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  • Confederate Minds: The Struggle for Intellectual Independence in the Civil War South
  • Timothy J. Williams
Confederate Minds: The Struggle for Intellectual Independence in the Civil War South. By Michael T. Bernath. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010. Pp. xiii, 412.)

In this well-researched and provocative study, Michael T. Bernath argues that secession and the creation of the Confederacy endowed southern intellectuals with a sense of urgency to declare not only political intellectual independence from the Union but also intellectual independence. This task was taken up largely by public intellectuals whom Bernath calls "Confederate cultural nationalists": writers of every genre of literature (male and female), editors, publishers, educators, and even playwrights and musicians (4). In order to prove the "underlying agenda" of cultural nationalists and trace its development over the course of the war, Bernath systematically and comprehensively surveyed all Confederate periodical literature printed during the war, as well as textbooks and educational literature, pamphlets, sermons, and miscellaneous other books. The result of this prodigious undertaking is an unprecedented and rich intellectual history of Confederate print culture. [End Page 97]

Confederate Minds flows chronologically from1861 through 1865 and traces important developments in the Confederacy's struggle for intellectual independence. First on the Confederate cultural nationalists' agenda was to inspire an "intellectual call to arms" for a complete detachment from the North (13). Writers, editors, and publishers argued that northern culture was dangerous, immoral, and fanatical, and they urged southerners to quit reading northern literature altogether, especially textbooks. Of course, as Bernath points out, the blockade of southern ports made this task rather easy, and producing Confederate literature became a necessity. Many Confederate secular and denominational periodicals emerged in the first year of war and were committed to the project of the cultural nationalists. Confederate national literature reached a "high-water mark" between 1862 and 1864, as it "expanded to include new genres, giving rise to Confederate belles lettres, humor magazines, illustrated periodicals, juvenile literature, histories, medical journals, soldiers' literature, and even theatre" (151).

In perhaps the strongest chapters of this book, Bernath reveals the importance of education in creating and sustaining the Confederacy's intellectual independence. Significantly, North Carolina became "the epicenter for southern educational activism and textbook publishing" (121). Due to the efforts of educational activists such as Calvin Henderson Wiley, superintendent of Common Schools for North Carolina, education underwent profound transformations during the war, including the development of teacher training, rise of female education, and feminization of the teaching profession. During the war, the Confederacy saw the publication of more than one hundred different textbooks, proving that "calls of the cultural nationalists had not fallen on deaf ears" (130). These developments would make a lasting impact on southern education after the Civil War. Despite many advances in Confederate education and print culture, however, the cultural nationalists' dreams of a southern literary renaissance could not endure the harsh realities of war, defeat, and the dissolution of the Confederacy. Still, Bernath contends that even the cultural nationalists' failed efforts demonstrate that the hardships of war never stopped the Confederacy from establishing a rich and meaningful intellectual culture that would influence southern culture for years to come.

Bernath presents a convincing case for a Confederate print culture, but who were the Confederate readers and how did they receive all of these texts? While Bernath considers editors' critical responses, what would a survey of everyday writing about reading reveal? Was the ostensibly united nationalist front met with similar embrace among the reading public? These [End Page 98] questions, of course, fall beyond the scope of the present work, but they do suggest that, thanks to Bernath's study, the soil now is rich for future research into the Civil War's complex intellectual history. Scholars of the Civil War, southern history, and American intellectual history should be grateful for this fine contribution to the field.

Timothy J. Williams
University of Northern Iowa


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