What the Civil War Can Teach us About Patriotism

A monument to Union soldiers from Iowa at Vicksburg National Military Park, Vicksburg, Mississippi. Nothing is more patriotic than making sure that death for country is a last and necessary resort.

A monument to Union soldiers from Iowa at Vicksburg National Military Park, Vicksburg, Mississippi. Nothing is more patriotic than making sure that death for country is a last and necessary resort.

The Fourth of July holiday weekend is here, and, in keeping with tradition, Americans will be observing the founding of their nation as only they can: by searing woolly mammoth flanks (on sale at Walmart) on their Realtree-decaled, 124 propane tanked, patio grill to commemorate the time Chuck Norris, a laser cannon-armed cyborg George Washington, and a velociraptor-mounted, open-carrying, tax-cutting Jesus teamed up to win American independence from the overbearing colonial clutches of the gay-communist-British-liberal-anti-freedom zombies.

The Fourth of July is the official holiday for American patriotism, and Americans are a very patriotic people. But in the spirit of Independence Day, it’s worth examining what we mean when we celebrate “patriotism.”

It’s fitting that in recent weeks, the U.S. has undergone some much-needed soul-searching about what role the Confederate battle flag should play in American culture. The debate over the flag speaks to larger themes, especially the American tendency to embrace overly simplified notions about patriotism that dip into the precarious waters of jingoism and blind deference to authority. Real patriotism involves real sacrifice, and real sacrifice means making some really tough decisions about what should be sacrificed and for what purpose. If the sacrifice of patriotism means dying for one’s country, then flag-waving, chest-thumping militarism and the canonization of America and its past simply won’t do.

This is where the American Civil War comes in. As the recent Confederate flag controversy demonstrates, the great sectional conflict — via its symbols and legacy — continues to influence how Americans reflect on concepts such as “freedom” and “patriotism.” These concepts are, of course, fundamental to the annual Fourth of July summer ritual of barbecued mammal flesh and digit-severing explosives.

But in the 150 years since the South laid down its arms at Appomatox Court House, the Civil War has been the subject of much mythologizing, to the point where many Americans view its patriotic legacy with a sort of detached, uncritical nonchalance. Sure, all Americans fancy themselves freedom-loving patriots, but the Civil War’s legacy is far more complex than most people realize, and we’d all be better off is we took a closer look at what the war can teach us about patriotism, with all of its possibilities and pitfalls.

As a test-case for how patriotism played out during the Civil War, let’s consider the experience of the state that still incorporates the Confederate flag into its state banner, the second state to secede from the Union following South Carolina, and the state that still epitomizes the Deep South: Mississippi. The Magnolia State sent over 75,000 of its sons to fight for the Confederacy, and many contemporary Mississippians and other white southerners continue to honor the patriotic services of their Rebel ancestors. But few who honor this patriotic “heritage” likely take the time to consider the very serious ramifications inherent in the otherwise common celebration of unquestioned devotion to a patriotic cause.

In Civil War Mississippi, pro-Confederate boosters quickly developed the assumption that the only acceptable type of patriotism was a total, all-encompassing dedication to the cause of the Confederate States of America. This type of patriotism linked body, mind, and soul to the nation, and it left little room for dissent.

The violent horrors of the Battle of Vicksburg, as depicted in Harper's Weeekly.

The violent horrors of the Battle of Vicksburg, as depicted in Harper’s Weekly.

In 1863, for example, amidst declining southern battlefield fortunes, military desertion, and flagging civilian morale, Mississippi’s rabidly pro-slavery, pro-Confederate senator Albert Gallatin Brown delivered a blistering “State of the Country” speech to the Confederate senate in which he elevated patriotism to a mystical level. “If I were asked…what the country most needs in this hour of peril, I would say patriotism,” Brown bellowed, “an all pervading and universal patriotism; not the babbling, noisy patriotism, that prates of what it is about to do or has done, but the earnest, heartfelt, quiet, but bounding, patriotism that does all things and dares all things, and wholy oblivious as to self, lives only for the cause.” Brown’s words no doubt tore at many Rebel heartstrings, and, with a slightly adjusted context, could be delivered by any contemporary, flag-flanked, Lee Greenwood-serenaded U.S. politician on cable news. But put into practice, the kind of patriotism that is “wholy oblivious as to self” and “lives only for the cause” sets a thorny precedent, and it warrants further thoughts on the blurry line that separates national pride from blind loyalty.

