Newest Born of Nations–The Short, Unhappy Life of the Confederacy

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The Southern Confederacy was one of the most short-lived nations in history. It was also one of the most poorly planned and poorly defended nations and ideas in history. It was one of the largest self-proclaimed nations to ever be so totally subjugated in so short a time in history. Among nations of the world, it was a major failure as a nationalistic movement.

I say all of this as one who deeply loves the South, admires so many of those who defended the Confederacy, and struggles with the issues upon which the South could have and should have made its case. Although it would leave a huge gap in my book collection, a little more patience and prudence could have enabled the eleven states in the southern regions to have survived and worked through the issues confronting them. Instead, they opted to die in a blaze of glory, which left our heritage with more blaze than glory.

Newest Born of Nations: European Nationalist Movements and the Making of the Confederacy by Ann L. Tucker, Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Georgia, is published by the University of Virginia Press.

The 19th century was a busy time for nation building, for independence movements, for revolutionary actions, and for redrawing of the maps of Europe primarily and the Americas. Southerners were long expecting and thinking about the fissures and dividing lines separating their lands and cultures from those of the northern states. Despite so much shared history and so many common connections, there were tensions between the sections of the country. Again and again, these tensions mounted, often spurred by economic activities, often increased by additions of new states to the west, and often intensified by the issues relating to southern slavery.

Southerners looked to the examples and result of nationalistic movements in Europe for both inspiration and caution. The Irish were chafing against the control of their land by the British. Italian states were fighting wars designed to unite the boot shaped peninsula. A multitude of Germanic states were slowly moving toward a unified reich. Poland longed from freedom from Russia and other holders of Polish speaking lands and peoples. And some Southerners felt that the day would come when they too would find it necessary to re-enact the story of the colonies in 1776 and declare and fight for independence.

Just as that earlier War for Independence included Americans who favored staying under British rule, so the South had Unionists who feared and opposed the consequences of breaking away. Debate was, as is typical of deeply felt political ideologies, vigorous on both sides. And both sides appealed to the same European examples for confirmation.

Giuseppe Garibaldi was one of the greatest of patriots and fighters for his nation’s cause of the 19th century. He led the Italians in uniting their multiple states together. He also ventured into South America to help newly emerging nations there as well.

Southerners seeking an independent nation initially lauded him as an example. But Garibaldi was also so highly admired in the North that he was asked to join the Union in their fight.

James W. Quiggle, U. S. Consul in Spain, invited Garibaldi to join the Union’s fight. “Garibaldi replied that if he were not needed in Italy, he would indeed come first for the United States but only on the condition that he be appointed commander in chief of the U. S. Army and granted power to emancipate slaves. ” Certainly that would have created some fascinating history if it had happened.

As events unfolded, Garibaldi’s criticism of southern slavery turned the future Confederates against him. Besides, as the southern Unionist pointed out, his works were unifying a nation while the plan of the Confederacy was dismantling a nation.

The ideas behind the events make for interesting, but often less easily substantiated or less exciting reading. The successes of Garibaldi’s efforts to unify Italy and the long struggle of the Irish to win their freedom have inspired many a story, poem, and tale. The idea of nationalism, the philosophical underpinnings of such movements, and the clash of ideas form more ethereal history.

Those who long for another adventurous read of Stuart’s cavalry or Grant’s capture of Vicksburg will not be pleased with this book. Those who think that slavery was not even on the charts of causes of the war will be downright angered. This book is, in all honesty, a tedious and scholarly read. Most who would want to know the story would prefer a journal article rather than a 205 page discussion.

But Dr. Tucker leaves little room for dissension as far as I can see. Southerners stepping into a time machine would want to know the content of this book before venturing back to change history. Ideas have consequences (to quote Richard Weaver’s title for the millionth time), and poorly conceived ideas have dire consequences. The ideals that many Southerners touted regarding escape from tyranny and joining the free nations of the world were not accepted by other nations.

The end result was that the Confederacy never gained acceptance and recognition from other nations of the world. Would that have made any difference? Not likely, unless an army of British Recoats had been shipped to Canada along with a number of British battleships to break the blockade. Still there is a role that the international family of nations and international opinion plays in events. This failure of the Confederacy may have not been the camel’s backbreaking straw, but it did contribute to the overload.