- The Movement that Created and Defeated the Confederacy
Speaking at Newcastle on October 7, 1862, England’s chancellor of the exchequer, William Ewart Gladstone, declared, “Jefferson Davis and the other leaders have made an army; they are making, it appears, a navy; and they have made what is more than either, they have made a nation.” Gladstone spoke too soon: not only had the Confederacy yet to establish itself militarily as completely as he thought, but that Confederate nation fell apart in 1865—although many of its ideas about racial inferiority and state power retained their vigor, at the time and even today. Historians long have debated how and why the South lost, or how the North won, depending on the angle from which they offered their perspective. In 1960, even before the completion of the revolution in historical writing that introduced people other than nonwhite men into the equation, David Herbert Donald argued, “In the administration of the Southern army, in the management of Southern civilian affairs, and in the conduct of Southern political life, there is . . . extensive evidence that we should write on the tombstone of the Confederacy: ‘Died of Democracy.’”1 Donald contended that Southerners had grown so accustomed to the freedoms for which they professed to fight that they refused to accept limitations on them.
This attitude extended not only to the politicians who concentrated their criticism on Davis, but also to Confederate soldiers. For all the accounts of their adoration for Robert E. Lee and their Herculean efforts on behalf of such commanders as Stonewall Jackson, they retained the right to ignore orders from and express their resentment toward officers they saw as having no right to claim to be above them. Considering the superiority the North already enjoyed in manpower (more than two to one), this posed endless problems for the rebels as they tried to replace the men they lost in what evolved into a war of attrition. Yael Sternhell has divined another issue that proved problematic for the Confederacy: movement. It helped both to build the nation that Gladstone prematurely acknowledged and to destroy it. As Sternhell [End Page 77] demonstrates in Routes of War: The World of Movement in the Confederate South, Southerners created the sense of nationalism that they required to be able to succeed at seceding. Then they tore down their own edifice, and they did both by voting with their feet.
Military historians long have discussed the importance of movement during the Civil War, from the North’s ability to shift men and materiel to Jackson’s famous marches, especially in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Aware of the issue’s resonance—“the two constitutive elements of war-making remain the systematic employment of violence and the mass movement of people across space,” Sternhell writes in the book’s first paragraph (p. 1)—she addresses the impact of movement on the Southern armies, but with a twist. For the military, movement had several different meanings and effects.
One key was the way in which movement alternately built and destroyed armies. That was especially true of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia—admittedly the focus here, since Sternhell concentrates on Virginia and weaves in the rest of the Confederacy only as it relates to that state. “Confederate generals’ extensive use of movement made marching an experience as central to the lives of Virginia soldiers as was the ordeal of battle,” she writes (p. 51). Indeed, it was an ordeal for both the soldiers and the civilians they encountered. At first, the soldiers were excited to be moving. The rest of the population thrilled to the sight of an army on the march as a sign of progress, much as Abraham Lincoln had waited, both eagerly and forlornly, for the soldiers who were to come through Maryland after the firing on Fort Sumter. Soldiers and civilians alike even saw a well-organized withdrawal or retreat as an example of the South’s dignity and ability. Neither was it lost on them that...