The Necessity of National Unity:  Defeated Confederates’ International Appeals to Unity

The Necessity of National Unity:  Defeated Confederates’ International Appeals to Unity

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.[1] 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.”[2] 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.”[3] To former Confederates, any policy other than forgiveness would destroy hopes for national unity by recreating the oppression found in tyrannical European empires.

Hungary, which had risen up and demanded national independence from the Austrian Empire in 1848, only to be defeated, featured heavily in such international comparisons of the necessity of pacification for national unity. The Houston Telegraph, for example, wrote in July of 1865 that the model of Hungary and Austria instructed that national reconciliation could only be achieved by granting full political equality to defeated secessionists. To this journalist, former Confederates had already conceded “their cherished hope of a Southern Confederacy,” had “submitted to… emancipation,” and had “made up their minds to take the oath of allegiance.” To require more would constitute “private malice or revenge,” and would result in similar protracted difficulties as Austria faced by denying Hungarians not only independence, but legislative reform.[4] Similarly, the Richmond Whig declared that Radical Republican policy was “that subjugation and conquest had worked the forfeiture of the constitutional rights of the South,” a policy “more exacting and implacable” than Austrian treatment of Hungary.[5] In Hungary, former Confederates saw a fellow defeated nation. They did not hesitate to use the perception of continued oppression of Hungarians to call for their own appeasement and political power in the name of national unity.

As the emphasis on restoration of former Confederates’ political rights indicates, former Confederates found international comparisons particularly useful in seeking to avoid punishment or even consequences for their actions. Restriction of former Confederates’ rights, however temporary, was one such consequence that former Confederates used international comparisons to declare contrary to national unity, as had the writer in the Richmond Whig comparing Republican policies to those of Austria toward Hungary. Expansion of political rights to freedmen was another action that former Confederates interpreted as punishment, and therefore equated with tyrannical actions abroad. The Macon Telegraph declared, for example, that it had tried to demonstrate former Confederates’ willingness to unite with the North, but that Radicals rejected such peace offerings by insisting on racial equality. In the process, Republicans supposedly recreated Russia’s much-maligned oppression of Poland on American soil.[6] Explicit punishment was even more beyond the bounds of acceptable national reconciliation, according to former Confederates. John Mitchel, an exiled Irish nationalist and Confederate supporter, explained that the prosecution of Jefferson Davis “is not a new idea… it has been tried in Poland, in Ireland, in Venetia and elsewhere,” but he reasoned that it failed as a “method of reconciling the bleeding, disaffected communities with the dominant ones.”[7]

To former Confederates, defeat must be followed by appeasement, and any punishment or even consequences would destroy any possibility of national unity. International comparisons, drawing on examples of defeated and oppressed nations – and therefore of failure of national unity – abroad, aided former Confederates in making their case. Indeed, by developing international comparisons, former Confederates sought to draw boundaries of acceptable action on the part of the victorious North, beyond which defeated Confederates would refuse to accede to national unity and reunion. Former Confederates’ cries for unity, then, were not good faith calls for actual national unity. Rather, as their international comparisons show, former Confederates’ calls for unity were an attempt to escape accountability, and to retain full political power and dominance, despite their defeat.[8]

The nation’s subsequent decision to acquiesce to former Confederates’ vision of unity had tragic consequences. It allowed former Confederates to reclaim full and exclusive control of southern politics and to maintain white supremacy through violence and through restriction of political rights to freedmen. As Reconstruction fell, and, with it, rights and hopes for equality for freedpeople, former Confederates achieved their vision of national unity, at the cost of true equality for black southerners, and true democracy for the nation.

[1] “A Lesson from Italy,” Macon Telegraph, Jun 4, 1866.

[2] “Moral Difficulties of Restoration,” New Orleans Picayune, Oct 19, 1866.

[3] “How to Conquer,” Richmond Whig, Sep 29, 1865.

[4] Houston Tri-Weekly Telegraph, Jul 21, 1865.

[5] “The People of Hungary – The People of the Southern States,” Richmond Whig, Mar 27, 1866.

[6] “Can’t Go It,” Macon Telegraph, Jun 14, 1867.

[7] “John Mitchel’s Opinion,” Augusta Daily Constitutionalist, Jun 21, 1866.

[8] For more analysis of former Confederates’ use of international comparisons to shape a pro-Confederate Reconstruction, please see my chapter “To ‘Heal the Wounded Spirit’:  Former Confederates’ International Perspective on Reconstruction and Reconciliation,” in Reconciliation after Civil Wars:  Global Perspectives, ed. Paul Quigley and James Hawdon (Routledge Press, 2018).

Ann Tucker

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.

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