A Hollow Argument
Southern Nationalism, Myth or Reality
By Brian Pulito


        The American Civil War, until halfway through the Vietnam War, was bloodier then all other American wars combined. Nearly one million soldiers were killed during its four years. From its ruins, a new freedom would come for millions of Americans previously held in bondage. The nation would pay a great cost for those four years, and the years after were no less turbulent. It would take nearly a century to complete the changes that the war brought about and many feel those changes have not yet been fulfilled.
        Some historians believe the war was avoidable. Called revisionists, they held that far from being an irrepressible conflict, it was quite preventable. They blame northern and southern firebrands for causing the war, the former being Anti-slavery and the latter pro.
        Years after the revisionists arrival, other historians would emerge to present a countervailing opinion. They contend that the conflict was anything but avoidable and that the South and the North were locked in a deadly game of, "Chicken," which neither could stop; the only outcome foreseeable was war. Many have agreed with this irrepressible conflict argument, but for different reasons; some place the inevitability of the war on the fact that the South was unwilling to do away with slavery. This argument is quite persuasive, given slavery's importance to the agrarian economy of the South. Some will tell you that the South was destined to clash with the North because of a crisis of nationalism. This argument presents the South as a separate nation that could no longer tolerate life within the United States. Ernest Gellner would write decades later, "Nationalism is primarily a political principle, which holds that the political and the national unit should be congruent."(1) The South, held these historians, could no longer tolerate the North's "abusive ways." The only desirable outcome was to separate and form its own state, one which the South could control for themselves and that would be free from alien rule.
        The idea of southern, and later Confederate, nationalism is not without its supporters. Modern-day Civil War historians, such as Garry Gallagher, have authored works dealing with the concept. While they attempt, very admirably, to prove their point, they are still unable to deal with major "rough spots," including the lack of differences between Confederate Nationalism and its American counterpart. Along with this problem, these historians have failed to explain the seemingly non-nationalistic attitude of many southern states and individuals within the newly formed Confederate State. Finally, as Charles P. Roaland would term it, there was a "fatal rift in the psyche of the South," namely the innate, almost unconscious desire of the South to resemble the nation from which it separated.
        Authors Kenneth Stampp, David Potter and others, argue that a southern nation did not exist in the South before, during or after the war.
        One argument by historians and political scientists who believe in a southern nationalism is this: States comprised of more then single nations are either capable of keeping harmonious relations between both or are drawn into conflict, resulting in either the separation of the two, or the subjection of one by the other. These historians believe the southern states, at some point in their shared history with the North, became a separate distinct nation of their own, different then that of there northern neighbors.
        Multi-national states are problematic, since civil wars and separatist movements can and do occur within their borders. Examples of this in the contemporary world include Canada and Palestine. French-Quebecers of Canada believe themselves to be a nationality different than there English, Anglo-Canadian countrymen. Many Quebecers have used violence to attempt to separate themselves from greater Canada. Canada, a stable first-world state, is perhaps on the edge of civil war as its two "nationalities" vie over what it means to be Canadian and whether separation of Quebec, i.e. secession, is the only resolution to their grievances.
        Palestine is similar to Canada as well in that there are two obviously different people sharing a state, Israel. The Palestinians, who represent a portion of the Israeli population, feel they are being ruled by a foreigner---the Israelites. Many Palestinians have used violence as a means to solve this problem--killing themselves and Israelites in horrific numbers. The Israelites, acting out of the desire to protect their own people and control their territorial integrity, have taken violent measures to control the Palestinian dissenters.
        The difference between how the Palestinians and Quebecers have been, "handled," by their respective governments is very pronounced. The Quebecers have attempted in some cases to use violence to attain their independence, but in a larger sense the country of Canada has allowed them the right to vote on whether to remain a part of Canada. The Quebecers have simply not reached the majority needed for secession. Palestine is quite different. While certain concessions have been made to give the Palestinians certain autonomy, the Israeli government shows no inclination to allow the Palestinians the right to depart with their land, holding their desire for territorial integrity over that of the national determinations of the Palestinians.
        The southern states of the United States of America believed that as a separate nation they had the right to self determination as well as the right to leave the United States and to form their own state. The problems inherent in separation itself, whether considering the southern states, Quebec or Palestine, are numerous.
        With a cursory examination of the problem established, we now move onto the topic at hand, Southern nationalism. Did it in fact exist? The first section of this work will deal with the concept of the "Nation." In order to accurately discuss southern Nationalism, it is first necessary to understand exactly what constitutes a nation. Is it culture, ethnicity or something else? Once a definition is established, it will be possible to judge the claim of southern nationalists against it and determine if they do in fact have an adequate case. The second section of this work will present the argument that a southern nation did not exist, that it was simply a section within a larger Pan-American nation and not a nation unto itself. To make this argument effectively, it will be necessary to examine the works of several noted historians and political scientists. The question of the validity of the South's claim to distinct nationhood is important, because of its ramifications. If the South was in fact a separate nation, and not as I have suggested, a part of a broader American nation, then the Northern armies that forced it back into the Union were denying it the right to be self autonomous.

