As mentioned previously, the absence of social structures left many slaves with more autonomy than they had previously experienced. While the “loyal slave” is a common figure in Southern thinking even after the war, the matter of fact is that Confederate planters’ wives and workers give ubiquitous reports of growing rifts, uncooperativeness, and unrest. The growing nationalized economy would harness black manpower: Thomas reports a number of 20,000 “impressed” by the War Department alone. Many slaves found themselves “hired out” by absent masters; living in cities and factories, personal relations with lifelong masters shifted to impersonal relations with more restrictive city governments and factory managers. Thus, the old hierarchy was eroded and undermined before any Union soldier ever entered Richmond.
Thomas also addresses the common question of black involvement in the actual conflict. Until 1863, the notion of black enlistment in the military was all but unknown in the South, with the Confederacy rejecting offered services by a black “Native Guard” regiment from New Orleans. Not until late 1864 did discussion of deploying black soldiers begin in earnest, and this with opposition from President Davis. However, the move was made to begin training black soldiers in 1865, with support from Lee being a deciding factor. Those involved agreed: the reward would be freedom. However, the war would end before the companies ever saw conflict.
Slavery is a prime reference point for shifts during the Confederate existence in how the South viewed itself and its “peculiar institution”. At the start of the war, it was a primary causal factor. The planter classes who formed the establishment depended upon it, and antebellum farmers and white labourers saw their interests as more or less aligned. True, Southern culture formed a sense of common identity vis-à-vis the United States, and states’ rights applied to issues such as tariffs. But it was this institution like no other which made the South see itself as having fundamentally different interests from the Union. This changed in several ways during the war. By 1863, swathes of the South were undergoing a religious revival in response to the uprooted life of the population. Among these were a movement which pushed for restructuring – though not necessarily abolition – of slavery. Mississippi Presbyterian minister James A. Lyon and North Carolina’s Calvin H. Wiley advocated measures such as recourse against cruel masters and bars against overseer cruelty. But by the end of the war, some Southerners believed a choice had to be made between independence and the continuance of slavery. Thomas reports:
It was left to Jefferson Davis to demonstrate just how far the Confederacy was willing to go in the matter of emancipation…[In] March of 1865, Davis played what he believed was his final diplomatic trump card. He realized that only immediate foreign intervention would save the Confederacy by that time. Accordingly Davis dispatched Louisianan Duncan F. Kenner to the Confederacy’s unofficial embassies in Britain and France. Kenner’s mission was no less than to offer in the name of the Confederacy to emancipate all the slaves in exchange for recognition. The offer was as desperate as it was vain.
Nevertheless, this should not be taken to mean that all Southerners were agreed on this choice. The Jackson News took the following stance:
We consider the position as a total abandonment of the chief object of this war, and if the institution is already irretrievably undermined, the rights of the States are buried with it. When we admit this to be true beyond adventure, then our voice will be for peace; for why fight one moment longer, if the object and occasion of the fight is dying, dead, or damned?
This debate embodies both the revolutionary shifts of the Southern experience, and why Thomas’ work challenges both pro- and anti-Confederate tropes. The Confederacy began its existence as an agrarian nation, decentralized in government, where slavery seemed fixed and permanent. It ended as an uprooted and rapidly urbanized polity driven by nationalist centralism and with the peculiar institution’s imminent total abolition – not even mere reform! – as a matter of serious debate. Anti-Southern stereotypes of an uneducated backwater of hegemonic tyranny are proven nonsensical. Southern life and thought was educated, observant of global events, and quick to adapt and learn on the fly. Its class structures were complex, though greatly unified. However, the Southern romance of the “Lost Cause” is similarly undermined. The “land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields…of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and Slave” saw its social bonds eroded and its landscape transformed. Not only gallantry, but the settled certainties of an agrarian economy and a distant state would take their last bows. The extent of this Southern revolution is perhaps embodied in the ultimate fate of the old Fire-Eater Edmund Ruffin (who we may remember from Fort Sumter):
When the end came in 1865, Ruffin made a final entry in his diary proclaiming “unmitigated hatred” for “the perfidious, malignant and vile Yankee race”. He then cloaked himself in a Confederate flag, placed the muzzle of a gun in his mouth, and “pulled the trigger with a forked stick”. Ruffin did not choose to survive the Confederacy. But even in 1861, he had lived beyond his time.
Nevertheless, neither romanticism nor despair is the correct approach to studying this period. The South was hardly the first land to see unintended consequences from a political paradigm shift, nor would it be the last. Even a proudly unreconstructed Southerner can only benefit from a truer understanding of his heritage, and of the real markers and drivers of Southern consciousness. It was the ability of Southern power structures to actually declare and defend secession that guided revolution, and as such it was a true – if unforeseen – expression of Southern sovereignty. Likewise, the superior military and geopolitical power of the Union would take that sovereignty out of Southern hands, bringing forth not just Reconstruction but also Southern reactions to defeat which would shape the “Lost Cause” narrative itself.
In an era where American politics is driven by ideology, Thomas’ work is a strong demonstration of how economics and even culture are ultimately expressions of power. If the current era of strife and disintegration is overcome, it will be due to changed or emergent power structures in the American political order. Should the restoration of American civilization be achieved, future statesmen will need to be similarly responsive and adaptable, especially regarding the unforeseen. The Confederacy as a Revolutionary Experience is a uniquely valuable resource for those who wish to learn from the history of our continent.