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 concern was the stalled progress in opening “our University” of Virginia and thus “trusting to those who are against us in position and principle, to fashion to their own form the minds of our youth,” by which he meant “the northern seminaries, for the instruction of our sons.”

Jefferson spoke as one of the distinguished plantation intellectuals of Virginia who framed the principles and helped win the cause of revolution. He was quite aware of the anomaly of “freedom fighters” as slaveholders. He wrestled with the paradox all his days, and addressed the subject in his Notes on Virginia. He believed the American republic was based on “the freest principles of the English constitution” yet principles “more peculiar than those of any other in the universe.” He applauded the law banning all further importation of slaves, believing this would “in some measure stop the increase of this great political and moral evil, while the minds of our citizens may be ripening for a complete emancipation of human nature.”

Jefferson transcended this bland utterance and its decorum in an outburst Simpson calls “a moment of Faulknerian intensity” in the eighteenth chapter of his Notes:

The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submission on the other…. And with what execration should the statesman be loaded, who permitted one half the citizens thus to trample on the rights of the other, transforms those into despots, and these into enemies…. Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just…. The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.

Jefferson never returned to what Lewis Simpson calls this “apocalyptic” style in public or private writings. Nor did it recur in his confrontations with New England over other matters. After its abortive gesture toward secession in 1814–1815, New England increasingly associated itself with the image of the Union and resented any rivalry to its cultural imperialism, especially from the South.


Lewis Simpson singles out Ralph Waldo Emerson as the classic embodiment of New England cultural imperialism and the only antebellum intellectual of his region “who has an importance in American literary and intellectual history comparable to that of Jefferson.” Emerson came by his faith honestly, for it was his direct ancestor and the founder of Concord, the Reverend Peter Bulkeley, who in 1651 told New Englanders that because of a covenant with God, “we should in a special manner labor to shine forth in holiness above other people,” and that “we are as a city set upon an hill, in the open view of all the earth…we are the seed which the Lord hath blessed.”

Emerson’s hostile attitude toward the South predated his conversion to abolitionism and sprang from his imperial idea of New England culture. In 1837, about a month after his address to the Harvard Phi Beta Kappa, he was characterizing southern undergraduates at Harvard as “mere bladders of conceit” and only “a little more” civilized than the Seminoles, and in 1842 he was comparing “these southerners” of Virginia, “haughty, selfish, wilful, & unscrupulous men” and “people of New England with a thousand times more talent, more worth, more ability of every kind.” The New England way was the American way, and Massachusetts “the brain which turns about the behemoth.”

By 1851 Emerson felt that there were “really two nations, the North and the South” in the Union, divided not by slavery but by “climate and temperament.” That was why “the South does not like the North, slavery or no slavery, and never did.” Speaking for “the cultivated class,” he admitted after the war, “we loved England, but we never loved our Southern states.” Although he was as inflexible as the most extreme abolitionists in his antipathy toward the South, his aversion to slavery was largely rhetorical or evasive and he remained independent of, if not hostile to, abolitionist sentiment until the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

Fundamentally he was a white supremacist and shared with southern whites the mystique of the Saxon blood. “The dark man, the black man declines,” he wrote in 1854, and “will only be destined for museums like the Dodo.” He had long held that “so inferior a race must perish shortly like the poor Indian”; whereas, “there is always place for the superior.” He did not link the issue of slavery with the preservation of the Union until that became a necessity of Union military strategy against the South during the war.

Northern troops were “missionaries to the mind of the country…carrying whither they marched a higher civilization,” especially in the South where, “rich and poor,” according to Emerson, the people were “the narrowest and most conceited of mankind, as arrogant as the negroes on the Gambia River.” He celebrated the Union dead as martyrs to the cause of New England. In the raptures of a cultural imperialism supported by arms, he aspired to “extend New England from Canada to the Gulf, & to the Pacific.” There remained postwar problems, to be sure, including some that he shared: racism, Negrophobia, and continued fears of Africanization. He had solutions to offer, however: “The way to wash the negro white is to educate him in the white man’s useful & fine Arts, & his ethics.”

What the Civil War produced was not the restoration of the South’s old republic or New England’s cultural empire stretching from sea to shining sea, but the bloody birth of a modern nationstate. What Lewis Simpson’s “meditation” points to is “the irony of the way in which the defeat of the South meant the loss of the cause of New England nationhood.” One lost cause, that of Captain Smith’s “Virgin,” led to another, that of “the Virgin’s sister.”

Professor Simpson concludes with two anecdotal parables, full of subtleties worth pondering. One is the appearance in June 1876 of the aged Emerson, an early victim of senility, at Charlottesville in response to invitations from the two literary societies of the University of Virginia, the Washington Society and the Jefferson Society. He came south to embody a reunion of the scholarly community and was received warmly, though his oration proved inaudible.