Defining the Nation

        Nationalism has been defined by some as divisive and antagonistic--the causal factor of many of the 20th century's most devastating wars. Modern researchers, however, have interpreted nationalism in a far more benevolent light. Ernest Geller described nationalism as the inevitable result of industrialization. David Miller, on the other hand, contends that nationalism defines people as part of a community--one tied together by many things, among which are a shared history and an ethical obligation to each other. (2)
       For this work we define nationalism based on the beliefs of these two writers.
      Certainly, when one discusses nationalism one wonders what makes a nation. What is it that supposedly binds us together into a collective that has these ethical and historical obligations of which Miller speaks? There have been people who believe they are a part of a broader group, a nation, but can simply willing oneself to be a nation, make one a nation? Some people speak of nations in the ethnic sense, believing that to belong to this nation or that one needs to be born into it. Along with this idea of nationality comes the idea of shared culture, for not all nations are ethically this people or that people. Some like America and Australia are ethnically diverse, yet when one asks them what nationality they belong to they instinctively, reply American or Australian. It was with these questions in mind that we set out to understand this conundrum.
        A nation can be based on ethnicity, culture and will though in a slight degree. Nations such as Japan and China base their nationality on ethnicity. These nations define what it means to be a co-national upon bloodline. Culture is another area were nationality can be rooted. America and Australia were examples given before, of nations that are ethnically diverse yet still have a sense of Nationhood. When the idea of willing oneself to be a nation is brought up, the definition of a nation gets foggy.
        Gellner would argue that will alone can not make a nation.(3) He writes, "If we define nations as groups which will themselves to persist as communities, the definition net that we have cast into the sea will bring forth far to rich a catch." (4)It is important that this point is emphasized, that a people can not simply declare themselves a nation, it takes something more than their desire alone. If will alone was all that was needed, the number of groups worldwide that could declare their nationality would be staggering. Gellner would posit the other necessary ingredient needed for a nation (along with will) as shared culture. Culture, as something unique to a group of people, is necessary for nationhood too. It is culture, shared with the desire to define oneself as a part of a nation, which makes the nation in many cases. Gellner states:

"… when general social conditions make for standardized homogeneous, centrally sustained high cultures, pervading entire populations… a situation arises in which well defined …unified cultures constitute very nearly the only kind of unit which men willingly and often ardently identify." (5)

        This could aide those who find it hard to understand how a nation like America is able to exist. It explains how a people without a common blood tie can call themselves a nation. The southern states would present an argument that they were a nation, yet many would make the counterargument that this is unfounded, that they could never do much more then desire it, that they still shared the same culture as the North and that because of this, their claim to nationhood was unfounded. Nationhood is not something one can simply pick either. Miller would write that for the most part you can not freely choose your nationhood. (6)
        Miller would lay out a series of criteria for nationhood in his work, On Nationality. Among these was the idea of a shared history, going backwards through time and extending forward into the future. A people of a nation have as much of an obligation to those who come after them as they do to those who came before. Certainly the argument can then be raised that a people can not renounce their nationhood simply because they no longer wish to be a member of this nation or that. Miller would write:

…we are talking not merely about community of the kind that exists between a group of contemporaries who practice mutual aide among themselves, and that would dissolve at the point at which such practice ceased, but about a community that, because it stretches back and forward across the generations, is not one that present generations can renounce." (7)

