FM Anna Koivusalon yleisen historian väitöskirja “The Man Who Started the American Civil War: Southern Honor, Emotion, and James Chesnut, Jr.” tarkastettiin Helsingin yliopiston humanistisessa tiedekunnassa 3.6.2017. Vastaväittäjänä toimi professori John Mayfield (Samford University, Alabama) ja kustoksena professori Markku Peltonen.
On April 12, 1861, the first shots of the American Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter, a fortress island protecting the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. The state of South Carolina had declared itself independent a few months earlier and since formed a Confederacy with other southern states that had seceded from the United States. Fort Sumter, however, was held by the United States Army, troops that had been stationed there when the state of South Carolina had still been a part of the Union. Therefore, Southerners considered Fort Sumter as being invaded by a foreign army. The night before, General Pierre Beauregard, who commanded the newly-founded Confederate Army, had sent a couple of aides to negotiate the surrender of the fort. The leader of these aides was one Colonel Chesnut.
James Chesnut was not a military man but a 46-year-old lawyer and politician, who had merely offered General Beauregard his services and skills as a negotiator. He thought, he said, that Fort Sumter would drop on their lap like a ripe pear – that the Federals, starving without provisions, would realize that the fort belonged to the Confederates. As it happens, the commander of the fort declined to surrender, at least not just yet. He would wait a few days more, he said. So the Confederate aides, led by Chesnut, deemed the negotiations unsuccessful. Deciding not to wait the few days that the Federals had asked for, they left the fortress and rowed to nearby Confederate batteries. There Chesnut ordered the batteries to start firing at Fort Sumter to force it to surrender. By doing so, he started a war that eventually required hundreds of thousands of lives.
The American Civil War (1861-1865) was fought between the United States of America (or the Union, or the North) and the Confederate States of America (or the Confederacy, or the South). Historians have explained the rift between the North and the South, which had begun decades earlier, by political, economic, and cultural reasons. Slavery, the so-called “peculiar institution” of the South, had made the region prosperous but also vexed northern abolitionists, the opponents of slavery. Abolitionism had given birth to the Republican Party that opposed southern Democrats, who spoke for the states’ rights. These meant that the states should be allowed to decide on crucial matters such as slavery, and not be controlled by the Union. The debates and disagreements on the differences between the North and the South were fueled by a concept that is called southern honor. Southerners considered any federal interventions in slavery and the states’ rights as insults to their honor. They claimed that they would never submit to be ruled by the North or Abraham Lincoln, the recently elected Republican President, who, they feared, would abolish slavery. After Lincoln’s election, South Carolina seceded from the Union as a protest, followed by other slave states.
Honor was also first and foremost in Colonel Chesnut’s mind. The Confederates could not accept the fact that the commander of the U.S. troops would not yield to their wishes and therefore they deemed it necessary to take the fort by force. Courageous and determined behavior was needed to appear as manly and honorable. Not to risk one’s life to defend one’s family, home, or country would have meant a failure in honor. Chesnut’s order to start firing was, in essence, a question of honor.
To define honor is difficult: the concept varies in different societies, although common elements can be found in many places. It can be seen as a set of cultural values, or as a certain behavioral pattern. Honormay include one or several of the following: wealth, ancestry, physical strength, courage, piety, and sexual comportment.Honor usually has both internal and external aspects. Inner honor, honorableness, is a personal quality, while outer honor is having a reputation for honorableness. A person must behave according to the values of his community to be entitled to honor or find himself an outcast. However, the inner self-worth of an individual is often dependent upon the respect of others.
Most scholars agree that honor’s effect on both society and on individuals was fundamental in the nineteenth-century South. Most of these studies stress honor as a code, a method of control that helped support the social order. Yet, even scholars who see honor as a code admit that it was complicated. My first aim in this study, therefore, is to show that that rather than a clear, unambiguous, or static code, honor was actually a combination of individual honor notions: all Southerners certainly had an idea of what honor was and they attempted to live by it daily. Individuals had to interpret the standards of honorable behavior themselves and constantly adjust their honor notion to coincide with other peoples’ notions. Southern honor had endless manifestations and forms, because it continually developed and was being readjusted. This accounts for why honor, as something that was not fixed, caused such uncertainty. And yet, precisely because of honor’s flexibility, it was a cultural resource that helped an individual to navigate in society. One of its most important tasks was to serve as a guideline for appropriate emotional expression.
