- Civil War and Agrarian Unrest: The Confederate South and Southern Italy by Enrico Dal Lago
Enrico Dal Lago has made a career of comparative history, a methodology with few true adherents owing to the difficulties of language mastery, a growing shortage of resources for research and travel, and often conflicting field-based identities for graduate students looking to market themselves. Nevertheless, Dal Lago’s body of work is a testament to the value of such an approach. His latest book carries the timeline of his Agrarian Elites: American Slaveholders and Southern Italian Landowners, 1815–1861 (2005) forward into the civil wars brought on by the two groups of elites examined in that work. By engaging in a sustained comparative study of the Confederate South and southern Italy during the U.S. Civil War and [End Page 478] the years of the Great Brigandage, respectively, Dal Lago seeks to broaden the discussions of nationalism, class struggle, and internal dissent perennially debated by scholars of these events.
His central thesis is that “inner civil wars”—civil wars within the larger civil war featuring antigovernmental guerrilla operations and massive agrarian unrest—fatally weakened the nation-building processes spear-headed by agrarian elites in these regions. However, in both cases, the victors restored the power of agrarian landowners following their defeats, disappointing the yeomen, slaves, and peasants whose resistance played key roles in the failure to build a Confederate nation, on the one hand, and to solidify the new Italian state in the Mezzogiorno, on the other. It is an enormously ambitious work that tackles some of the biggest questions in Civil War scholarship: the causes of secession, the role of Unionist sentiment in eroding Confederate nationalism, the degree to which slave self-emancipation harmed the Confederate war effort, and, ultimately, why the South lost. Along the way, however, the work’s dense detail and need to constantly hedge against its own conclusions lessen its potential impact beyond an audience of specialists.
The narrative unfolds across eight chapters that alternate between large-scale comparisons of the two civil wars and closer examinations of individual regions. In Dal Lago’s view, secession from the Union was a “preemptive counterrevolution,” an extreme attempt to protect the regional autonomy of slave owners and “prevent possible radical changes entailed by centralizing policies” (29). In this way, he says, it resembles southern Italian landowners’ support for Italian national unification over loyalty to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. However, the actions of a privileged minority of property owners did not automatically erase existing loyalties to previous regimes—the Union and the Bourbon Kingdom—and so despite early military successes, both counterrevolutions began with the possibility of future “inner civil wars” already looming.
The question of legitimacy is a key theme in Dal Lago’s analysis of these conflicts. Both the Union and exiled Bourbon rulers railed against the supposed legitimacy of the Confederate and Italian causes, both at home and abroad. He uses the study of East Tennessee to show how the rejection of that legitimacy led to irregular warfare by pro-Unionists that ate away at Confederate administrative control in several key areas. In this section Dal Lago has clearly found inspiration in the insights of scholars who detail the international responses to the birth of the Confederate nation, such as Don Doyle, and the recent fluorescence of work that elevates the centrality of guerrilla warfare to the failure of the Confederacy. Dal Lago writes that the [End Page 479] Confederacy’s response to bridge burnings and other acts of pro-Unionist resistance in East Tennessee amounted to a “reign of terror” that ironically further undermined Confederate nationalism among civilians caught in the middle (192). In Italy, he compares these events to pro-Bourbon brig-ands in Northern Terra di Lavoro and the reprisals of the Italian army.
The second half of the book makes a comparison between the actions of African American slaves in the Confederacy and those of Italian peasants to argue that in...