        So what then is the nation? A combination of the two political scientists' views will be used to derive our definition; it will be a definition of what a nation is not, rather then what a nation is. First, the nation is not simply willed into life, people can not decide one day that they are a nation and have it become so. To allow this to occur would spell the end of nationhood altogether, making it something far weaker than in truth it is. Second, a nation is not something you can forsake easily; it binds a people to each other in the present and into the future. A people can not decide that they shall end a nation in the same way it is decided to end a relationship or a contract. Finally, a nation is a community that shares something in common, either ethnicity, culture, or both. In order to be a Nation, those who make it up must feel that they are in some way linked to each other and this belief must be real and not based upon desire alone.

Southern Nationhood Myth or Reality?

        The South has always been viewed by some northerners as backwards, racist and conservative. Conversely the North has been viewed by the South as advanced, socially out of sync and liberal. While each has an impression of the other largely based on myth, today each will acknowledge the other as part of the United States and as such, a segment of the same nation, the United States of America. During the late 19th century, the situation was much different. The South was at war with the North over slavery, and the two sections of one greater America seemed to be about to go their separate ways. The reason for this split has been in doubt for some, but for many it was slavery. The argument was made by southerners that the South had a right to own slaves and decide amongst themselves when, if ever, to free them, deriving this perceived right from the idea that they were a nation unto themselves. This argument cannot hold ground, for many reasons; first it fails to show how the South was so culturally different from the North, culturally different enough to constitute calling it its own nation. Second it fails to derive a sense of nationhood strong enough to allow the South to declare its independence during and especially after the war.
        David Potter, eminent historian on the Civil War, deals with southern nationalism in his work: The South and the Sectional Conflict. Potter makes the point, as many have, that the South if it had its own Nation, certainly did not have a very strong one, he argues that Southerners were never able to do away with their own loyalties to America, let alone establish new ones for a southern nation, writing:

The readiness with which the South returned to the Union will defy explanation unless it is recognized that southern loyalties to the union were never really obliterated but rather were eclipsed by other loyalties with which for a time they conflicted. (8)

        Potter, like many, did not see how the argument for a southern nation could be made. Some argued that the basis for Southern nationalism could come from the belief in a separate Southern culture, wholly different from that of the North. Surely if this could be substantiated, the claim to a separate nationhood would be stronger, for as we saw above, both Gellner and Miller would argue that culture is an important element in the existence of a nation. Potter, however, would argue that a distinct southern culture did not exist, but rather that the South was merely a section within a larger American Culture. Potter contended that American culture was largely the same culture as the South; they worshiped the same God, ate the same foods and revered the same mythological heroes of their past, Washington, Jefferson and the other founding fathers. They both celebrated the same holidays (the South stopped celebrating the Fourth of July after the war begin, but would, for the most part, celebrate it again after the wars conclusion). (9)
        Grady McWhiney would be so bold as to contend that, "Any notion that the people of the two sections were fundamentally different is one of the great myths of American history."(10)
        There were differences to be sure, between Northern and Southern culture. These differences were not great enough to distinguish the two as separate nations. Potter would write:

This is not to deny that there was distinctions in the southern culture, southern conservatism, southern hierarchy, the cult of chivalry the un-machined civilization, the folk society, the rural character of the life, the clan values, rather then commercial values, all had a deeply significant distinctiveness. But this is not quite the same as separateness and the efforts of historians to buttress their claim that the South had a wholly separate culture… have led to paltry results.(11)

