Hello H-CivWar Readers:
Today we feature Anna Koivusalo to talk about her new book, The Man Who Started the Civil War: James Chesnut, Honor, and Emotion in the American South, published by the University of South Carolina Press in June 2022.
Anna Koivusalo is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki. She previously was a visiting Fulbright scholar at the University of South Carolina and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has a Ph.D. from the University of Helsinki.
To start, Anna, how did you, being from Finland, come to write a book about emotions, James Chesnut, and the Civil War era?
AK: American history is indeed rather a marginal field in Finland, which has occasionally been challenging. But I have pursued that course because I find American history incredibly fascinating in all its richness and contradiction! Fortunately, I have had an opportunity to stay in the US as a Fulbright scholar twice, both for my PhD project (which later became this book) and my current project. I think that looking at American history “from the outside” has been fruitful as well, as it may help me understand it from a new angle.
My interest in James Chesnut had already begun during my undergraduate studies, when I had used his wife’s, Mary Boykin Chesnut’s, famous Civil War diary as a central source for my master’s thesis. Reading it, I found it curious that her husband was mostly disregarded in studies on southern history despite his central role in it. Later, I became interested in the history of emotions, particularly in the emotional practices and experiences southerners underwent at the time of the Civil War. And the more I looked into it, the more it seemed that the concept of southern honor was guiding these emotional processes. I wanted to examine honor through the lens of emotion, using Chesnut’s life as a case study. His life was a perfect example of the importance of honor in southern culture and its connection to what was considered as appropriate emotional expression.
What do you argue in The Man who started the Civil War?
AK: I offer a novel perspective on how white southerners understood the relationship between honor and emotion in the nineteenth-century South and how honor and emotions transformed from the antebellum period through the Civil War to Reconstruction. I aim to show that honor was central in the appraisals of and discussions about appropriate emotional expression. Honor was not, as previous research suggests, merely a code or a method of control that aimed to hide undesirable emotions. Instead, because an understanding of honor was necessary and central for southerners, it played an important role in emotional navigation by helping individuals create, shape, and express appropriate emotions. The Man Who Started the Civil War is also the first comprehensive biography of James Chesnut Jr., a South Carolina statesman and US senator.
I do want to explore the emotion-honor relationship in a little bit, but I think we should first talk about methodology and sources. How is your reading of sources different? How do you approach written records when you look for emotions?
AK: I believe that examining the language individuals used is vital for historical understanding of both individual subjectivity and common emotional practices. The language they used informs us of not only the individual but the world around them, as it bridges their emotional experiences to their society through their naming and communicating to others. I examine what prompted feeling, how it was felt in body and mind, how it was conceptualized, and what strategies southern society and culture offered to demonstrate and manage it. I ask who was allowed to express emotion, why, and when. Of course, it is important to pay attention to what kind of terms individuals used to define feelings and question whether they meant emotion in the contemporary context.
In other words, I don’t try to find answers to a predetermined set of questions but rather let the sources tell me what kind of things the individuals themselves found important. What kind of words they used to describe their feelings about the surrounding events, or other people? Their mental or physical state? Sometimes silence, too, can be very powerful. Did they not have the vocabulary to describe something, or was it something that was simply not talked about, and why?
In a way, this book being the “emotional history of James Chesnut” made it both easier and more difficult to write than a traditional biography. On the one hand, Chesnut did not leave many sources written by himself, so trying to understand his emotional state felt sometimes little more than an educated guess. On the other hand, because I am approaching his life from the perspective of emotional history, texts written by other people than Chesnut himself, such as newspaper articles, letters, and his wife’s diary, are also valuable sources. Both honor and emotional expression were performative and closely tied to community notions and values. Other people’s views of Chesnut and how he personified honor and expressed honorable emotions are therefore at least as important as his own perceptions of them.
Emotion History has become more common, why is including emotion so important, especially when we talk about the Southern honor code?
AK: Including emotion in any historical research is important because asking how individuals conceptualized emotion through the interaction of language, culture, society, body, and mind allows us to draw broader conclusions on the historical constitution of their sense of self and society. In the nineteenth-century South, emotion was highly valued in personal life, politics, social life, and in creating communality.
Even though emotions were critically important in personal life and in society, historians have overlooked the profound importance of honor in this context. They have long settled for an explanation that honor was merely a method of control or a code of dictated behavior, which masked individual emotions. I argue that honor more flexible than that; it was a resource, a guideline, that helped an individual to navigate in society and meet life goals by expressing appropriate emotions. Instead of primary reactions, raw emotions such as fear, jealousy, and anxiety, one was expected to demonstrate their more refined noble counterparts, such as courage, romantic love, and determination, when interacting with other individuals. Because white southerners strived to gain and secure a good reputation and a prominent position in society, it was necessary to identify and adopt the concept of honorable emotion and constantly shape one’s emotional expressions in order to achieve life goals.
James Chesnut’s life is a prime example of how constantly paying attention to appropriate emotional expression was not only necessary but also extremely consuming. On a more general level, studying the interplay between honor and emotions can help us understand better, for example, how they mobilized white men and women of all classes to defend slavery and helped to bring on the Civil War.
You are right that emotional appeals add a very important component to the secession and slavery questions. Let's pick this topic up first since Chesnut underwent a transformation himself from a Unionist during the Nullification Crisis to a Secessionist thirty years later, what changed? How did he use emotions to explain his own transformation but also justify his stand to others?
AK: One of the reasons why Chesnut has been heretofore neglected by historians might be that his political notions were not clear and consistent. In short, he was, rather than the fire-eater he has sometimes been portrayed as, a moderate who abandoned his conciliatory politics because of the requirements of southern honor.
Chesnut’s public emotional expressions developed and changed according to the immediate political situation and his personal ambition. A Unionist in his early career, he became a cooperationist in the early 1850s and then adopted a rather ambivalent position at the end of the decade. After an internal struggle (and external pressure) he then became one of South Carolina’s secession leaders. His transformation well represents the shift in the attitudes of most white, moderate southerners in 1860–61. Historians of the sectional crisis and secession have nonetheless almost without exception either entirely overlooked the interconnection of honor and emotion or seen individual feelings as a reason for impassioned political action as opposed to rational, controlled thought and behavior.
I argue, however, that it is vital to pay attention both to the performance of emotions in order to attain goals and the part honor played in that process. Chesnut used honorable emotional expressions to appear a trustworthy politician despite his noncommitment to secession and, later, to claim a leader’s role in it. He also mastered the use of emotional expressions to create and strengthen desirable feelings both in his audience and himself.