Historical Research Capabilities: The Confederate States of America
The First Person Narratives of the American South collection affords an excellent opportunity to study the short-lived Confederate States of America. A search on Confederate States of America provides researchers with dozens of documents that trace the rise and fall of that rebel nation.
For a political perspective, researchers will want to explore Louise Wigfall Wright's A Southern Girl in '61: The War-Time Memories of a Confederate Senator's Daughter. Wright's memoir, liberally sown with correspondence between her father and high-ranking confederate politicians, is a wonderful example of how the collection's wealth of subaltern perspectives allows readers to research large historical events at the level of intimate, firsthand experiences. One such series of letters details a falling out in relations between Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, and Wright's father, who had made accusations against a general whom Davis favored for command. This letter is followed by a note from General Longstreet that requests the senator to not allow personal feelings to interfere with the operation of the Confederacy.
- How might a researcher benefit from a document such as Wright's?
- What disciplines of study would be enriched by considering such
Mary Boykin Chesnut's A Diary From Dixie, details her experiences as the wife of a U.S. senator from South Carolina who resigned his post in order to become an aide to Jefferson Davis. Chesnut's diary is strewn with stories of dinner parties, social engagements, and meetings with prominent Confederate figures. Of particular value is the insider's perspective which she is able to offer on the workings of the fledgling country's government:
Mr. Chesnut has three distinct manias. The Maryland scheme is one, and he rushes off to Jeff Davis, who, I dare say, has fifty men every day come to him with infallible plans to save the country. If only he can keep his temper. Mrs. Davis says he answers all advisers in softly modulated, dulcet accents.
Page 55, A Diary From Dixie
- How does Chesnut characterize the workings of the Confederacy? What is her tone?
- What problems, limitations, and biases would researchers have to consider when using first-person narratives?
- What other sorts of documents would complement first-person narratives?
Given that the Confederate States of America was born and died in conflict, it's not surprising that accounts of military life abound in the collection. Exemplary documents in this vein include: A Soldier's Recollections by Randolph H. McKim, which offers the reminisces of the then young private's battle experiences; the Diary of Brigadier-General Marcus J. Wright, C.S.A., which contains a plethora of bibliographic footnotes; and Memoir and memorials by Elisha Franklin Paxton whose letters relate an intimate understanding of life as an officer under the famous Confederate general "Stonewall" Jackson.
Finally, The memoirs of Colonel John S. Mosby offers that redoubtable Confederate commander's perspective on both the politics and military operations of the war. Mosby, who led rebel troops in operations past the point of Lee's surrender, is uncompromising in his attacks not only upon the enemy, but the reputation of his fellow Confederates. One of the most passionate defenders of the C.S.A., Mosby's journal entries surprise in their depth of feeling.
- What advantages and disadvantages do firsthand military accounts present to the modern researcher?
- How might the impressions of the Confederacy differ between non-combatants and soldiers?
Other research topics that lend themselves well to the collection include studies of social stratification in the South both before and after the Civil War, the positive and negative results of strong regional pride, and the problems associated with African-American emancipation.