No Real Heart Union


The cabinet of the Confederate States at Montgomery, from Harper’s Weekly, June 1861

by Paul Quigley

In October 1860, Sarah Lois Wadley was a month shy of her sixteenth birthday. Yet even at that age, she was dreadfully concerned about the crisis of the American Union that was unfolding all around her. Just days before the election of Abraham Lincoln, a few months before the outbreak of the American Civil War, Wadley fretted about the possible consequences of the impending election:  “God grant that it may not be the cause of breaking up our glorious Union.” Yet as she realised, there was good reason to fear the worst. “The Union is but a name,” she sadly explained, “there is no concord, no real heart Union any longer.”

Wadley’s words expose with striking clarity the crisis of nationalism that Americans experienced in the 1850s and 1860s—a crisis that enveloped not only the politicians and the generals, but millions of ordinary people as well, men and women, boys and girls, northerners and southerners alike. Of everything I read during the decade I spent working on my book Shifting Grounds—all those politicians’ speeches, soldiers’ letters, newspapers, and so on—nothing contained brighter insights than the handwritten diary of a teenaged Louisiana girl. Nationalism is one of those abstract concepts that can be difficult to track as a tangible element in people’s everyday lives, yet with her poignant phrase, “no real heart Union,” Wadley succinctly captured the new urgency that nationalism was assuming in the lives of mid-nineteenth-century Americans.

In the months following Abraham Lincoln’s election in November 1860, eleven southern states seceded from the United States and formed a new nation-state, the Confederacy, which fought against the Union in the American Civil War. As well as altering their formal political allegiances, these developments also destabilized southerners’ basic ideas about the very concept of nationalism: what it meant to be a nation, what individual citizens owed to their nation, and how the lines between nations should be drawn. Alongside millions of her fellow Americans, Sarah Lois Wadley struggled deeply with these problems.

Why was U.S. nationalism in crisis? In that same October 1860 diary entry, Wadley went on to explain unambiguously why the national Union was disintegrating. “The Abolitionists have sowed the seeds of dissension and insurrections among us,” she wrote, “those seeds are fast ripening and a bloody harvest seems impending; they have burnt our homesteads, killed our citizens, and incited our servants to poison us, think they that we will submit to continual disturbances, oft repeated wrongs, much longer, no! They shout Freedom and Union, but they would take away our freedom and give it to the negro, they would sap the foundations of that Union which our ancestors labored amid bloodshed and tyranny to found.” In Wadley’s eyes the Union was falling apart because mutual sympathy had been replaced by fear—an urgent, visceral fear about the security of slavery, about the threat of a northern-abolitionist-inspired black insurrection. Like her contemporaries across the South – for whatever modern-day Confederate sympathizers may say about states’ rights, there is no doubt that the southern states seceded primarily to protect slavery’s long-term future – Wadley prioritized the maintenance of racial slavery over the preservation of the Union.

Yet she did not derive any pleasure from that decision. “I shudder to contemplate a civil war,” she wrote, especially since she and other members of her family had been born in the North. “Yet dear as is [northern] soil to me,” she concluded, “never can I claim Friendship with those who have contemplated my country’s ruin. Better far for us would be civil war than this dreadful incubus which hangs over us now, this continual wrangling and bitter malediction with which we are persecuted.” For all her concern about the abolitionist threat to slavery, Wadley still felt a fundamental ambivalence about the breakup of the Union.

Such ambivalence does not fit very well into the traditional story of the American Civil War: the story of ferocious, internecine conflict between two opposing blocs, “the North” versus “the South,” with a clear dividing line between the two sides. According to this neat narrative, white southerners like Sarah Lois Wadley should have been positively embracing secession in the winter of 1860—61, happy to leave the Union behind as soon as possible, and spoiling for a fight with the northern  enemy. This storyline enjoys the powerful validation of hindsight. We know the North and the South fought; we know the American Civil War resulted in some 750,000 deaths. And because we know these things, we tend to instinctively highlight southern defiance and southern unity. Hindsight has made it too easy to overlook the acute uncertainty with which so many white southerners faced the crisis of allegiance that came along with the American Civil War. As I tried to show in Shifting Grounds, the pained ambivalence of Sarah Lois Wadley was more typical than one might think.

Even after the secession of her own state of Louisiana, even after the formation of the Confederate States of America in February 1861, Wadley’s hesitation lingered. Recording in her diary the news that the president and vice-president of the new Confederacy had been named, Wadley revealed, “I had almost written the United States, how sad to think that we are united no longer, that we are no more natives of one common country, necessary as is the separation how can we think of it without grief.” Many of Wadley’s contemporaries cast a similar backward glance in the wake of their departure from a Union they had once loved.