The second parable is entitled “Epilogue: Why Quentin Compson Went to Harvard.” Simpson sees Compson “as emblematic of the greatest resource of Faulkner the poet-historian.” Why should the novelist have sent his doomed young Mississippian to a suicidal death in the Charles River? Faulkner had never been to Cambridge when he wrote The Sound and the Fury, and some aspects of the Harvard Yard as depicted in his novel are “more reminiscent of Yale,” where Faulkner had shared quarters as a nonstudent with his friend Phil Stone, then in the Law School, and remained through one summer.


The reader had best extract his own meaning from the parable. Both its author and its readers, however, might find of some interest the names of Yale men who were Civil War casualties carved on the Woolsey Hall Memorial. Young Faulkner would not have missed those names. Of the 146 Yale men who died in the Union and Confederate armed forces, fifty-four died in the service of the Confederacy, although southerners made up only 10 percent of the Yale student body in the 1850s. The comparable Harvard figures are not at hand.

The perpetual Civil War round table of historians had best draw up a chair for Lewis Simpson, man of letters, whose contributions they have neglected. His books over the years would have done a lot to enliven their rather repetitive and tradition-ridden discussions.1

Drew Gilpin Faust brings fresh insights of her own to the discussion, adding another to her list of worthy contributions to this and related subjects.2 Confederate nationalism is a subject more familiar to historians than the themes treated by Professor Simpson, but Faust deals entirely, rather than occasionally, with the inner conflict, “the quarrel with ourselves.” Those internal struggles have been put aside by historians bent on explaining why the South lost the war—a controversy as passionate and as old as the one on what caused the war. Imposing their hindsight on the past, postwar analysts have avoided the reality of Confederate nationalism, perhaps because it somehow seemed to validate the legitimacy of secession and the proslavery cause. Their dismissal of southern nationalism masks moral judgments.

“Even today,” writes Faust, “we are still debating whether Appomattox was the South’s punishment for the sin of slavery.” More emphasized than material causes are the issues that historians frame in terms of the South’s image of itself and its goals, its morals, its will to fight, its esprit de corps. Was its nationalism not “spurious” rather than “genuine,” “myth” rather than “reality”? Did Confederates fight and sacrifice and persist as if they really believed in their cause? One is left wondering, in view of all this, how the South could have even thought of seceding, organizing a nation, and fighting for four years the bloodiest war then known to history.

Drew Faust is persuaded that it is time to abandon the prevailing approach, and that detailed study of the nature, substance, and process of Confederate nationality is long overdue:

We cannot break out of the circularity and sterility of most historical discussions of Confederate nationalism until we set aside this emphasis on hindsight; interpretation must precede evaluation. We must begin to explore Confederate nationalism on its own terms—as the South’s commentary upon itself—as its effort to represent southern culture to the world at large, to history, and perhaps most revealingly, to its own people…. Independence and war reopened unfinished antebellum debates, intensified unresolved prewar conflicts…. In doing all this, the Confederate effort to define a national identity produced a revealing record of southerners struggling to explain themselves to themselves.

First the new nation builders in the South tapped the riches of the revolutionary tradition to which they claimed to be the legitimate heirs; they saw themselves as carrying out a new secession to continue the struggle of 1776 betrayed by the Yankees. The Confederate national seal and the earliest postage stamps bore the image of George Washington, and their flag, like that of the Revolution, had thirteen stars.

Rebels before,
Our fathers of yore,
Rebel’s the righteous name
Washington bore

ran a popular song. They had a readymade past and a history for the new nation.

Next the nation builders turned to later models of nationalism—the French first of all. The Marseillaise in several southern versions became so identified with the rebel cause that a troupe of French actors was jailed in New York as southern sympathizers for singing it. Parallels with the Confederacy were found in nationalist and independence movements of the Dutch, the Greeks, the Italians, and emphatically the Poles. “At bottom,” declared a Richmond paper, “the cause of Poland is the same cause for which the Confederates are now fighting.” They could not do much for a national language except “purify” the English that Yankees and Africans had corrupted. As for race, they made what they could of their “Norman” origins. They self-consciously assembled the essential paraphernalia—flags, banners, and especially songs, at least one for each successful general and each military victory. In all their endeavors, as Faust puts it, they sought “to reconcile their revolution with tradition, to have change without change.”

