Civil War Book Review: Confederate Minds: The Struggle for Intellectual Independence in the Civil War South

by James Durney on September 27, 2010 · 0 comments

Confederate Minds: The Struggle for Intellectual Independence in the Civil War South
by Michael T. Bernath

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press (July 7, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0807833916
  • ISBN-13: 978-0807833919

Independent, Southern tone, original and peculiar to itself

You can always find a debate over whether the Confederate States of America were a nation or not.  Those involved often cite international law, ability to hold territory or function as a government.  This book presents a unique view of this question.  The author looks at the CSA not as a government, a member of the international community or an army but as an intellectual unit.  The question might not be if the CSA was a nation but if they saw themselves as a nation.  This book is a history of the Confederacy’s attempt to establish a new national intellectual identity.

The North dominated American publications, education and theater.  Nationally and regionally, Southern intellectual products are considered inferior, stifling their voice.  With secession, Southern publishers, educators and artists gain a captive market trying to step up and fill the void created by the loss of Northern imports.  This book is a history of how they tried to do this, where they succeeded and where they failed.  The author is very fair in his evaluation.  The glass is neither half-full nor is it half empty.  He tells the story in an evenhanded manner allowing the participates to evaluate their efforts.  If I felt he was leaning one way, in the next chapter, I felt he was leaning the other way.

This is a large complex story, with a number of characters and many activities. Newspapers have a major part of the story.  We cover the weekly and monthly journals more than the daily papers.  The dailies were concerned with current news while these papers were comment and literary papers.  The book covers the full range from literary to religious to agricultural.  This allows us to see the problems of publishing and the manners involved in borrowing.  We trace the progress of the war through relocations and closings.  Financial considerations caused by the blockade and inflation play a part in this story.

Another major area is education.  As Northern textbooks disappear, Southern authors rush to supply basic needs.  Male teachers and students enter the army and women step forward as teachers.  The volume of book publishing was a surprise.  In addition to thousand of textbooks, novels and histories are published right up to the end of the war.  Educators like editors, struggle with shortages, draft laws and the war.  These people show a dedication to preserving and expanding the school systems in spite of the ravages of war.  They manage to provide basic education to the children during the war right up to the bitter end.

Theater, poetry, fiction may not have flourished but many valiant attempts filled the papers, books and the stage.  The author looks at each of these not only in Richmond but also throughout the CSA.

This book shows how much intellectual activity occurred and how it was across the CSA.  Every major city has theaters, an active publishing industry and schools.  This is a unique look at the Confederacy.  The names are new, many of the locations are not major centers and the struggles are different.  The chapter titled “Conclusion” is almost worth the price of the book as the author looks at their efforts, Reconstruction, the Lost Cause and beyond.

This is not an easy, quick or fun read.  The author writes well but intellectual prose is not the easiest to follow.  Nineteenth Century prose, always difficult, will require rereading.  This is a rewarding read.  It is stimulating opening and area of the war that we do not often see.  This is a detailed look at the home front in an essential industry and the development of a nation.


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