Elite southerners began conceiving of the South as distinct from the rest of the United States long before secession. Elite antebellum southerners feared that abolitionism would threaten slavery, leading southern politicians to advance the position of states’ rights. They argued that the ultimate power rested in the states rather than in the federal government. Cultural theories followed politics, as southern intellectuals developed the myth of the cavalier, which claimed that elite southerners, unlike northerners, descended from aristocratic Englishmen, and thus northerners and southerners were distinct and separate peoples. Although most antebellum southerners’ loyalty was still to the U.S., as early as 1850, radical secessionists known as fire-eaters called for a separate southern nation. The majority of southerners remained loyal to the Union until the fall of 1860, when Abraham Lincoln, representing the new antislavery Republican Party, was elected president.
New Confederates quickly shed their American identity and adopted a new southern nationalism. Confederate nationalism was based on several ideals. Foremost among these was slavery. As Confederate Vice President Andrew Stephens stated in his “Cornerstone Speech,” the Confederacy’s “foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery… is his natural and normal condition.”
The election of Lincoln in 1860 demonstrated that the South’s was politically overwhelmed. Slavery was omnipresent in the pre-war South, and it served as the most common frame of reference for unequal power. To a Southern man, there was no fate more terrifying than the thought of being reduced to the level of a slave. Religion likewise shaped Confederate nationalism and identity, as southerners believed that the Confederacy was fulfilling God’s will. The Confederacy even veered from the American constitution by explicitly invoking Christianity in their founding document.
It is a common misconception that Civil War soldiers enlisted and fought for largely personal reasons such as camaraderie rather than for more abstract notions such as honor, patriotism, or their rights. However, to Americans during the mid-nineteenth century, these were not abstract concepts. This was an age of romanticism in literature and philosophy, and ideas like honor and duty held great sway. The men who fought in the Union and Confederate placed as much value on fighting and possibly dying for the cause as they did on unit cohesion and comradeship.
The heritage of the American Revolution provided an additional source of southern nationalism. Confederates claimed that northerners had betrayed the original intent of the Founding Fathers. The Confederacy was thus supposedly the true heir of the American Revolution, a belief that was made visibly apparent by the inclusion of an image of George Washington on the Great Seal of the Confederacy.
On March 4, 1861, when newly-elected President Abraham Lincoln took the oath of office, he directly addressed the southern portion of his splintering constituency:
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
In the process of preserving the Union, friendship and diplomacy gave way to war. Like Lincoln, most northerners in the late-1850s and 1860s viewed the Union—that is, the constitutional compact between the states to form a federal government—as permanent. As such, the vast majority of men that answered President Lincoln’s call for troops did so with the fervent belief that they were taking up arms to save the Union. By saving the Union, these northern soldiers also viewed themselves as direct descendants of the Founding Fathers and protectors of their Revolutionary legacy.
For Union soldiers, the need to preserve the Union was paramount. The Revolution had purchased something truly unique with dear blood; a representative democracy. They feared that if a minority could dissolve part of the country whenever they lost a fair and open election, then this great experiment would collapse. By splitting over the 1860 election, the fear was a precedent would be established, and soon there would be another split, and another, until nothing remained of the United States but a series of small, warring factions. So many social commentators in Europe would be proven right and the Founders would have been proven wrong; a democratic people could not govern themselves. Additionally, Union soldiers viewed themselves as guardians of law and order. A rebellion and attempted secession against a properly elected government was treason.
Not all southerners participated in Confederate nationalism. Unionist southerners, most common in the upcountry, retained their loyalty to the Union, joining the Union army and working to defeat the Confederacy. Although sacrifice could enhance devotion to the Confederacy for some southerners, the suffering of war, combined with unpopular measures such as the draft, also weakened morale. Black southerners, most of whom were slaves, overwhelmingly supported the Union, often running away from plantations to follow the Union army. The weakening of southern nationalism, along with southern support for the Union, ultimately aided the eventual Union victory.
Cut off from their southern brethren, the northern branches of the Democratic Party divided. War Democrats largely stood behind President Lincoln and their support was necessary for passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery. “Peace Democrats”—also known as “Copperheads”—clashed frequently with both War Democrats and Republicans. Copperheads were sympathetic to the Confederacy; they exploited public anti-war sentiment (often the result of a lost battle or mounting casualties) and tried to push President Lincoln to negotiate an immediate peace, regardless of political leverage or bargaining power. Had the Copperheads succeeded in bringing about immediate peace, the Union would have been forced to recognize the Confederacy as a separate and legitimate government while the institution of slavery would have remained intact. With a Union victory in sight following General William T. Sherman’s successful Atlanta Campaign in 1864, Copperhead support largely evaporated.