To examine honorable emotional expression in the nineteenth-century South, I combine research on honor and the history of emotions. Historians of emotions assume that emotions are an essential part of both individual lives and societies; that they can be learned and shaped; and that societies have social norms and rules for emotional expression. To separate the individual experience of emotions from emotional rules or principles in a society is extremely important. Different communities have different emotional standards and methods for emotional management. A person’s culture determines the extent to which he is conscious of his emotions and how he expresses emotion. I propose that this sort of adaptation to emotional guidelines was conducted in the nineteenth-century South with the help of honor.
My second aim is to demonstrate that a focus on honor together with proper emotional displays opens up new research possibilities. All studies on honor almost entirely neglect to discuss emotion other than as raw passion that needed to be controlled through honorable behavior. I suggest that honor should be seen as a source of emotion guidelines. It was a tool that enabled Southerners instead of only hiding undesirable feelings to produce, express, and channel appropriate emotions. Because of the changing nature of honor, however, honorable emotional expression was a demanding occupation.
Honor was a behavior that helped individuals express their emotions in three ways. First, a Southerner learned to recognize acceptable emotions. Parents taught their childrento develop an understanding of honor and honorable emotional expression.Second, honorable emotion helped Southerners navigate in society. In order to be accepted as a member of his society, one was expected to express appropriate emotions when communicating with others. Third, honor helped individuals identify life goals and achieve them by honorable emotional expression. They were used to reach a specific goal, such as a good reputation, the enactment and support of ideals of manhood, a good conscience, or the success of both one’s family and country, to mention only a few.
To fully understand the meaning and importance of southern honor, I think that it is necessary to follow an individual throughout his life. This is what current research on honor almost without exception does not do. I argue that examining James Chesnut’s life enlarges our understanding of honor and emotion. Chesnut, born in 1815, was a member of a prominent South Carolina family. He practiced as a lawyer and because of the traditions and wishes of his family, he also became a politician, serving in the state legislature and senate and later in the U.S. Senate. His politics were conservative and moderate, and during his career he opposed the secession of South Carolina from the Union for twenty years, until the very eve of secession in 1860. During the Civil War, he served in many political and military posts, for example participating in drafting the Confederate constitution, serving as the Chief of the Military of South Carolina, and working as the aide of the Confederate president, Jefferson Davis. After the war, he was not pardoned and gradually lost his political power.
My dissertation is also the first full-length biography of James Chesnut, who has often been dismissed as merely the husband of the well-known Civil War diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut. Yet, his personal contribution to American history is also significant, not only because of his political career, but also because studying his life gives us a lot of new information on the relationship of honor and emotion. For example, in examining the political climate on the eve of the Civil War, historians have paid too little attention to moderate Southerners such as Chesnut, although honor played a major part in their conversion to secessionists.
Chesnut always considered southern honor as the most important guideline in his life and acknowledged its requirements in every life choice and action. For example, honor required that Chesnut defend men and political matters with which he disagreed and to be more outspoken about slavery than he would have liked. When in an intensively difficult situation, he was often reduced to avoiding bringing himself to dishonor. Hence, honor always remained very important in his decision-making.
To conclude, therefore, I would like to read a part of James Chesnut’s only known account of the events at Fort Sumter, written seventeen years after them. He stressed honor as the reason to start the Civil War, and summed up the honorable and dishonorable emotional expressions connected to his decision. Even then, he still tried to assure himself that the decision he had made was the right one despite the outcome.
South Carolina had not begun the war, he said. The presence of the U.S. troops at Fort Sumter had been “an armed & hostile invasion, without which a peaceful solution might have been attained.” The purpose of the United States, he continued, was to subjugate South Carolina, that their “manhood supported by conscious right, could not longer forbear. Honor & safety forbade it,” he explained. “To avoid unnecessary bloodshed, and proposing terms most courteous & honorable time & again, we demanded the surrender of the fort. All was in vain. There was nothing left for us but pusillanimously to surrender without a blow or to attack the Fort. Rightly, I think, we chose the latter.”