Author Interview--Anna Koivusalo (The Man Who Started the Civil War) Part 2

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we continue our conversation with 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.

Part 1

You already mentioned Chesnut's wife Mary and her famous diary. Obviously, marriage and love are filled with emotions, but you note that their marriage was a complicated one because they never had children--what emotional states did you find in their marriage? How much did childlessness cause emotional conflict between the two partners?

AK: We know very little about their childlessness but, considering how much children were valued in southern culture, it must have been painful for both Chesnuts. Childlessness meant that a person had not fulfilled her/his duty to family and society, as James’s family members sometimes pointed out. Although James never directly mentioned their childlessness or its root cause, it seems that it affected the Chesnuts’ marriage in many ways; allowing for their mutual relationship to occupy much more space in their emotional lives.

Not becoming a mother enabled Mary’s cherished life as a belle, at least in part, to continue after the wedding. She continued to place much more weight on romance, admiration, and passion than was customary for a wife, while James expected to move on to domestic happiness filled with composed affection and stable companionship. Finding a common ground in emotional expressions and their intensity was therefore occasionally trying for the spouses. Settling for composed affection was not enough for Mary, for whom James’s increasingly correct and even rigid behavior indicated lack of feeling. James, for his part, was disappointed in her lack of emotional self-control and distaste of quiet family life instead of fervent courtship.

You mention that Chesnut turned to support secession as a requirement of honor, what emotional language did he employ in his political career to explain himself and his decisions? Was he always successful in using emotion and emotional appeals to achieve his political goals?

AK: Chesnut used the language of honorable emotion in all his political speeches and other public communication, but perhaps the best examples would be his justification of slavery and secession. Chesnut’s family had built its wealth and mastery on slavery, like the whole South Carolina planter elite, and he used controlled emotional language when justifying it publicly. He expressed paternalistic emotions such as benevolence, affection, and kindness, striving to show that white southerners were natural masters and that African Americans were weak and in need of protection for their own good. Even after the Civil War, he continued to promote white paternalism and Black subservience in a benevolent and placid tone, hoping to control African Americans and achieve societal peace and balance.

Chesnut could, however, adopt different emotional tones according to the situation. When he wanted to rouse his audience, he evoked lively, passionate feeling. But if the political situation was particularly flammable, such as during the Crisis of 1850, he represented himself as a rational, cautious, and temperate statesman. Emotion and reason were both important; emotional expression, however, had to be elevated and honorable in order to reflect reason. Chesnut’s speeches often reflected sentiments associated with calm, controlled patriotism, such as courage, hope, and love of liberty.

After John Brown’s raid, however, Chesnut’s politics became more palpable and outspoken, deliberately communicating strong emotion, even though he still ideologically maintained a distance from ardent secessionists. His tone radically changed to manifest those emotions he deemed appropriate for the political climate. As secession approached, he began to champion and articulate disunion by bold and manly emotional expressions to avoid the South’s dishonor and that of himself.

After the war, Chesnut was one of those conservative upper-class leaders whose politics leaned on prewar paternalistic notions. Many other southerners deemed Black equality and northern rule a humiliation and an insult to their honor, promoting violent and active responses to them, whereas Chesnut advocated remaining faithful to the law and maintaining peace and order using placid, conciliatory emotional expressions. But his approach, cooperation with northerners and Black people, was considered outdated, weak, and even effeminate by men whose concept of honor was notably different from pre-war notions. Chesnut’s emotional expressions which reflected his moderate politics were not in line with these new ideas, and gradually his career waned.

You are right, wanting children and failing is emotionally straining, it feels like a defeat. Chesnut did serve during the Civil War, how did he process defeat and the destruction of the southern way of life?

AK: Yes, Chesnut served from the first shot of the war—ordered by himself—to the day of the surrender of Joe Johnston’s army. The angst of having both seen the battles and lost the war weighed heavily on southerners and Chesnut almost certainly was troubled by his part in secession and the war. While he did not doubt the righteousness of his cause, he regretted his role in events that caused such destruction and hardships not only for himself but also for all southerners.

He also found the new circumstances after the war hard to bear. The loss of power and authority of the planter class and personal misfortunes—several deaths of loved ones, the decline in his political status, and his financial troubles—added to his melancholy. What may have been depression (or perhaps even post-traumatic stress disorder) caused Chesnut to medicate himself with alcohol often and with increasing doses. In addition to—and probably because of—his drinking, his health began to fail quite seriously. He died as a result of a severe stroke in 1885, around the time of his seventieth birthday.

I want to briefly touch on a point you made in the introduction, I think, that there is more work needed with the lesser figures and normal people since Chesnut is a pretty big name--how do you envision such studies to change our perceptions but also potentially challenge, in a general sense not specific one, some of the things that you found with Chesnut about the coming of secession or dealing of defeat?

AK: Indeed, my book concentrates on the honor concept of white men, particularly the members of the upper class, the rulers who held social, economic, political, and cultural power in the nineteenth-century South. For historical reasons, we have more sources on white elite or middle-class men, but other demographic groups may have had a very different ideas of honor and emotions. It is clear that we need more information on the honor concepts and emotional lives of women, lower classes, African Americans, and Native Americans. As both honor and emotion are flexible and ever-changing concepts, I am sure the more information we have of different groups and individuals, the better we can understand just how enormous the effect of both on southern society was. For example, I found that when the ideas and ideals of lower-class men came to the foreground during Reconstruction, that transformed prevalent honor notions and emotional expressions, further changing the southern society as well.

As we draw to a close, do you plan to do more work with this time period or are your pursuits going to take you elsewhere?

AK: My new project explores the anxiety of white religious slaveowners in the nineteenth-century South. Anxiety lay at the intersection of the social structure of the South—slavery and hierarchy—and ubiquitous religious notions. This project will therefore also make a valuable contribution to understanding the politics of power by examining the anxiety of slaveowners and the crucial but overlooked role religion played in their emotional practices and experiences. Exploring anxiety, especially in the context of the South, is essential because white southerners lived in constant presence of social and cultural problems that permeated through their culture, particularly fear of slave uprisings and strict social expectations. Anxiety stemmed from the subconscious knowledge that being in power did not entail the ability to control the surrounding society. Charting the slaveowners’ anxiety reveals how they perceived themselves, society, and the enslaved people.