Hill on Dal Lago, 'Civil War and Agrarian Unrest: The Confederate South and Southern Italy'

Enrico Dal Lago
Michael A. Hill

Enrico Dal Lago. Civil War and Agrarian Unrest: The Confederate South and Southern Italy. Cambridge Studies on the American South Series. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. Maps. 476 pp. $59.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-107-03842-4.

Reviewed by Michael A. Hill (University of Kansas) Published on H-Nationalism (February, 2020) Commissioned by Evan C. Rothera (University of Arkansas - Fort Smith)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54666

Historian Enrico Dal Lago’s newest book is the fourth in what amounts to his series of works comparing the Confederate South and southern Italy. In Civil War and Agrarian Unrest, Dal Lago uses a comparative approach to argue that, between 1860 and 1865, two similar nation-building projects were underway in North America and Italy: the creation of the Confederate States of America and the Kingdom of Italy. Both emerging states, Dal Lago contends, faced similar resistances to their nationalizing projects, with different eventual outcomes: a Confederate defeat and successful Italian unification.

Dal Lago’s argument is, in essence, that industrial and ideological changes in Europe and the Americas during the nineteenth century made land reform seem almost inevitable. Landed elites in both the US South and southern Italy resisted these efforts to redistribute their land to the poor agrarian masses. This resistance to land reform led not only to civil wars in which the military forces of states vying for power clashed but also to “inner civil wars,” in which both regions’ downtrodden actively engaged emergent nationalizing forces while supporting established states that held out the promise, at least for a time, of land redistribution and reform. In the Confederacy, poor whites, freedpeople, and slaves allied themselves with the Union cause and aided in the defeat of the nascent Confederate nation. In southern Italy, landless peasants, called brigands, allied themselves with a declining Bourbon power but failed to prevent the rise of a unified Italian state. In both cases, however, the poor agrarians failed to enact real land reform.

To those who have not considered the Confederacy and southern Italy in a comparative context, the thought of doing so may seem puzzling at first.[1] However, Dal Lago argues that in the mid-nineteenth century, both regions, indeed much of Europe and the Americas, were in the midst of similar crises of land distribution that coincided with the rise of nationalism. In particular, the violence that developed in the Confederacy and southern Italy was, according to Dal Lago, the reaction of elite landowners opposed to altering their traditional ways of life as landless agrarians (poor whites, abolitionists, and slaves in the Confederacy; landless peasants in southern Italy) demanded. Both civil wars were “preemptive counterrevolutions,” initiated by landed elites in order to maintain the social and economic status quo (pp. 27-29). Thus, Dal Lago convincingly demonstrates the usefulness of the comparative approach in this instance.

Dal Lago begins with a useful discussion of the scholarly literature of nations and nationalism. The theory-heavy introduction would serve well in any course about nations and nationalism, regardless of student- or instructor-knowledge of Confederate or Italian history. Each of the two parts of the book also begin with two chapters of theory and historiography about the specific regions (east Tennessee and the Lower Mississippi Valley in the case of the Confederacy; Terra di Lavoro and Upper Basilicata in Italy) Dal Lago takes as his case studies, thus demonstrating once again his impressive knowledge of the topics about which he writes.

A lack of familiarity with these two historiographies can make for difficult reading at times, especially early in the book. For example, someone familiar with the US Civil War but lacking a foundation for unification in Italy might have difficulty keeping track of the various state actors within the book: the Bourbon Kingdom, the Kingdom of Piedmont Sardinia, and the Papal States, for example. Further, the difference between Confederate efforts to secede from an established state (the United States) and the Bourbon attempts to prevent absorption by an emerging state (the Kingdom of Italy) can lead to confusion for the unversed. Additionally, the implications of that difference are not explored in enough depth by Dal Lago. Instead, he prefers to focus on the role played by “the exploited agrarian masses—specifically, Southern slaves and southern Italian peasants—in supporting the established national institutions—i.e., the Union and the Bourbon monarchy—in their wars against the newly established nations—the Confederacy in one case, and the Italian Kingdom in the other” (p. 5). While Dal Lago is probably correct in his assertion that the inner civil wars (Southern whites and African Americans resisting Confederates and Italian peasants resisting the Italian military) are examples of class conflict, the differences between those fighting to preserve the Union in North America and those fighting to prevent Italian unification are quite significant and in need of further fleshing out.

Thus, Dal Lago’s comparison, at times, feels in need of further nuance. He spends a great deal of the book supporting his claims for similarity and very little space discussing the differences. This is perhaps a critique that could be leveled against a fair number of works of comparative history. Dal Lago’s central question is, “How did nineteenth-century newly formed nations cope with internal dissent, and how crucial was the role played by the latter in threatening the survival of those new nations?” (p. 7). In answering this question, he could have spent less space describing the similarities between the Confederacy and southern Italy, which he does convincingly, and more space describing and analyzing the differences. After all, as he readily acknowledges, the Confederacy failed and the Italian Kingdom succeeded. Thus, the second part of his question seems of greater significance: why did internal dissent help bring down one newly formed nation but not the other?

Dal Lago’s answer, essentially, is that Union forces managed to aid white and black Unionists in their struggles against Confederates, while the Bourbonists failed to aid southern Italian peasants against the Italian army. This difference is key, and Dal Lago is correct to emphasize it, but it feels slightly too simplistic. Another important difference seems to be the makeup of the different agrarian forces each new state faced. In the US South, the agrarians seeking to defeat the emergent Confederacy were composed of landless whites, as in east Tennessee, and African American slaves and freedpeople, as in the Lower Mississippi Valley. On the other hand, the Italian army had only to face landless peasants. In Italy, these landless peasants comprised the vast majority of the forces who fought the Italian army during the so-called Great Brigandage. In the Confederacy, poor whites, freedpeople, and slaves might engage Confederate military forces, but they were not responsible for the actual conduct of the war; that responsibility fell to the Union armies. Also, those Union armies actually invaded and conquered Southern territory, forcing the Confederate military to assign a different priority to defeating Southern Unionists as compared to the primacy assigned to the defeat of southern Italian brigands by the Italian military. Dal Lago spends little time exploring such differences, instead often choosing to note many differences with a brief acknowledgment, but then returning to stress the importance of the similarities between his case studies. This is not to say that his argument is unconvincing; on the contrary, he convincingly demonstrates that similar concerns drove landed elites in both the Confederacy and southern Italy to militarily resist social changes, particularly land distribution. But the book would have been strengthened by analyzing the differences more carefully.

All that being said, Civil War and Agrarian Unrest is fine work of scholarship. Not only has Dal Lago mastered two distinct historiographies, but he also demonstrates that the two fields, often viewed as having little in common, can, and should, be placed in conversation in order to provide a broader contextual understanding of the nineteenth-century world that helps us better understand the specifics of the two conflicts. Thus, this work helps to further situate the US Civil War and Italian unification within a larger story of nineteenth-century agrarian unrest and developing nationalism within the Euro-American world. This context is made even more apparent by Dal Lago’s brief discussions of the Haitian Revolution and Irish separatism.

Overall, Civil War and Agrarian Unrest is an impressive work that scholars of not only the Confederacy and southern Italy but also nationalism, particularly the emerging nationalisms of the nineteenth century, will find useful.


[1]. Don H. Doyle has also compared the United States and Italy during this time. See Nations Divided: America, Italy, and the Southern Question (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2002).

Citation: Michael A. Hill. Review of Dal Lago, Enrico, Civil War and Agrarian Unrest: The Confederate South and Southern Italy. H-Nationalism, H-Net Reviews. February, 2020. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54666

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.