The Spirit of ’61

The bloody conflict of 1861 to 1865 is often called the Civil War, but most Southerners regarded it as a war for independence and self-government. Many if not most Confederate soldiers and officers who fought in it had fathers or grandfathers who served in the first American war of independence, and they were mindful of their heritage. Southerners were proud of the part their ancestors had played in the American Revolution, and when the seceded states formed a confederacy, they adopted many of the images and symbols of that time. The banner which hung over the table where the South Carolina Ordinance of Secession was signed bore the image of a rattlesnake poised to strike (as appeared on the Gadsden flag), and a palmetto tree (symbolic of the patriot victory at Fort Sullivan in 1776). After the signing of the ordinance, silver seals designed by Arthur Middleton and William Henry Drayton, noted Revolutionary patriots of South Carolina, were used to seal the document.  The Confederate States of America put an image of George Washington on its national seal, and Washington’s image, along with that of another Revolutionary patriot, Francis Marion (the “Swamp Fox” of South Carolina), also appeared on Confederate currency.

When South Carolinians declared their independence from the United States and seceded on December 20, 1860, the delegates of the Secession Convention compared the position of the South to that of the American colonists in 1776, stating in one of their published documents:  “The government of the United States is no longer a Government of Confederated Republics … it is no longer a free Government, but a despotism. It is, in fact, such a Government as Great Britain attempted to set over our fathers; and which was resisted and defeated by a seven years’ struggle for independence.”

In a letter written in March 1861, a lady from Abbeville, South Carolina, Mrs. Sophia Cheves Haskell, described the patriotic fervor of South Carolinians just prior to the outbreak of the war, also alluding to the first American Revolution: “[W]e have been in a state of singular excitement all this winter. I have never seen anything like it. There is a steady spirit of firm resolution I could not have imagined. The spirit of ’76 could not surpass it.”

By the end of the war, Mrs. Haskell had seven sons in Confederate service, two of whom gave their lives in the cause. Captain William T. Haskell, who died at Gettysburg leading a battalion of sharpshooters, datelined one of his letters home to his mother: “In the second year of this war of liberty.” The seven Haskell brothers had both a grandfather and a great-grandfather who served with distinction in the first American war of independence.

References to the war as a struggle for independence and liberty are not uncommon in the letters of Confederate soldiers, officers, and citizens. Hopeful of victory, John F. Calhoun, an officer in the 7th South Carolina Infantry Regiment (and a grand-nephew of John C. Calhoun), wrote to his wife in February 1862: “Our revolutionary fathers fought seven years, half-fed, poorly clad, and in the dead of winter they were often bare footed, and could be tracked by the blood on the snow and ice from their bleeding feet; and are we unworthy of the rich legacy they handed down to us, shall we falter when we are ‘almost there’? The Promised Land is nearly in sight … and in coming years our children can say with pride, our father was one of the heroes of the second revolution.”

Charles Todd Quintard, a Confederate chaplain serving in Georgia, praised the soldiers of the Army of Tennessee and equated their sufferings to those of the patriots who served with General George Washington, recording in his diary on October 17, 1864:

I was extremely anxious to accompany General Hood in the present campaign. The spirit of our Army has been greatly improved by this forward movement. It is indeed astonishing to see our noble fellows, who in all the retrograde movement from Dalton to Jonesboro have maintained their morale to great an extent. Their devotion to the cause which they have espoused is unrivaled in the annals of history. Never have a soldiery stood up more nobly, or battled more bravely than ours. Through hardships almost past endurance, through toils that would make the stoutest heart quake to anticipate, they have stood up with unflinching resolution. The sufferings endured by the little band who followed Washington to Valley Forge and spent with him that memorable winter, half famished, were not more poignant than the sufferings of those who are now enlisted under the Southern Cross. In wind and rain, beneath the summer sun, and on the snows of winter, they have stood at their posts manfully. Every hope they may have indulged, every ambition they may have fostered is swallowed up in one great ambition of having a free country.

