Civil War History 47.1 (2001) 80-82
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Voices in the Storm:
Confederate Rhetoric, 1861-1865
On election day 1984, Walter Mondale discovered the sad fate of orators who speak unhappy truths. As Karen E. Fritz observes in this slim but elegantly written study, successful rhetoricians act as barometers of public opinion fully as much as they serve to influence that opinion. As a result, the speeches analyzed in Voices in the Storm provide new insights into the now-familiar Confederate trajectory from optimism to pessimism. By examining the public discourse of leading statesmen and by paying special attention to nuances of metaphor and phrasing, Fritz demonstrates [End Page 80] that the war years forced white Southerners to reconsider their attitudes toward their country and its natural features, their opponents, and even their honor and courage.
The ability to deliver grand, lengthy speeches in stentorian tones was a much-valued attribute in antebellum America, and nowhere more so than in the Old South. But rarely has the substance beneath the fury received the attention it deserves. Merle Curti derided Confederate oration as "ephemeral," while William J. Cash was even more dismissive: "gasconade and bluster" (23). Yet Fritz found as many examples of calm, rational lectures designed to appeal to reason--some even lightened with occasional touches of humor--as she did bombastic harangues contrived to appeal to emotion. To the author's enormous credit, she takes both speaker and audience seriously. Where too many scholars adhere to the old adage that one should pay attention only to what politicians do, and very little to what they say, Fritz understands that nineteenth-century oratory amounted to almost an organic connection between statesmen and their electorate.
Fritz's chapter on slavery is especially instructive. Early in 1861, white ministers and politicians praised bondpeople as loyal servants who would be a "source of strength in war" (81). But as the conflict dragged on and slaves proved to be anything but faithful to the Confederate cause, orators grew strangely silent on the issue. Not until Congress began to debate arming bondmen in 1864 did the topic reemerge in Confederate rhetoric. By then, a majority of speakers had little use for either slavery or slaves and nothing but scorn for the politicians who had foolishly drawn their region into the destructive war.
Equally insightful is Fritz's explication of how planter politicians quickly labored to dismantle antebellum notions of rank and status to enlist their farmer brethren in the conflict. For generations, Southern gentlemen relied upon every method from duels to inequitable state apportionment to maintain their class prerogatives. But now they needed armed yeomen beside them on the battlefield. Having devoted a long career to ignoring the interests of propertyless white laborers, Georgia congressman Daniel Baringer abruptly began to denounce those who promoted "one class of society against another." He insisted that Confederate patriots recognized "no 'ranks' in society" (101).
Fritz is less successful, however, in explaining what her brief inquiry adds to the ever-growing shelf of Civil War historiography. "Confederate oratory," she admits early on, "has not been ignored by the historical community" (xiii), yet she never explains how her analysis differs from recent, more extensive studies by Drew Gilpin Faust and George Rable. Indeed, some of the author's findings will come as no surprise to most scholars. The bloody failure of Confederate nationalism, she suggests, forced orators to confront the fact that slaves wished to be free, that war-weary civilians had grown selfish and defeatist, and that soldiers had become "hardened by the war" (124). Gen. Joseph E. Johnston is twice re-christened as Johnson, and James Murray Mason appears as "Mr. James Mason" (41). Notes belong at the foot [End Page 81] of the page, not at the end of the chapter, and small typos and misplaced colons mar Fritz's consistently graceful prose.
Douglas R. Egerton
Le Moyne College