        Beringer et. Al, in their book, Why the South Lost the Civil War, would compare the United States to the nation state of Switzerland. Switzerland is comprised of people speaking several languages, yet the people identify all these languages as being a part of a greater Swiss nation.(12) Differences of this kind are capable of being enmeshed together and overcome to form a distinct Nationhood, like that of the United States.
        The two sections were rather more similar to each other at the dawn of the war then they were different with the only issue separating them being the idea of black slavery. On this issue, the two people were unable to reconcile their differences through normal political channels and the result was a crisis of nationalism that emerged for the Nation as a whole. This crisis did not create a new nation, but rather pitted two sections against each other.(13) Far from being culturally different, Potter and others believed the South was far more similar to the North at the time of the war, than the two were at the formation of the United States.
        Nationalism as a mystical sense of oneness did not exist in the South, believed Beringer et. al;(14)The South was unable to solidify its claim to itself, let alone the rest of the world, that it was in fact its own nation. Beringer would go on to write, "The Problem in a nutshell is that the people of the South had no widely accepted mystical sense of distinct nationality."(15)Avery Craven in his book, the Growth of Southern Nationalism, argues along similar lines as Beringer, claiming that southerners were forced into the war as a last resort, seeing their only option to be that of a northern army trampling through their countryside. They were not completely committed to a southern nation from the onset, so how could they have had a nationalism all their own?(16)Unionism was still strong in parts of the South, strong enough that many of the Border States and some of the Mid-Atlantic States, hesitated to join the South. The only reason that some eventually did so was because of Lincoln's call to arms of 75,000 men to put down the rebellion.(17)Many might have feared reprisal from neighbors had they not sided with the south.
        The South was not able to distance itself completely from the nation it was leaving. While culturally it was still very much a part of the United States, the new supposed nation they created was not very different from the one they left. Russell Weigley writes in, A Great Civil War, the South was unable to sever itself completely from northern nationalism. Charles P. Roland would dub this inability a "Fatal rift in the psyche of the South".(18)Weigley compares the constitution of the Confederacy, to that of America's; the newly created Confederate document is an almost word for word facsimile to the United State's version. Further similarities are shown between the new Confederate flag and figures chosen to emblazon Confederate script, the likeness of Washington and Jefferson printed on Confederate currency as well as northern.(19)
       Others would argue that if a southern nation existed, it was certainly not very strong, and pointed to this weakness as a sign that it did not exist at all. Potter points to the lack of a sustained guerilla movement after the war as evidence that the South was simply reentering a nation they had never really left.(20)
        Weigley wrote that the entire history of the nationalist movement shows that nationalists fighting for their perceived nationhood will, after conventional forms of warfare are exhausted, resort to unconventional partisan movements to attain their independence. The Balkan people fighting against Turkey at this point in history are an example of this theory. The South simply did not resort to this tactic.(21) Perhaps the best answer as to why, is they simply did not see themselves as a separate nation at all.
        National movements like the one seen in the Balkans and around the world all have a certain fire that seems impossible to put out completely. After the war's end, the South never showed a willingness to keep this fire going, perhaps the most logical reason being, there never was a fire in the first place. The South at the end of the war did a great deal to "reenter" American nationalism, at the immediate end of the war there certainly was animosity for the North, but this animosity surrounded the forced acceptance of blacks into southern culture. Within a generation the South was fighting alongside northerners in the Spanish American War and would do the same a generation later in World War One, followed soon after by World War Two. Only in small parts of the South, so interspersed as to be almost nonexistent, was there still the belief in a separate southern nation, but as Miller and others assert, the belief that one is a nation does not make one a nation, in this case the perceived nationhood of southerners by a microscopic proportion of the southern population is not enough to give credence to the idea of a separate southern nation.
        During the course of the war, southerners in great numbers would desert from the army, and whole portions of the South would actively dissent against the Confederacy. Once more the question is asked; if a southern nation existed, how can one explain this perceived loss of will among southerners themselves for the "cause"? The answer would have to be that one did not exist; Beringer et Al would ask a similar question when they wrote:

Surely one may question a nationalism felt deeply by so few and superficially by so many, especially when one considers many loyal Confederates doubtless felt stronger allegiance to their region, state, locality, comrades in arms or constituents then they ever did to a mystical Confederate nationality. (22)

        Some, such as Paul Escott, have argued that Jefferson Davis killed southern nationalism. Escott writes that Jefferson Davis's policy of favoritism for richer white slave-owning planters lost the backbone of the Confederacy, the poor farmer. He would go further to argue that by the removal of this white farmer to the warfront, the "labor" of the South, he would weaken the Confederacy from the inside out, allowing it to be subsumed by the greater American Nation.(23) Escott's argument is that even if a southern nation existed, which despite his claim that it does, is still left largely unsubstantiated in his work, it was unable to survive do to Jefferson Davis's policy. Southerners were divided among themselves, a nation must be united, in the case of a southern nation it was unable to, largely sabotaged by its own incapable politicians.


