The Visible Confederacy
Images and Objects in the Civil War South
Ross A. Brooks
Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 2019, 344 pages
Book Review published on: February 5, 2021
When one establishes one’s own country, one is, in effect, creating one’s own brand. A personal brand defines who a person is, describes hopes and aspirations, describes strengths and weaknesses, and also a person’s history and myths. To unify a country’s people and to influence potential allies, a leader must give them something to believe in.
Ross A. Brooks’s book, The Visible Confederacy: Images and Objects in the Civil War South, examines the Confederacy’s efforts, both deliberate and accidental, to define the Confederate States of America. Brooks looks at the regional origins of the Confederacy, which served as a basis for the imagery associated with the “brand” of Dixie: a land that (as understood in the South) was not consumed with greed, was not obsessed with the “mechanical,” and did not need “foreigners” (recent immigrants) to fight for them. The Confederacy, as it saw itself, enjoyed a nobility of the soil, a “ruling class” with a sense of noblesse oblige, men who were excellent fighters, women who were patriotic homemakers, and slaves who were content with their lot in life.
Obviously, this was not an accurate picture of Confederacy as it really was but branding rarely provides a complete picture. Why should it? People prefer simpler imagery, more homogeneous pictures than complex reality. The people of the South certainly preferred to see themselves as morally and martially superior to their northern cousins.
The illustrations in the book reflect the efforts Confederates made to establish this self-image. Illustrations include their money, their stamps, their war art, their illustrated periodicals, their photographic images, and their prints. The subjects selected for study by Confederates included the battles for Fort Sumter; maps of various battlefields; common soldiers; sailors; southern generals (especially Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson); the CSS Virginia; allegories of liberty, justice, and hope; the goddesses Minerva, Moneta, and Proserpine; scenes of industry (e.g., trains and steamships); African Americans; Native Americans; and of course, farms and ordinary families.
These representations are more impressive when learning that few engravers worked in the South prior to the Civil War and that few photographers had studios, especially when compared to the North. Materials had to be recycled for use from prewar materials, often many times. Other materials had to be improvised and the finished product tended to be of poor quality. Expertise came in via Europe and in some cases, from the North itself.
While the Confederacy succeeded in creating an indelible image of itself, the Confederacy itself did not survive. The imagery of a strong South united against the invaders and successful in holding off the “hordes” of Yankees invading might have been inaccurate, but it is easy to see how the myth of the Lost Cause could be derived from it.
Book Review written by: James D. Crabtree, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas