Welcome back, H-CivWar subscribers!
We have a new segment of our Graduate Student Interview series. This week let us all welcome Kevin McPartland, a third year Ph.D. Student at the University of Cincinnati working with Dr. Chris Phillips. He completed his B.A. and M.A. in 2018 at the University of Alabama. His research focuses on the Southern press and Confederate nationalism from the Secession Crisis through the end of the war. Follow Kevin on twitter @McPCivilWar.
I wonder if you could give a brief synopsis of your dissertation project for readers to understand your broader work? What inspired you to research this topic for your dissertation?
Kevin McPartland: Broadly speaking, my dissertation examines the Confederate press and its role in creating, sustaining, and undermining Confederate nationalism from the onset of the secession crisis through the end of the war. The dates are certainly flexible at this point, as I am trying to take into account the rise of nationalism and its fall, which will likely extend beyond the parameters of the war. Ultimately, I am trying to understand how the press as an institution, especially a local one, made the war understandable for their subscribers, and what that meant for the way these communities thought about themselves and the Confederacy as they waged war.
I really stumbled upon this topic as an undergraduate. My senior thesis advisor pointed me in the direction of the press largely because sources were easily available. After working on a paper covering the Overland Campaign and another on Gettysburg as my Masters thesis, I started to view the press as a lens into culture and interpretive meanings of the war. Obviously, the press in both sections was highly political, but as I looked around at the "fake news" arguments in our present day, it inspired me to think about this politicized institution as creating meaning for people more than reporting events. After talking about this with my current advisor, Dr. Chris Phillips, I focused in on how meaning making during the war could tell us about Confederate nationalism at a local level, and I was hooked.
What are some of the newspapers you examine in your project, and why is it important that we look at newspapers beyond a source of political discussion?
KM: Flipping this question a bit, I think it is crucial to look beyond the press as simply political because these readings miss the fact that the press was a cultural media as well. It was profoundly tied to time, place, and personality in much of the South. I read the press as something that both created and reflected public opinion, giving the war meaning to its subscribers while also reflecting the communities' beliefs about the war. This was a reciprocal relationship, but one that was certainly dominated by the editors who spoke with authority in their communities. In addition to this cultural reading, I believe it is necessary to treat the editors as important individuals who personally shaped communal understandings of the war and the nation. Newspapers were not written in a vacuum, they were written by men who thought about and experienced the war with the community around them.
That being said, I am trying to read as broadly as I can in as many papers as I can, but the North Carolina Argus is an excellent example of what I am trying to get at. This Anson county paper started out as a Unionist sheet, but quickly switched after Fort Sumter and became strongly Confederate through the middle of 1863. But the editor's son lost an arm at Chancellorsville, and several companies from the county were mauled at Gettysburg. While many other papers I read remained upbeat, this one turned despondent after these casualties. The editor eventually resigned and a new set of more pro-war men stepped in, but even they voiced lackluster support for the war. This points to the ways the local experience of the war, even more than the broad strokes of combat, influenced what editors wrote and how the community received their writings. The war changed for Anson in 1863 for the worse, and the press gave voice to that reality. More directly, their nationalism was largely shattered by the losses, while the next county over remained dedicated. I think mining the press for these sorts of experiences will really give some more insight into what it meant to be a Confederate and what people were willing to do to sustain that identity.
Newspapers seem to be a great way to bring together the home front and the battle front together, especially in the South as they both generally blended together anyways. To me, images come to mind when I think of that. I'm curious if Southern newspapers used images, sketches, etc. to bring the realities of war to the home front? I know the Harper's Weekly or Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper offered Northerners visualizations of what was happening somewhat "real time" in the war. Did the South have anything like that in their newspapers?
Yes and no. The prime example would be the Southern Illustrated News, which was published out of Richmond, though this paper did not get anything near the reach Harper's did. Most Confederates had only their local paper and maybe a more widely distributed paper like the Mercury or Holden's Standard, depending on their state. One of the biggest obstacles the Confederate press dealt with during the war was the fact that their printing technology was not as advanced as the papers in the North, so most could not even print maps the way Northern papers like the New York Times did. On top of that, they had trouble accessing paper, replacing print, and getting quality ink, so the quality of many papers fell off substantially if they could continue printing at all. To your question, this means there was not really a visual connection to the war through the press. Instead, it was information that connected the home front to the war front, something people desperately needed, especially during campaign season.
Your work reminds me a lot of Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities. While things differed in different regions of the South, was there any collective consensus that stretched throughout the CSA? Did Southerners use the newspaper as a way to bring the CSA together?
KM: Anderson definitely plays a big role in the theoretical grounding of my work, particularly his notion of a shared mythical past and the basic idea of a nation as an imagined community. I have really tried to think about that framework in conjunction with other scholars’ work on the Confederacy, especially Paul Quigley and Drew Gilpin Faust. Broadly, I do think that the press helped foster a sense of nationalism in their communities, but it is more complicated than simply a consensus. What the Southern press certainly succeeded in during the Secession Crisis and even the years leading up to it was create a shared mythical past that united Southerners around a Southern identity. This was largely grounded in slavery and the memory of the Revolution. When the Lower South seceded, however, that unified Southern identity fractured, and Confederate papers began to rework that Southern identity into a Confederate identity that excluded the slave states that had not seceded. Only by joining the Confederacy could these slave states join the Southern body politic again, which four did after Fort Sumter. So at the start of the war, there certainly seemed to be a unified identity, and one that the press played a large role in constructing and propagating.
This is where it gets complicated though. As many scholars have pointed out, there were many Souths. In reading papers from all over, there seems to have been a collective identity as "Southern" and a willingness to fight for that identity, but what exactly being "Southern" meant differed over time and place. This is particularly apparent in the way different locales reacted to the more controversial Confederate actions, like the draft or the suspension of Habeas Corpus. However, I follow other scholars and do not believe there needed to be a complete consensus on these issues to say that nationalism existed, or that people who opposed these measures were necessarily anti-Confederate, let alone anti-war. Instead, the press shows that there was a genuine belief in a Southern nation. People differed on what they were willing to give up in order to secure independence for it, but most seemed to willing to give up quite a bit, sacrificing both their well-being and their ideals for the survival of the nation.
What I think the press really does is take these controversies which are part of a shared national discourse and nest them in local contexts. In other words, editors connected the broader war and the nation to the people who read their newspapers. They experienced and explained the war in a specific locality, and in doing so, they explained their locality to the nation. The press did not always create unity, but it did effectively connect the people in the communities it served to the rest of the South and the army in a broader national context. This falls apart in 1865 when they lose contact with the outside world, and the fact that the press is distraught in many places when it loses that connection testifies to its importance as a media that bridged the gap between the local and the national.
Thank you, Kevin. This all sounds fascinating at we wish you the best of luck as you continue your work at UC!
For those that would like to participate in the Graduate Student Interview series, contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org) to schedule an interview. Until next our next interview, stay well!