        Those who believe in southern nationalism take issue with the arguments presented above. They claim that desertion rates and morale are not indicative of a weak nationalism. One author, Brian Tongier makes the case for southern nationalism based on textbooks issued by the newly formed, "nation."
        Benjamin Carp in his article, "Nations of American Rebels," draws the comparison between American Nationalism during the revolution and Confederate nationalism during the Civil War. Addressing the argument presented by Potter, Weigley and Beringer, dealing with the desertion rate and internal discord during the Civil War years, Carp asserts that desertion does not imply a lack of nationalism, rather a sign of belief in volunteerism. (24)
        Carp does not elaborate on how desertion could be anything more then a lack of solidarity, when discussing the lack of a desire on southern civilians to keep alive the "movement" he writes: "Nationalism is a gradual and fitful process, not a phenomenon that springs fully armed from Zeus's Brow and Remains an unstinting armed patroness of the national polity."(25) Carp believes that given more time, southern civilians would have undergone a metamorphosis from a people of an American Nationalism, to one of a Confederate. Carp rightly believes that nationalism is not spontaneous and in making that assertion he destroys his entire argument. American Nationalism during the revolutionary war was distinctly different than Confederate. In the latter a complete severance with the "Mother Country" was attempted. The newly formed rebellious colonies of America did not attempt to redefine American Nationality like the Confederacy did; instead they attempted to create a new nation dedicated to certain egalitarian principles, rather than the monarchal system from which they had just severed themselves. They had overtime become a different culture, unlike that of England; it was not an instantaneous creation, but rather one that took centuries of quasi-independence from England to develop. Their status as a colony greatly influenced their appraisal of their relationship to the Nation they rebelled against. They saw themselves as the abused child of a mother that could not let them go. The case for the Confederacy is rather different; the South was not a colony of the United States, despite their many attempts to make it seem that way. They were "equals" in the sense that they shared the same nation with the North, the same government, the same feeling of oneness. The South, only on fearing the removal of slavery, decided to sever the ties with America and set out on its own to form a new nation. That action could not be done. As Miller was right to point out, a nation is responsible to its past as well as its future--a generation can not simply decide they are not a part of a nation and then start a new one. Perhaps given time, the South could have formed a new nation, but at the time of the Civil War the South was not its own nation. Carp's attempt to argue that it was fails.
        In an unpublished paper, Brian Tongier argued for the existence of a southern nationalism manifested through southern school books. His claim rested upon the belief that nations can be forged upon other identifiers besides ethnic and cultural ties, ideological ones can, and in the case of the South do, create nations. The ideological differences over the institution of slavery did pit the South against the North and allowed for the South to identify itself as its own nation, wholly different then the North. (26)
        Tongier claims that Confederates believed they were restoring a true form of American nationalism. Discussing the similarities between Confederate and American symbols he says: "The symbols of Confederate nationalism speak strongly for a Confederate nationalism that draws from the myths and norms of American Nationalism in a way that united the entire Confederacy behind a restoration of the "true American Nationalism." (27) In short, he is arguing that a Confederate nation was built upon the idea that they were not forming their own nation, but reasserting an already existing one. His claim could be that the Confederacy believed it was the North and not the South that had become a different nation.
        The manner these southerners went about solidifying this nationalism was through the written word, specifically through school books for southern children. He claims, as others have, text books, "Intimately ties to the process of nation building noted by Anthony Smith as they play a vital function in integrating the nation into a single state based structure and distinguishing between the nation and the other nations." (28) He claims that text books indoctrinate children, who Tongier claims come from all walks of life in the South, to the true Confederate way, using history and English lessons to teach children the nationalist feeling of being southern and Confederate. (29) In these lessons children are taught about the formation of America that largely leaves out the North, making the child believe the South was completely responsible for the formation of the United States of America.
        Slavery is dealt with in these works too, the biblical and societal justifications of the institution are relayed to southern children in these works and a strongly paternalistic view on the institution as a whole is also relayed to the reader. (30)
        Tongier's claim is weak in one major regard, it assumes that a southern nation existed. His reliance on school book indoctrination does not prove that a southern nation existed; it might very well prove that one did not, or was very weak at the most. If the people of the South did feel themselves to be a part of a Southern nation, then how can he answer the question of the lack of a partisan movement after the war to keep their nation alive, even in the troughs of defeat? His example of southern textbooks only disproves the idea of a southern nation more, for if these children were truly indoctrinated into a "Southern nation" why did they not rise up years later, during reconstruction and assert their identity as southerners when northern troops were in their land. He can not explain this, and because of this he fails to make the argument that the South was its own nation and not just a part of a larger "American nation."
        Those who argue that a Southern nation existed have a substantial burden before them. To argue effectively that a Southern nation was not myth, it is necessary to explain many things: why did it just disappear after the North won? How was it different then an American Nation? Why did so few southerners adopt it? These questions are left largely unanswered by these and other historians.


