We often get images, based on stereotypes, stuck in our heads about history. The antebellum and Civil War periods are no exceptions. We think the South was nothing but large plantations with thousands of slaves. We also might think that every Southerner tightly embraced secession and the war and retained that embrace until surrender in 1865.
These images are two-dimensional cartoons, with more or less an element of truth. The reality was considerably different. Most Southerners were small farmers, not big plantation owners, who did have an outsized presence in issues of the days. Likely most white Southerners did support secession, but that support began to wane as early as 1862. Fewer than half of white Southerners were slaveowners. And the state of Mississippi is a good example.
In The Limits of Loyalty: Ordinary People in Civil War in Mississippi, Jarret Ruminski takes a deep look at what happened in the state over the period 1861-1865. The time in which people’s nationalist sentiments and actions were most closely tied to the Confederacy was, unsurprisingly, early on. By 1862, as parts of the state began to experience invasion and destruction (and Mississippi experienced considerable amounts of both over the course of the war), sentiment shifted. Other loyalties, like to community and family, began to take precedence over feelings about the Confederacy and even the war. For many, and especially for women left at home with children and small farms and businesses, family survival became the overriding issue.
Ruminski draws upon letters, published reports and editorials in newspapers, journals, and official records. He considers early nationalist sentiment; how Union, Confederate, and private citizens defined oaths of allegiance; the contraband trade that occurred across all socio-economic levels; the role that deserters and gangs of thieves and robbers played; the breakdown in loyalty between slaves and masters; and how all of this upheaval not only tore at the fabric of law and society but reverberated for decades after the war.
In short, in the state of Mississippi at least, and likely many other Southern states, the idea of the Confederacy, support for the war, and afterward the “Lost Cause” might have more basis in fiction and myth than in actual fact. It was one thing to support the Jefferson Davis national government. But families had to eat and survive, and if it was a choice between loyalty to the cause and the war and seeing your children starve, it wasn’t much of a contest.
Ruminski received his B.A. degree in English and his M.A. degree in American history at Youngstown State University, and his Ph.D. degree in 19th century American history from the University of Calgary. His Ph.D. dissertation, which likely furnished a considerable portion of the research for The Limits of Loyalty, was entitled “Southern Pride and Yankee Presence: The Limits of Confederate Loyalty in Civil War Mississippi, 1860-1865.” A freelance writer and researcher, he’s published articles in Civil War History, The Journal of the Civil War Era, Journal of Southern History, American Nineteenth Century History, Ohio Valley History, Ohio History, and a variety of other historical and popular publications.
The Limits of Loyalty focuses on the lives and experiences of ordinary people during the Civil War, the people who tilled the farms, harvested the crops, operated the small stores and sawmills, and had to feed their families. It was a society coming apart at the seams in a variety of ways, and as Ruminski demonstrates in his highly readable and extensively researched account, the loyalty people felt was multifaceted, with loyalty to family and community taking increasing priority as society collapsed.
Top Photograph: Women of the Civil War, drawing by Winslow Homer.