Southern Cultures 12.1 (2006) 110-112
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Pondering his nation's recent defeat at the hands of its German neighbors, the French religious scholar Ernest Renan wrote in 1882: "Where national memories are concerned, griefs are of more value than triumphs, for they impose duties, and require a common effort." Renan's famous essay "Qu'est-ce qu'une nation?"was a remarkably prescient contribution to what, a century later, has become one of the most important debates of our time. It was Renan who first understood the constructed and contingent nature of nationalism and national identity. The nation, he famously wrote, "is a daily plebiscite." America's southerners, contemplating their own defeated aspirations to nationhood, might have found consolation in Renan's reassuring words that the nation resided in the heart and mind, not the independent state; a nation, he told his shattered French nation, "is a soul, a spiritual principle."
Anne Sarah Rubin's A Shattered Nation provides an unusual window into the soul of the American South during and after its struggle to become an independent nation. Rubin downplays the idea that the South had already developed a separate identity during the antebellum prelude to the war. Confederate nationalism had to be invented quickly in the maelstrom of war, she tells us, and she makes a compelling argument for the novelty and effectiveness of the newly forged national identity. The best model for revolutionary nationalism, and one exploited adroitly at home and abroad, lay in the very nation from which they were seceding. As in 1776, southern revolutionaries suddenly had to define, promote, and inculcate a sense of national identity and loyalty among a population whose language, religion, laws, and customs tied them almost as much to the North as to one another. Elaborating on Drew Faust's splendid The Creation of Confederate Nationalism (1988), Rubin's research unearths a wealth of patriotic [End Page 110] songs, poems, stories, and symbols, all assembled to elicit national loyalty among white southerners. Much of this was appropriated American revolutionary propaganda, like the "Southern Yankee Doodle." ("Yankee Doodle had a mind / To whip the Southern traitors, / Because they didn't choose to live / On codfish and potatoes.") A flood of sentimental doggerel poured out of the pens of southern men and, more often, women, celebrating the virtue of the Confederacy's defenders, demonizing their Yankee enemies, and in all ways possible advancing the idea that the South was a nation—and one with a history, a people, and a future.
One of the most interesting examples of this propaganda effort comes in the brief but important section on Confederate schoolbooks. In the midst of a bloody fight for their very existence, she finds Confederates preparing the young as future patriots. In the Child's First Book, a Confederate reader, a young drummer boy tells young readers that his mother enlisted him in service by saying, "You can do your part, my boy, for the land. For if you will beat the drum, you will take the place of a man." These Confederate textbooks demonstrate not only the hasty and deliberate production of national identity in a revolutionary setting, but also the amazing commitment to building a nation for the future. They also reflect the growing realization that to defend the nation was going to require a good number of willing drummer boys and mothers ready to sacrifice them.
The recent debate over the historic origins and meaning of nationalism revolves around the need of the state to foster a loyal citizenry willing to obey its laws, pay taxes, and defend the nation when needed. Modern wars have called on massive armies, and, whether volunteers or conscripts, they were counted on to march into battle on command, to willingly die (and kill), all in defense of this strange new entity—the nation. This is what makes the American Civil...