Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Just Finished Reading - Private Confederacies

Since reading Stephen W. Berry's All that Makes a Man: Love and Ambition in the Civil War South, way back in 2003, I've been drawn to studies that explore similar subjects. One of the most recent works to examine Southern manhood is Private Confederacies: The Emotional Worlds of Southern Men as Citizens and Soldiers by James J. Broomall. Following a chronological track from the antebellum years to Reconstruction, Broomall shows the important yet sometimes contradictory nature of emotions as expressed in the private thoughts of Southern men.

As Broomall explains in his introductory chapter: "The forces of war transformed and then underpinned Southerners' notions of manliness and emotional lives." Thus, he "seeks not only to write the life stories of these veterans but also to interrogate the ways in which civil war and reconstruction were personal processes that shaped gender, emotions, and Southern identity in the mid- to late nineteenth century." To do so Broomall uses six chapters, often examining the diaries (to get at the subjects' true emotions) of Southern men who comment on a variety of issues and thus express their inner feelings. In a world where elite slaveholding young men were expected to feel and behave in a certain manner to reflect their set and accepted gender and social spheres, the upheaval of war threatened to challenge those established mores.

Chapter 2, "Soldiers," is a particularly brilliant look into the transition for Southern men moving from a civilian world to a military one. Using uniforms, "camp culture," and "messmates," Broomall shows that Confederate soldiers adapted to army life by substituting comrade relationships for those held by family and friends before the war. The military experience required one to give up certain aspects of one's independence for the good of the fighting unit and thus the new nation. Hardships were viewed as a path to self-improvement and self-denial was viewed as an admirable trait.

The experience of battle also challenged the emotions of Southern men. Expected by Southern society to be cold and detached in going about their death-dealing work, soldiers were usually anything but that in relating their battle experiences. Seeing comrades being killed and viewing the vast carnage of the battlefields tested even the most veteran of soldiers. Often struggling to describe what they had witnessed, even in their diaries, soldiers strengthened their messmate networks and tried to reaffirm their commitment to the cause. When defeat came it again tested their manhood.

Solders who surrendered at Appomattox broke down and wept like children. Putting up with so much sacrifice for so long and then losing their goal of independence was soul-crushing emotionally. And while some came to grudgingly accept their military defeat, they often resisted the social and political changes that the war wrought.

During Reconstruction, former soldiers found emotional outlets in veteran reunions, and some found a way to continue the fight by joining para-military groups like the Ku Klux Klan and other organizations to curb the political and social advances by African Americans, who challenged white supremacy. George Anderson Mercer summed up so many white Southern men's self-doubt: "I did not realize in advance that my nature was hard enough to live through such an ordeal, but great grief stuns and stupefies rather than destroys. The bruises sooner or later disappear from the surface, where they are seen, and sink into the soul, where they are felt."

Private Confederacies is an important addition to this field of study that is well researched and expertly written. It truly makes us reconsider the importance of examining not only observable behaviors, but also sometimes hidden emotions. I highly recommend it.

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