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"Upon the Altar of Our Country": Confederate Identity, Nationalism, and Morale in Harrison County, Texas, 1860–1865

From: Civil War History
Volume 55, Number 2, June 2009
pp. 278-306 | 10.1353/cwh.0.0060

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In the 1960s, eminent historian David M. Potter submitted that generic nationalism did not function independently of other loyalties, but rather, "[subsumed] them all in a mutually supportive relation to one another." He further noted that the most successful form of nationalism is that which encompasses other forms of loyalty, whether they are, for example, family, religion, community, or patriotism, rather than marginalizing or even superseding such qualities. Nationalism, therefore, was not a monolithic creation designed to work and function alone in psychological and ideological conceptions. Historians have long since recognized Potter's interpretations and have channeled his thesis to form their own understanding of the creation, foundation, and inherent meaning of Confederate nationalism. Although debates have arisen regarding the level of commitment Confederates had for achieving their ultimate goal of independence, most scholars agree that, regardless of their interpretation of Confederate loyalty and dedication, Confederate nationalism existed, albeit in varying degrees. Thus, most scholarly accounts of the subject adopt facets of Potter's analysis to include interconnected loyalty to leaders (for example, Robert E. Lee), region, symbols, national memory, and even gender. Even though historians have also acknowledged that Confederate nationalism was influenced through local attachments and loyalties, few studies address directly the diverging gradations of this phenomenon.1

Scholars have commonly studied the Confederacy as a whole (or larger regions in the South) to arrive at extensive conclusions concerning the degrees of Confederate identity and nationalism. This essay is based on a single county—Harrison County, Texas—in order to use the local level as a test case against the sizable backdrop of Confederate historiography. Local studies provide color and texture to the larger Confederate experience and serve as a practical and effective means of approaching larger historiographic problems. Although one county's wartime history is not a perfect mirror of the collective experience of the entire South, or even a single state, scholars could well benefit by studying Confederate nationalism and identity from the bottom up, as well as from the top down. Historical knowledge of the Confederacy as a nation is crucial, of course, but studies on a smaller scale can illuminate the complexities and nuances of the larger story of Confederate nationalism.2 Thus, this essay functions on multiple levels. First, it seeks to demonstrate how one county's sense of Confederate nationalist identity was constructed and maintained on the basis of local loyalties and attachments, peculiarities traditionally difficult to see in broader studies. Second, the study reveals how citizens in a restricted area attempted to maintain their distinctive identity in spite of the unstable and fluctuating nature of wartime morale.

Civil War–era nationalism, identity, and morale are abstractions that, when defined properly and placed in an appropriate theoretical framework, can reveal their inextricable links within the actions and expressions of mid-nineteenth-century respondents. Nationalism was the level of commitment—whether through sentiment, expression, action, or deed—that an individual directed toward the Confederate cause. This did not necessarily signify blatant and sometimes brash expressions of patriotism but was instead, a more multifarious construct that required "evidence of unifying and defining characteristics among a people." The unifying qualities, however, necessitated more than a simple recognition and acceptance of a nation's cause or purpose. Historian James M. McPherson noted that Confederate nationalism encompassed an obligation to defend home, family, and country from invading northern armies. Thus, as numerous scholars have suggested, nationalism was an intricate combination of local and state loyalties that functioned simultaneously and were fused together with adherence to the actual nation. Antebellum, as well as wartime southerners, concurrently harbored both local and national allegiances as long as the goals of community and nation remained consistent. Scholars have long recognized this, of course, and a study intentionally focused on a microcosmic portion of Confederate society has the potential to uncover the specific methods some southerners used (or did not use) to channel local attachments in forming an ideological bond to the larger Confederacy.3

If conceptual nationalism was based on the theory of outward dedication to one's nation, identity was the inward and psychological manifestation of the multiple loyalties that Confederate nationalism required. Identity is a unique sense of one...



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