Author Interview--James Broomall (Private Confederacies)

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we feature James J. Broomall to talk about his book Private Confederacies: The Emotional Worlds of Southern Men as Citizens and Soldiers, which came out in 2019 with University of North Carolina Press. See the H-CivWar Review here.

James J. Broomall is the Director of the George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War (an H-CivWar partner) and an associate professor of History at Shepherd University. He previously worked at the University of North Florida, Jacksonville, Florida and earned his Ph.D. from the University of Florida in 2011. He has articles in Civil War History, Civil War Times, The Journal of the Civil War Era, and the edited volume, Creating Citizenship in the Nineteenth-Century South.

Jim, could you explain to our readers what intrigued you about the emotions of Confederate soldiers and what your book's argument is?

JJB: Please allow me to first thank you personally, Niels, as well as H-CivWar for this opportunity. I always enjoy talking history. I should note at the outset that I’m a cultural historian invested in how people understand and portray both themselves and the worlds around them. I read widely and incorporate the sensibilities and insights of anthropology, material culture studies, folklore, and American Studies in my scholarship.

In graduate school I read with great interest works by Jan Lewis, Steven M. Stowe, Joanne B. Freeman, and Stephen Berry. Each of these authors employed, in some manner, a unique methodological approach informed by emotions history. They considered the interior lives of their historical actors and wrote history in exciting ways. I started reading more widely and became deeply interested in emotions and gender history. I was predisposed, then, to look at emotional expressions and gender identities as I began writing my dissertation. In particular, I wanted to understand the impact of war and peace on soldiers, citizens, and slaves. I narrowed my study group to Confederate soldiers and their families after deciding to pursue the civilian and slave experiences in later works which I have partially realized in projects for the National Park Service.

My project crystallized after reading the postbellum letters and diaries of white southerners. Confederate veterans offered unvarnished assessments of war and peace. They disclosed themselves to other veterans in ways for which I was not prepared. In the antebellum era, as the scholarship rightly suggested, white southerners had been governed by public postures and permitted few personal disclosures to anyone other than family and intimate associates. Yet, veterans shared with each other tender feelings, troubling disclosures, and emotional intimacy. The more source materials I read, the more I sought to understand white southerners across a broader arc of time. Thus, what began as a study of the Reconstruction era became a work that moved from the 1840s to the 1870s to chart change over time.

In Private Confederacies, I argue that Confederate soldiers struggled to maintain traditional notions of manliness because of their military experiences. Soldiers responded by creating emotional communities that not only provided comfort and support but also crafted a language of uncertainty. The brotherhood forged in war became transformed in peace, for the emotional communities that lent support during military service also underpinned paramilitary campaigns of white supremacy in the Reconstruction era.

You mentioned that you used letters and diaries as your source base, how did you approach these writing to get to what you say “thoughts and feelings that reveal Confederates’ inner experiences”? Does not relying on the written word give preference to some soldiers and veterans over others?

JJB: We cannot recover a direct emotional experience from the past. Instead, historians can use different types of evidence to understand, or at least to try to understand, emotional expression. I rely upon both words and actions throughout the study but I’ll concentrate directly on letters and diaries here to address the question. 

During my research I became deeply interested in diaries and diarists—evidence that underpins the early chapters especially. I found two basic types of diaries: personal and public. The former were of particular interest because writers were often willing to disclose insecurities, consider their feelings, and discuss themselves with striking transparency. All writing is, of course, constructed and must be examined carefully. Diaries nonetheless offered me an entrée into men’s and women’s inner worlds in nearly unparalleled ways. By reading entries I came to understand the ways in which individuals grappled with themselves and others, how they perceived and portrayed the world around them, and the means by which they developed personally and socially. I remained very attentive to entries discussing periods of change, or even crisis, for diarists are often the most revealing during such times. A young white Virginian, Clement Fishburne, for example, left a diary now housed in the University of Virginia’s archives. In it he set out to observe and reflect on the world around him. By so doing, he hoped to gain insights about himself and to develop as a “man.” In late 1849 overcome by the “blues,” for instance, he sought to “try and find it treated metaphysically if possible.” In another instance he reflected on his style of writing: “I make no language for my thoughts as I go along, but let them rush pell-mell over one another, so that no one of them leaves a distinct mark or impression of its own.” Diaries, therefore, give researchers incredible insights into how nineteenth-century Americans thought about but also interpreted their lives. 

Letters are quite different than diaries, for they are written for an audience. The dictates of letter writing manuals proved useful as they often stressed how writers should suppress feelings and structure prose. Middle- and upper- class writers were taught to guard against free expression—rules generally upheld in correspondence between men or in the early stages of courtship. Letters were considered in light of these rules and anyone who has read nineteenth-century correspondence knows how formulaic they can become. Thus, when writers deviated from traditional dictates I became interested in why. Quite often they did so when discussing the death of a loved one, the wounding or death of a comrade in battle, or were reflecting on wartime experiences. Once again, I used these disclosures as an entrée into writers’ inner worlds. When W. J. O’Daniel wrote about the death of Leondias Torrence he did so by conveying his intimacy with Torrence, discussing the wounds sustained (part of the “Good Death”), and expressed his own deep pain and anguish—a wrenching and revealing letter. The epistle both adhered to and departed from letter writing protocol. 

The primary source evidence underpinning my study is skewed by race and class, which I openly explain in the book’s introduction. The majority of the white Southerners I examine were slaveholders or members of slaveholding families; moreover, the men from this group disproportionately enlisted in the Confederate ranks because they were highly invested in and derived the most benefit from slavery. Understanding their perceptions of the South over time was quite essential in my quest to examine this society through war and peace. Further, rather than trying to find a “representative” sample of “typical” soldiers, this project started out with an entirely different premise that considered the exceptional importance of slaveholding Confederates as vital to the understanding of the American South. At points, I use the letters of semi-literate or non-literate white Southerners as most of comparison or contrast but more often than not relied heavily on educated, middle- and upper- class whites. 

--to be continued--