The thousands of Mississippians who lost their lives on the battlefield, both volunteers and conscripts, demonstrated the most solemn display of patriotism that “lives only for the cause.” On the Mississippi home front, however, patriotism wormed its way into the very fabric of everyday life, turning the most mundane of daily activities into a potential test of national loyalty. In this über-patriotic environment, Confederate provost marshals (the heads of military police) arrested and imprisoned civilians on suspicion of colluding with Union forces for merely traveling the state’s roadways. The Union Army occupied Mississippi for much of the war, so something as benign as walking down a road could bring on the wrath of Confederate authorities itching to round up alleged Yankee spies.

But the compelled loyalty didn’t stop there. Thousands of Mississippi civilians who wanted to buy and trade goods at major cities like Memphis, Vicksburg, and New Orleans had to deal with the fact that Union forces occupied those commercial centers. In a state of war where scarce food and supplies went to the armies first, civilians, especially women, were forced to conduct trade with the Yankee enemy, much to the consternation of Confederate patriots who deemed such behavior to be the highest level of treason. Said patriots tried to squelch this “treasonous” trade at every turn by imprisoning traders and confiscating their goods. As one pro-Confederate judge stated, “the idea of any of our people trading with the Yankees, while they are waging this unholy war, slaying our best & dearest flesh & blood…is at once disgraceful and unpardonable.” The judge recommended that traders suffer the “rigid and prompt infliction” of “the severest penalties.”

Even those who managed to smuggle their own property across Union lines and back to their homes ran the risk of Confederate cavalry impressing their food, clothing, medical supplies, liquors, and slaves in the name of fueling the southern war effort. Private property didn’t stand a chance when all good patriots were expected to sacrifice everything to the national cause.

This type of patriotism dealt in totalties, and it put utmost faith in the justness of the cause it served. In December 1863, Confederate President Jefferson tried to explain to his fellow Mississippians why the war — a war started by the South’s slaveholding class for the purpose of winning national independence in order to protect their human property from perceived northern abolitionist fanaticism — was indeed a just cause. “I feel that in addressing Mississippians…their interests, even life itself, should be willingly laid down on the altar of their country,” Davis stated.” What Davis described wasn’t the kind of cheap patriotism that thrives on waving flags simply because they represent “freedom.” For Davis and other Confederates, patriotism meant giving up everything for one’s country, but if you happened to be one of the thousands of southerners who heartedly disagreed with the whole Confederate experiment, then your patriotism had to be enforced by law, by gun, by conscription — by force.

Stephen Colbert

Stephen Colbert: arch satirist of the American tendency towards excessive, unsophisticated patriotism.

The Civil War teaches us that patriotism isn’t any one thing — good or bad. The current American culture that equates spittle-flecked flag-waving and infantile gun-stroking with national sacrifice; that too often fuses blind adherence to authority with a creepily unquestioned fetishization of abstract notions of “freedom,” is a culture that should heed the complex lessons of its own brutal Civil War. In Confederate Mississippi, patriotism often manifested itself as blinding, even totalitarian. If the Fourth of July holiday symbolizes nothing else, it symbolizes an American tradition that should be deeply skeptical of loyalty-by-bayonet, by political force, or by cultural peer pressure.

The Revolution of 1776 was, above all else, a rejection of the long-held notion that loyalties could be — should be — compelled. At their best, the Patriots who won independence from Colonial Britain were driven by the fundamental principle that true patriotism must never be forced by either the gun barrel or blind subservience to a cause, because forced patriotism was tyranny masquerading as freedom. At their worst, the patriots of the Revolutionary Era tarred-and-feathered real and “suspected” British loyalists (aka, Tories) drove them from their homes, arrested them for treason, and even outright attacked them physically. Even in America’s founding years, patriotism had its dark side.

The Confederate revolutionaries of 1861 claimed to be following in the footsteps of their colonial forefathers, but their slaveholding cause wasn’t just. Moreover, their tendency towards compelled patriotism stands as a stark reminder on this Fourth of July holiday of why patriotism involves more than just waving a flag, searing a cylindrical tube of processed hog snouts, and blowing stuff up in your backyard.

