James Broomall is Director of the George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War and Assistant Professor of History at Shepherd University. This interview is based on his new book, Private Confederacies: The Emotional Worlds of Southern Men as Citizens and Soldiers (The University of North Carolina Press, 2019).
JF: What led you to write Private Confederacies?
JM: I have always enjoyed reading works of cultural history and anthropology. I have also been a student of the Civil War era since childhood. Over time my varied areas of study merged as I became interested in how Americans understood, portrayed, and experienced civil war and reconstruction. Ultimately, then, I wrote Private Confederacies to better grasp the impact of war on the individual and to explore modes of cultural expression.
My project started to take shape and my research questions crystallized after reading the letters and diaries of white Southerners in the post-Civil War era. Confederate veterans, in particular, compelled me because the sentiments they offered did not align with what I had read about antebellum Southerners. Before the Civil War, as it is often related, men had largely been defined by public postures, governed by arcane codes, and permitted few personal disclosures. Yet, in the letters I read veterans reached out to old military comrades searching for emotional support and to discuss wartime events with startling transparency. In other cases, men’s diaries meditated on trauma and loss. The disclosures were raw and intimate. The more I read, the more I wanted to understand the broader arc of how white Southerners configured, indeed reconfigured, notions of masculinity and how they translated their feelings on paper and to friends and family. To address these issues I created a study that spanned peace, war, and reconstruction (moving from the 1840s to the 1870s) and examined the lives and expressions of white Southern men and women.
The American Civil War is often, and rightly, portrayed as a transformative event that had profound social, economic, and political consequences. I wrote Private Confederacies because I sought to understand had individuals interacted with and responded to their worlds during a period of massive transition and change. The conflict changed the lives of individuals in deeply personal ways. We as scholars are just beginning to plumb the depths of Southerners’ emotional lives. Stories of loss and trauma—the long shadows of war—have received more of scholars’ attention over the past decade, especially, resulting in a number of important works. I wanted to both enter and expand that historiographical conversation.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Private Confederacies?
JM: I argue that Confederate soldiers, raised in an antebellum culture that demanded self-control, struggled to maintain traditional notions of manliness because of the privations of camp, the harsh regime of military life, and the traumas of combat. Veterans came to rely on each other for physical comfort, psychological support, and personal security; accordingly, they held a heightened sense of brotherhood with their comrades-in-arms and forged transformative emotional communities that lent support during military service but also underpinned paramilitary campaigns of white supremacy in the Reconstruction era.
JF: Why do we need to read Private Confederacies?
JM: I believe, with due humility, that there are three primary reasons why audiences should read my book.
First, Private Confederacies expresses the significance of emotion and gender to cultural evaluation and explores the association between private feelings and public acts. I worry that many audiences have both underestimated the power of emotions and failed to historicize feelings. I use insights from emotions history to frame my study—an approach that is rather unique to studies of the Civil War-era. Further, I draw upon the sensibilities of anthropology, art history, material culture, and intellectual history. I therefore feel that Private Confederacies, though rooted in the mid-nineteenth-century American South, speaks to wider audiences because of its methodological breadth.
Second, at its heart, Private Confederacies takes seriously the importance of emotional communities—a powerful explanatory framework developed by Barbara H. Rosenwein. I find that, on the one hand, men endured the difficulties of military service by relying on their fellow soldiers of psychological support and material comfort. Men’s reliance on homosocial communities, on the other hand, became essential to the formation of paramilitary organizations and the Ku Klux Klan in the Reconstruction era. Emotional communities, therefore, demonstrate how power was constructed and maintained by white Southerners during the periods of emancipation and reconstruction—when the world was remade but freedom not fully realized.
Finally, I deliberately used a narrative writing style throughout the work, yet I did so without sacrificing scholarly rigor so as to remain relevant to the historiography. The book weaves together the personal stories of white Southerners in war and peace and draws more freely upon their words than is typically witnessed in history books. It is my hope, once again, that these choices will appeal to broader audiences.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
JM: My passion for American history is rooted in my childhood. I had incredibly generous parents who took me to antique stores, battlefields, house museums, and historic sites around the country since before I can remember. Moreover, they cultivated my love of books by filling my shelves with works of history and literature. My interest in and approach to the past matured over time and graduate training became of paramount importance. I gravitated toward the study of the 18th and 19th centuries in the American South. Once again, I benefited from incredible mentors who taught me not only to examine my sources critically but also to consider a wide range of evidence—from manuscripts to material culture. I came to specialize in the Civil War era because of my deep interest in how black and white Southerners shaped and understood the massive changes enacted by war and reconstruction.
JF: What is your next project?
JM: I am moving from inward descriptions of men’s emotional lives to outward visual representations of war. Currently, I am researching and writing about a Union veteran, James Hope, who was a member of the Hudson River School of art. Hope, a member of the Vermont Brigade and a veteran of the battle of Antietam, created a series of monumental canvases tracing the ebb and flow of battle on September 17, 1862. The striking depictions strip away notions of glory capturing instead blasted landscapes and bloated bodies. The broader project will explore the interplay between material culture and visual art to understand how soldier-artists, such as Hope, portrayed the personal dimensions of war. Peace may have marked an end of military operations but artists maintained a martial culture on canvas and paper. Through this art soldiers processed their military service and created powerful representations of the conflict. Scenes of camp life illustrated the emotional linkages to their comrades-in-arms, while grim depictions of battle sought to enshrine the roles of the rank-and-file. Soldier-artists often focused on the intimate aspects of war, for they wanted to represent the conflict’s impact at a personal level.
JF: Thanks, James!