As much as New Englanders, if not more, Confederates relied upon religion for legitimation of their cause. Antebellum southerners pictured themselves as the most godly of Americans, and war reinforced the claim. A Confederate journalist insisted that “we are really the most religious people in the world,” and a Methodist tract defied the Puritan monopoly by making the claim that the Confederacy was ‘like a city set upon a hill’ [to] fulfill her God given mission to exalt in civilization and Christianity the nations of the earth.” Secession was an act of purification, a separation from the North’s pollutions of old ideals, thus Faust writes “permitting the South at once to assume the mantle of American nationalism and to dissent from it,”—in other words to have it both ways. Confederate reliance on religion gave the clergy extraordinary power, and they used it to reconcile carnage to Christianity and the needs of the State to the will of God.

Another wartime aspiration the Confederacy shared with New England that Faust only touches upon was imperialism, though more political than cultural. She might have illustrated the South’s type with the following passage from an oration by Robert Barnwell Rhett on South Carolina’s secession that pictured a historian in 2000 AD describing the South’s “Greek Democracy” for the New World:

And extending their empire across this continent to the Pacific, and down through Mexico to the other side of the great gulf, and over the isles of the sea, they established an empire and wrought out a civilization which has never been equalled or surpassed—a civilization teeming with orators, poets, philosophers, statesmen and historians equal to those of Greece and Rome.

Planters had known for a long time how important it was to win and keep the loyalty of the white majority who owned no slaves (three times the number of slaveholders), and they had been at pains to acknowledge their obligations with political rights and shared power. War made this allegiance more important than ever, and yet a reactionary group gave voice to a lot of anti-democratic rhetoric about “mob rule,” and sought, in making their national and state constitutions, to restrict rights and reverse the democratic innovations of antebellum years, which they denounced as Yankee abominations.

Even more resented by a majority of whites was what they called “extortion.” This was greed of gain bred of wartime inflation, shortages, and merciless market forces—“materialism,” the very Yankee sin against which the South revolted. “Fighting against Yankee tyranny and oppression,” ran one sermon, “we are practicing Yankee cunning and heartlessness with Yankee veneration for the almighty dollar.” Thousands of southern men and women were experiencing wage labor for the first time, as well as hunger and want and “extortion”; class conflict that had been concealed by planter hegemony came into the open. The hungry took matters in their own hands in cities and towns all across the South, and rioters, most of them women in Richmond, looted stores for food and necessities that the market denied them. A mass meeting of workers in the Confederate capital resolved that “it is the duty of the Government to take care of the unfortunate and not the rich.”

The emphasis upon the crisis of extortion places it nearer than anything else in the book to an explanation of the Confederacy’s downfall. Professor Faust stops short of that, however, knowing full well the pitfalls of monocausal explanations and many multicausal efforts. Such suggestions as she does venture would seem to put her at odds with the conclusions of the most impressive effort so far to explain the South’s loss of the war. Its authors “single out the weakness of southern nationalism as what lawyers would call the proximate cause of Confederate defeat” and seek to “show the primacy of this factor.”3

Drew Faust believes that the prominence of slavery in the wartime consciousness of southerners has been understated. Vice-President Alexander Stephens said plainly enough that slavery was the “cornerstone” of the Confederacy, and if President Davis denied this, she thinks that “Davis, not Stephens, was in reality the anomaly.” The secession conventions that stated the causes of their action almost invariably put the defense of slavery first. World opinion to the contrary notwithstanding, they held their view to be “not a stigma or a source of guilt but a badge of righteousness and a foundation for national identity and pride.” To persuade a skeptical world they took pains to disseminate proslavery ideas and made much of the testimony of proslavery slaves and the loyalty of “faithful servants.” Of course, the slaves were anything but consistently loyal, but the claim of their loyalty speaks clearly of the owners’ desperate need to believe they were.

Confederate proslavery propaganda went hand in hand with demands for reform of “the peculiar institution.” Defense against “Northern fanatics” had hampered criticism before the war, reformers said, but Secession freed criticism and opened the gates to reforms needed to make slavery conform to the institution described in the Bible and to the Confederacy’s self-image. At least three state governors supported reforms, and legislative dockets were crowded with bills on the rights of slaves in marriage, family relations, religion, preaching, and literacy. Powerful clergymen as well as politicians joined in the movement, but few of the modest reforms had been legalized by the end of the war. Without the war the author thinks the South “might have ‘reformed’ slavery into a different sort of unfree labor” and extended it through the nineteenth and possibly into the twentieth century.

From the start Confederate nationalism was in the grip of internal contradiction and paradox. Exigencies of war and circumstance forced the South into more compromising or mediating every aspect of its rule. At one point its leaders found themselves seeking popular votes to ratify the elimination of universal suffrage. It could be said that the South lost its cause before it lost the war. And on the other hand that New England lost its cause after the Union won the war.

This Issue

March 15, 1990