Real patriotism involves a critical appraisal of the things that make your country great as well as the things that make it flawed. Real patriotism involves questioning, improving, sympathizing, and resorting to force not out of the fear of being “un-American,” but out of the understanding that force should be a last and necessary resort. So on this Fourth of July Holiday, take some time out to appreciate the complexities of U.S. history and the multifaceted meanings behind patriotism — after all, no one’s forcing you to do otherwise.

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  1. “The Revolution of 1776 was, above all else, a rejection of the long-held notion that loyalties could be — should be — compelled. The Patriots who won independence from colonial Britain were driven by the fundamental principle that true patriotism must never be forced by either the gun barrel or blind subservience to a cause, because forced patriotism was tyranny masquerading as freedom.”

    I have to disagree with this in reality. While the idea sounds correct, the reality was that the people in any area during the Revolution exerted a great deal of peer pressure on others to conform to the majority view. The Continental Association confiscated guns and supplies from suspected Loyalists. Those who sought to remain neutral were often not given a choice in the matter, especially as the war went on. The act of tarring and feathering someone was a act of patriotic coercion meant to intimidate both the object of scorn and others of a like mindset.

    That said, the patriots had an answer for the questions that came their way. They were quite clear with their thoughts on why they sought independence when that point was reached. Yet, in studying the actual war itself, we see multiple groups with a lot of different motives for taking a side. As with most conflicts in American history we see a lot of shades of gray involved in the struggle and blind patriotism was really not that deeply involved as a result of the various issues.

    I find the Confederate provosts to have acted very similar to communist commissars. it really says a lot about how people view an ongoing conflict when their government has to pass laws requiring them to support their side during it. If the cause is just, then the government should not have to pass such laws. Yet, look at our conflicts and look at the laws passed during them. Sedition acts? Those are always warning signs.

    While many US conflicts featured various laws requiring the support of the people, the Confederate government had to pass the most draconian measures in American history to force their citizens to support their cause. That reflects the huge degree of dissent from the very first day of the conflict which was a major internal problem for them. It also shows there was no united southern people which is a hallmark of mythological dishonesty by the heritage buffoons. You can point to the draft as well. You can also point to the Union’s actions as well which is always interesting.

    I think it really reflects the divisions over the fact that some chose to start a war instead of following the law. Civil wars bring out the worst in people as a whole and this one certainly did.

    • All really good points which I pretty much agree with. My point re: the American Revolution was referring more to the idea of the Revolution, i.e., as a revolt against the forced obedience that characterized monarchical states at the time. This is the best lesson to take away from the Revolution of 1776. But, as you note, no revolution of any kind is free of coercion, peer-pressure, force, and groupthink. Those are all side-effects of patriotism, and, on my more cynical days, I’d say that I’m sick of patriotism in all of its incarnations. Yet again, as you note, the legacy of the American Revolution stands towering over the legacy of the Confederate experiment. Both had their ugliness, but one was, in most ways, just, the other was not.

  2. There is a great beauty to the Revolution. In fact, when the heritage buffoons tried to equate the cause of the Confederacy with that of the Patriots I object strenuously. The Revolution was waged from 1765 to 1776. It was about ideas. In this matter both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson got it right. It was about change. Revolutions are all about change. Their very being is to create change, else there would be no need for a revolution.

    The Civil War on the other hand was started by men who opposed change. The change they rejected was the termination of slavery’s expansion. They could not and would not allow that to happen. For them, any element of change was an anathema. Instead, they chose secession and created a government based on the elimination of change. They firmly entrenched their interests both politically and economically in that government.

    How can anyone say the confederates were revolutionaries with that in mind? There was no beauty in what they created. When we talk about the Revolution we talk about great ideas and great men who wanted to “make the world anew.” There were no great ideas from the Confederacy. Instead, the change they sought to avoid was created directly as a result of their own actions in spite of themselves. The great ideas and great men emerged from the Union side. The lesser men that created the Confederacy had no great deeds to speak of. They sought to entrench slavery.

    In a fitting deed that proves their failure to create anything new, the men of the confederacy then sought to change history by denying that their war was about slavery. While they succeeded in that aspect for many years, their efforts have ultimately failed like their war. The ugliness of their crime against the United States lies exposed for all to see. Americans see it for what it is.

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