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Why Confederates Fought: Family & Nation in Civil War Virginia.

Why Confederates Fought: Family & Nation in Civil War Virginia. By Aaron Sheehan-Dean (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007. 291 pp.).

Virtually every scholarly treatment of Confederate motivation has pivoted around the assumption that the innate desire to defend one's home compelled Southerners to fight against long odds. Some of the first scholars to tackle this issue insisted that Confederates gave themselves to the cause out of an almost biological drive to protect their loved-ones and their land. They fought, in other words, because they had no other choice. The Yankees were in their midst. Since the 1980s, historians have distanced themselves from a survivalist explanation by stressing that Confederates were deeply ideological, even down to the lowly private. Their letters frame the defense of home as part of a broader defense of republicanism, slavery, manliness, and honor. But in reclaiming Johnny Reb as a man of ideas, historians have lost sight of the ways that soldiers were connected and informed by the fundamental building blocks of political loyalty--the family and community. In his impressive Why Confederates Fought: Family & Nation in Civil War Virginia, Aaron Sheehan-Dean unites these two broad scholarly approaches by knitting together the practical and the ideological exchanges that gave Confederates just cause to continue fighting, even when the war appeared utterly hopeless to outsiders.

Sheehan-Dean's argument does not resurrect the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War that denies the centrality of slavery, that extols the sacrifices of Confederates as a noble band of brothers, or that portrays the Southern home front as perfectly united. He begins his study by showing how whites of all classes were embedded politically, economically, and socially in a slave society. With this as his foundation, we follow his sample group of Virginia soldiers from Fort Sumter to Appomattox. His treatment brilliantly brings together the overlapping material, ideological, and emotional worlds of Virginia soldiers. No other study of Civil War soldiers succeeds like Why Confederate Fought in integrating all the dimensions of the soldier experience. Too many studies, including the important works of James McPherson and Reid Mitchell, tend to see the written word as an unambiguous reflection of social reality. We lose, in the process, the context in which these letters were constructed. In fact, much of the recent soldier scholarship uses snapshot quotes to advance timeless generalizations about motivation. Thankfully, Sheehan-Dean does not rely on such a technique nor does he accept soldier letters at face value. He digs beneath the words so that we can see how soldiers represented their experiences to loved ones within the context of the army and within the changing conditions on the home front, which the author masterfully connects to the army.

As Sheehan-Dean shows, Confederates were always in the act of remaking their identities as Virginians and Confederates. In this way, the author complicates the simplistic and tired question about whether Southern soldiers were sufficiently nationalistic or not. Sheehan-Dean is more concerned with how soldiers constantly reworked issues of loyalty as a process of negotiation and renegotiation with themselves, their officers, their families, and other Confederate institutions. He insists that Virginia soldiers came to see the political nation and their domestic nation as inseparable. The merging of these interests led Virginia soldiers to conclude that their families' survival, the very existence of their material world, depended upon the survival of a Southern nation. The discussion of domesticity and its impact on the political culture of Virginia soldiers is especially important, for it enables the author to move away from the ridiculous debate that race was more important than class or vice-versa.

In Why Confederates Fought we have an immensely important book that shows the interplay of motivations and emotions among soldiers adjusting to the lived reality of the army, to the policies of the Confederate government, to the hard war of Union armies, and to the expectations of the loved ones on the home-front. Within the changing military environment, the author never loses sight of these soldiers as men, fathers, husbands, and sons. Their personal relationships, as Sheehan-Dean explains, are crucial to understanding their sense of national loyalty. No scholar has made such important connections before, enabling Sheehan-Dean to give us a deeply humanistic view of Confederate soldiers. We see them, not as simple-minded brutes, but as men who struggled to preserve deep emotional ties with their loved ones while coming to terms with the enormity of killing other human beings.

Peter S. Carmichael

West Virginia University
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Author:Carmichael, Peter S.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2010
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