During the war, patriotic Southerners often wrote of the awful fate that awaited them if they were subjugated by the North. Knowing this, they struggled, sacrificed, and fought desperately for four years.  Captain Henry W. Feilden, an English officer in the Confederate Army, observed of the Southern people in a letter of April 1863: “The whole population, loathe the Yankees with a more bitter hatred than Poles have to the Muscovites … they know that the fate of Poland in chains would be preferable to the South overcome by the Yankees  … The Southern people know what they have to expect.  Everyone is cognizant of it from the President to the poorest backwoodsman in Arkansas; & therefore fight more desperately than any people ever did before.”

Writing prophetically, the great Presbyterian minister from South Carolina, James Henley Thornwell, warned in one of his last pamphlets, Our Danger and Our Duty:

If they prevail, the whole character of the Government will be changed, and instead of a federal republic, the common agent of sovereign and independent States, we shall have a central despotism, with the notion of States forever abolished, deriving its powers from the will, and shaping its policy according to the wishes of a numerical majority of the people; we shall have, in other words, a supreme, irresponsible democracy …

We are fully persuaded that the triumph of the North in the present conflict will be as disastrous to the hopes of mankind as to our own fortunes. They are now fighting the battle of despotism. They have put their Constitution under their feet; they have annulled its most sacred provisions; and in defiance of its solemn guaranties they are now engaged, in the halls of Congress, in discussing and maturing bills which make Northern notions of necessity the paramount laws of the land. The avowed end of the present war is, to make the Government a government of force …

On the other hand, we are struggling for constitutional freedom. We are upholding the great principles which our fathers bequeathed us, and if we should succeed, and become, as we shall, the dominant nation of this continent, we shall perpetuate and diffuse the very liberty for which Washington bled, and which the heroes of the Revolution achieved.

When the Confederate cause ended in defeat, many Southerners expressed their anguish and devastation in letters and diaries. Writing in a journal in late 1865, the Rev. Paul Trapier of South Carolina recorded his despair for his country, “all of which,” he emphasized, he once used to love as his own:

I have no heart to derive satisfaction from the glories departed of the first successful Revolution, nor can I do aught else than mourn over those not less magnificent of our late unsuccessful, but heroic, attempt…I try in vain to lay hold of something to rest on for a ground-work of hope for the future of my country.  The U.S. Constitution has long since been a piece of waste paper… [The] right of Secession, for which 13 States have been pouring out the lifeblood of their dearest and their best, is now overpowered by the might of a brutal majority, and the people of those 13 States after having been over-run and desolated by hordes of cruel soldiers, are drawn in worse than chains of iron back into a Union, which for 40 years has been but an instrument of torture to them.  The choicest families of the land are reduced to menial service, and degraded by petty military satraps below their own slaves—and those whom our entire people have been delighting for 4 years to honour are caged and fettered like felons, to glut the vile thirst of a vulgar race for a base triumph over greatness, before which, when it was in power, they trembled, and over which, now that it is fallen, they exult with demoniac malice.

For Rev. Trapier, the defeat of the South not only meant the end of the Confederacy, but the end of the American republic.

Was much or all that was gained in the first revolution lost in the second? Herbert Ravenel Sass, a 20th century South Carolina author, observed the following:

The time may come when it will be realized that … a peaceful separation would have been vastly better for the American people than the bloody war which the North fought for the preservation of the Union by force of arms. The credit or blame for what happened belongs to Abraham Lincoln.  It was he who defeated the compromise efforts which might otherwise have prevented the dreadful blood-bath of the sixties … It was Lincoln who, instead of avoiding war by withdrawing the Union garrison from Fort Sumter, used Fort Sumter to unite the Northern people in favor of a war against the South …

Thus the determination of one man thwarted the earnest desire of the South, led by South Carolina, for the peaceful achievement of independence and rendered inevitable a long and terrible war which is popularly supposed to have saved the American Republic. Another view is that the war actually dealt a death-wound to the Republic.

About Karen Stokes

Karen Stokes, an archivist at the South Carolina Historical Society in Charleston, is the author of eight non-fiction books including South Carolina Civilians in Sherman’s Path, The Immortal 600, A Confederate Englishman, Confederate South Carolina, Days of Destruction, A Legion of Devils: Sherman in South Carolina, and her latest book from Shotwell Publishing, Carolina Love Letters. Her works of historical fiction include Honor in the Dust and The Immortals. Mrs. Stokes is currently editing a collection of wartime letters written by seven brothers from Abbeville, South Carolina, who served in the Confederate Army with great distinction. More from Karen Stokes

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