Mind and the American Civil War: A Meditation on Lost Causes
The Creation of Confederate Nationalism: Ideology and Identity in the Civil War South
In an essay on the southern imagination Allen Tate quotes an epigram from W. B. Yeats: “Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” Out of both we make history. But in the making of many histories of the American Civil War and in such literary treatment as the war has inspired we have somehow neglected the quarrels with ourselves. In so doing we have missed much of the poetry and tragedy of the most tragic experience in American history, and of what one poet has called “our Homeric period.” Both of the works at hand include the inner conflicts, each in its own way.
The way chosen by Lewis P. Simpson relies on the latitude allowed by the term Meditation in the subtitle of his book. The subtitle also makes Lost Causes plural. Each side, in the end, suffered the loss of its cause. The “sides” in Simpson’s usage are not defined by the lines drawn by Secession, and the antagonists only wound up wearing the blue and gray and resorting to arms after age-long conflicts of the mind. The protagonists are, depending on the period, identified as Virginia and Massachusetts, Jeffersonians and Emersonians, Plantation South and New England, and only in open war Confederates and Unionists. Simpson is, he tells us, “placing an emphasis on the opposition between Virginia and Massachusetts.”
We are reminded that the territory that came to be known as New England was, at the beginning of English settlement on the Atlantic seaboard, under the supervision of the North Virginia Company and known as North Virginia, and that the South Virginia Company’s territory was called simply Virginia almost from the start. It was the redoubtable explorer and colonizer Captain John Smith who renamed the northern part New England after conferring on himself the title “Admiral of New England.” Referring to Virginia and New England in 1624, he wrote, “I call them my children,” and hoped to |make them “my heires, executors, administrators and assignes.”
Since the Captain was virtually penniless by this time his bequest was rather an empty one, but he was lavish with advice for his “children” and his hope that people of the older colony would bring help and comfort to their new neighbors to the north. His pessimistic qualification of that hope for good relations between “Virgin and the Virgin’s sister” is doubtless lent much of its strange prescience by our own historical hindsight. Smith’s forebodings are reflected in the ominous words,
But I feare the seed of envy, and the rust of covetousnesse doth grow too fast, for some would have all men advance Virginia to the ruine of New-England; and others the losse of Virginia to sustaine New-England, which God in his mercy forbid….
Two centuries later, in 1820, Thomas Jefferson could write with more urgency of “the speck in our horizon which is to burst on us as a tornado, sooner or later.” Immediate cause for his…
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