The Necessity of National Unity: Defeated Confederates’ International Appeals to UnityRoundup
tags: Civil War, Reconstruction, Confederacy, Lost Cause
Ann L. Tucker is an assistant professor of history at the University of North Georgia. She earned her PhD at the University of South Carolina, and is the author of Newest Born of Nations: European Nationalist Movements and the Making of the Confederacy (UVa Press, 2020). She studies the US South and Civil War Era through a transnational perspective. You can find her at her website, annltucker.com, or on twitter @annltucker.
Citizens were divided. Violence threatened the stability of the nation. After the violence ended, calls rose for unity. This pattern played out recently with calls to move past and forgive insurrectionists in the name of national unity following the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol. Such a pattern is not unique to the Capitol riot, however, nor new in history. Similar patterns of division, violence, and calls for unity played out in the wake of the American Civil War. In particular, former Confederates, perhaps unexpectedly, demanded national unity in the months and years following their defeat. In making their case for national unity, former Confederates argued that they, too, were not the first to seek national unity in the wake of national violence. Drawing on the rich contemporary nineteenth century history of largely defeated nationalist movements in Europe, Confederates used comparisons between the defeated Confederacy and defeated nations in Europe to push for national unity – and, more specifically, for their own particular vision of national unity – in the aftermath of Confederate defeat.
Unity, of course, had been at the heart of the Civil War itself, as white southerners had rejected unity with the North and pursued independent nationhood instead, while the United States had fought to preserve national unity. Now, in the wake of four years of violence, bloodshed, and warfare, as former Confederates suddenly faced the consequences of their actions, even former Confederates found appeal in the idea of unity. They, however, held a very different vision of unity than did the Union during the war, or the Republicans during Reconstruction. For former Confederates, embracing unity was not an admission of culpability for the destruction of secession and the Civil War, nor an indication of true desire to unite with the North in reconstructing the postwar nation. Instead, for defeated Confederates, calling for unity was a means of forcing the Reconstruction to occur on their terms. They demanded that the nation could only be reconstructed through full forgiveness and restoration of power for former Confederates, with no punishment, accountability, or even alterations to the social, economic, and political system of white supremacy.
International comparisons proved particularly useful for former Confederates seeking to claim that unity could only come through forgiveness. In particular, defeated Confederates used international comparisons to argue that unity could only be achieved through pacification. These international examples taught that the only way to move forward was to forgo punishment or consequences, and instead restore full power to the same defeated Confederates who initiated the war in the first place.
Macon Telegraph published “A Lesson from Italy,” declaring that the king of the new nation of Italy provided an example of virtue and democracy in the wake of war that the world, especially the US, would be wise to follow, and contrasted this approach with the US’s supposed course of using the excuse of war to limit white southerners’ democratic rights. Turning to the enemy of aspiring nations in Europe, the New Orleans Picayune asserted that “the Radical [Republican] policy, indeed, rejecting as it does the most approved lessons of history… would seem to… copy from Russia, nothing but the harsh outlines of a gigantic, unreasoning, unforgiving, pitiless despotism.” The Richmond Whig concurred as it praised President Andrew Johnson, infamous for his leniency toward former Confederates, for enabling unity by “appeal[ing] to [former Confederates’] highest and noblest impulses.” Johnson’s policies, according to the Whig, allowed the nation to “bury the past and to look only to the future.” In contrast, the writer for the Whig declared, Radical Republicans sought “mistrust, military domination, and physical power,” and advanced policies that would “make of the South a province in which shall be smothered the condensed malignity and passionate hatred of Poland, Ireland, and Venetia.” To former Confederates, any policy other than forgiveness would destroy hopes for national unity by recreating the oppression found in tyrannical European empires.
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