Historian Loves a Good (Civil War) Rumor
Source Newsroom: Mississippi State University
Newswise — Did you hear the one about Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's hubris costing him his life?
They said the Yankee general died on a surgeon's table in July 1864, shortly after a rebel cannonball ripped his arm from his body. Since Southerners billed the Civil War as a personal battle between Grant and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, the Union leader's death certainly showed the South would win, thus proving its superiority.
Not only did "they" spread good news of Grant's agonizing, bloody death, but reports also were dispersed about the North's stock market collapse and England's and France's decision to support the Confederacy.
These non-events didn't make the cut for students to read in modern history books, not that Confederate soldiers and civilians would have cared. They were spreading the tall tales as a means of survival--to keep Southern morale high and to help convince themselves their preferred reality existed.
The actual reality of Confederate rumors is the topic of a new book by Jason K. Phillips. An assistant history professor at Mississippi State University, his "Diehard Rebels: The Confederate Culture of Invincibility" is scheduled for November release by the University of Georgia Press.
In addition, one section of his book has been included in the prestigious "Best American History Essays of 2008." Titled "The Grape Vine Telegraph: Rumors and Confederate Persistence," it is among only about 10 selected from among several thousand articles for inclusion by the Organization of American Historians, the premier professional society of American historians.
Phillips, a 2003 Rice University doctoral graduate, said research into rumors of the 1861-65 conflict traditionally has generated very little scholarly activity. As a result, research required a detailed analysis of period newspapers, soldiers' personal journals and other documents.
And, to find something similar with which to compare, he found it necessary to locate the research of Harvard University psychologists on rumors propagated nearly a century later by World War II soldiers.
Though rooted in American historical study, his scholarship contains threads of psychological and sociological investigations. A central theme of his search revolves around why some Confederate soldiers continued to fight and expected to win after so many successive defeats.
"They believed there was no way God would let them lose a war to people who seemed so barbaric," Phillips said of his findings.
"A culture existed in the South that believed it was superior to the North," he continued. "During the war, these soldiers thought they were more than just superior. They thought they were invincible, an invincibility rooted in white supremacy."
Soldiers were not the only true believers, Phillips said. "Even religious leaders would spread rumors from the pulpit. We can see likenesses between wartime experiences of the soldiers and the legacy of the Civil War and the South."
Along this vein, wartime rumors provide insights into a mid-19th century Southern psychology that likely was a precursor of later popular regional ideologies. The ideologies can be identified by such phrases as "The Lost Cause" and "Never, Never"--the latter being a favorite response of 20th century segregationists as the integration push grew in the 1950s and '60s.
"So much of Southern history during the Civil War can explain history long after the cannons stopped firing," Phillips said.