        We looked at the question of a Southern nation, of southern Nationalism and saw that if it existed it was not very strong. It is hard to deal with the many weaknesses of this argument. In the end the answer has to be that a southern nation did not exist at all, but rather that the South simply feared the removal of their property, i.e. slaves and saw the only way to protect them to be their secession from the North. Some have even argued that those southerners in control of the secession movement never wanted to leave the United States in the first place, that they were bluffing, hoping to garner safeguards for slave holders in the territories. When Lincoln called their bluff they were forced into adopting a nationalism to justify to the world their reason for leaving the Union.
        In anything dealing with history and political science, it is important that one try to interpret the data presented with as objective a mindset as is possible. In studying this question it is important that no exception be made to this rule. David Potter warns against rejecting southern nationalism simply because the South owned slaves. To do this brings something less than objectivity to the interpreting table.(31) Potter goes on to say that a historian who believes in national self determination should not then see an example where this concept is applicable and then reject it out of a moral reproach. He writes:

All I mean to argue is that a historian should not assert that he regards the right to self determination as an absolute and then argue that it is not involved in cases were he is unwilling to apply it, or where he thinks some other value has a higher priority. (32)

        Southern nationalism was fictional, but in order to arrive at this conclusion one needs to do it based on the merits of the argument and not on the convictions of the interpreter. For all the reasons discussed above, a southern nation was not real. It is not because those who interpret the events and render opinions on it are from the North that this conclusion is accepted by many in the historical community, but rather because the data in support of it is so plentiful.
        The Civil War was a bloody war, but what was the reason that blood was lost, if the South was not fighting over national self determination. What then was the reason for the loss of life? Perhaps their deaths were the cost of setting men free, the price for hundreds of years of human slavery. The guns of the Civil War are silent now; those who held them have long turned to dust. The lesson of the Civil War was that, far from being different, the North and the South are part of a larger, unified America.

Ernest Gellner Nations and Nationalism (Ithaca : Cornell University Press, 1983) 1
   David Miller, On Nationality (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995). 32-38
3.    Gellner, pg. 54
4.    Ibid, pg.53
5.    Ibid, pg. 55
6.    Miller, pg.43
7.    Ibid pg. 24
8.    David Potter, The South and the Sectional Conflict (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1968). 78
9.    Ibid, 70
10.  Richard E. Beringer, Why the South Lost the Civil War (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986). 75
11.  Potter, 68-69
12.  Ibid, 76
 Ibid, 83
14.  Beringer, 66
15.  Ibid, 66
16.  Avery O. Craven, The Growth of southern Nationalism (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1953). 400
17.  Beringer, 66-68
18.  Russell Weigley, A Great Civil War ( Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2000). 9
19.  Ibid, 10
20.  Potter, 77-78
21.  Weigley, 454
22.  Beringer, 74
23.  Paul Escott, After secession : Jefferson Davis and the failure of Confederate nationalism (Baton Rouge :          Louisiana State University Press, 1992). X, Xi
24.  Benjamin Carp, "Nations of American Rebels: Understanding nationalism in revolutionary North America and the Civil War South." Civil War History XLVIII (2002): 16
25.  Ibid, 8
26.  Brian Tongier, "Imagined Community or Communities? Nationalism and the Confederate States of America." (Unpublished Manuscript, University of California-Los Angeles) 31
27.  Ibid, 11
28.  Ibid, 12
29.  Ibid, 21-25
30.  Ibid, 31
31.  Potter, 64
32.  Potter, 65

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