Southern Invincibility: A History of the Confederate Heart, by Wiley Sword, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1999, $27.95.
On the eve of the Civil War, how did Southerners perceive themselves and the cause on which they were about to embark? How did soldiers and civilians respond to the events on the battlefield? How did the experience of war shape Southerners’ thoughts, attitudes and opinions of their cause, their leaders and themselves? What led Southerners to boldly strike for independence, and what sustained them in enduring defeat? Wiley Sword builds upon these themes in his new book Southern Invincibility: A History of the Confederate Heart.
In spite of the book’s provocative title, Sword insists, “This is a book more concerned with ‘why’ than analyzing a culture.” Sword asserts that the powerful emotions unleashed by the experience of war played a crucial role in cementing fixed attitudes in the minds of Southerners. He believes that Southerners united under the banner of the Confederacy because they were motivated by a strong belief in the superiority and invincibility of their culture and cause.
The author’s main objective is to demonstrate the various ways that Southerners expressed their commitment to their nation. Through the wartime diaries and letters of a host of individuals, Sword attempts to capture the essence of Confederate nationalism. He argues that repeated failure in the Western theater depleted morale among soldiers and civilians.
The frustrated soldiers of the Army of Tennessee eventually lost faith in their inept commanders and came to rely on Providence and their comrades as their chief sources of motivation. Conversely, the Army of Northern Virginia’s soldiers came to idolize Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson and held them up as the very quintessence of Southern manhood.
Sword contrasts Southerners’ emotions in the wake of defeat at Gettysburg and Vicksburg and argues that the hard-fought defeat at Gettysburg did not snuff out the spirit of invincibility in the Army of Northern Virginia. In occupied New Orleans, however, the story was different. Upon hearing of the fall of Vicksburg, the defeat at Gettysburg and the deaths of two of her brothers, Sarah Morgan and those close to her fell into deep despair. Sword stresses that the experience of war slowly changed soldiers and civilians alike as the magnitude of their struggle became ever clearer. In spite of the war’s high cost in lives and property, however, Southerners remained true to their cause.
By basing his book entirely on the assumption that emotions were the sole factor that compelled Southerners to fight, Sword does not recognize or discuss the connection between the ideological principles on which the Confederacy was established and Southerners’ patriotic attachment to the legacy of 1776. He never considers that Southerners fought for reasons of ideology and principle as much as they fought to protect hearth and home. Furthermore, he focuses on the lives of women on the home front without ever discussing the monumental changes occurring in their world.
In the end, Sword’s conclusion about the nature of the Confederate heart hardly seems like a conclusion at all. The reader must decide for himself if Sword’s theory that Southern invincibility was tied to Southern emotionalism explains the motives that compelled Southerners to fight.
Rodney J. Steward