Sarah Lois Wadley

Throughout the Civil War, white southerners wondered how the breakup of the Union should affect their relationship with America’s national symbols. On the one hand, they tended to maintain that they had seceded in order to preserve the real American heritage; the Confederacy was the real America, and northerners were apostates. On the other hand, they recognized that because they had voluntarily left the United States, their claim upon its traditions and symbols—their claim upon American nationalism itself—was weakened. The difficulties of balancing the new Confederate national identity with the old American one were persistent, but they were at no time more pressing than on national holidays such as Independence Day. In 1861 Wadley reported, “The Fourth of July passed very quietly here, my mind was so much occuppied [sic] by other things that I had almost forgotten the day.” She was glad that the occasion had been marked to some degree—with a picnic, business closures, the firing of salutes—but was also relieved that there had not been the usual “noisy demonstrations.” Amidst the distractions of war as well as the changed political circumstances, a quieter, more restrained commemoration of 1776 was clearly called for.

By July 4, 1863, the demands of war had overtaken commemoration even more fully. “I really had forgotten, or rather had not thought, that this was the eventful fourth until I wrote the date this entry,” Wadley noted that day; “alas, we have no time now to celebrate the birthday of a liberty which we had nearly lost and are now struggling so hard to maintain.” After two long, hard years of brutal war, the attachment of many white southerners to American national symbols was clearly waning. The news of the Confederate surrender of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863, strained that attachment further still, causing Wadley to view the holiday as “hereafter a day of mourning and humiliation to us, of redoubled exultation to our hated enemies.”  Even so, in 1863, Wadley still wrote wistfully about the events of 1776 as a “glorious past”—a past to which she clearly continued to feel a significant connection.

Wadley’s sorrowful affection for the old Union certainly persisted to some degree throughout the war. Yet as the combat got underway, her resentment of the North sharpened and her commitment to the Confederacy became firmer. After the fighting began at Charleston’s Fort Sumter in April 1861, Wadley exclaimed, “Oh! how melancholy, how melancholy is the state of our country, never since the death of Cain was such unnatural, uncalled for war.” Blaming northern aggression for the conflict, she once again returned to her understanding of a Union that should be held together by sympathy or love, this time commenting on the irony that northerners were using force in an attempt to restore a bond of affection: “think they, that they can compel the South into a Union which they have perfidiously disregarded … who could stoop to ask admittance again into a Union of name when there is hatred and treachery in the hearts of those with whom we have been united.”

The following year, awaiting news of a key battle in neighbouring Mississippi, Wadley again used vivid imagery to rebuke the northern enemy, asking “if there be retributive justice what shall be the fate of those wicked men who have sent their myrmidons to bathe our land in the blood of its children.” Recent historians have been more likely to emphasize the war’s splintering of Confederate unity and the ways wartime hardships fostered internal dissent, but in Wadley’s case, and many others, the opposite seemed true. In a pattern that was evident among many of her fellow southerners, the experience of brutal war seemed to be strengthening rather than destroying Wadley’s hatred of the North and her commitment to the Confederacy. Even bereavement could function as a stimulant of national unity. Though she was certainly appalled by southern battlefield deaths, Wadley saw in them the redemptive promise of nationalist immortality. “But if they die in body,” she eulogized the fallen, “their names shall live in our memory, and when in after days the stains of blood have been obliterated from the figure of freedom, we shall remember and generations after us shall bless those who died for their country.” Like nationalists in countless other times and places, Confederates drew emotive, even spiritual connections between death and the nation, in the process embedding commitment to their new nation more deeply than ever within their lives.

Because four long years of war had implanted national loyalty so deep within Wadley’s identity, defeat seemed catastrophic. Upon hearing reports that Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Joseph E. Johnston had surrendered, Wadley lamented, “if this is true all is lost, lost, my God what a word, our country gone, I feel as if all were gone.” Even more painful was the possibility that all those Confederate deaths which Wadley and others had celebrated as nationalist martyrdom would now be in vain. “Have our brave soldiers fought for nothing,” she asked—and could not stand for the answer to be yes. “No, not for nothing,” she proclaimed, “if it be indeed so, if this dreadful calamity fell upon us, yet have they not died for nothing.” A few weeks later, Wadley returned to this same theme, more able now to admit that defeat was a reality, yet “too sorrowful to weep,” and still not willing to “repudiate the acts of our glorious soldiers” and admit that their deaths had been for nothing. “We were right,” she insisted, “we were fighting for freedom, for independence.” Having sadly experienced the demise of her “heart Union” as a teenager, twenty-year-old Wadley now lost her beloved Confederacy as well. Four years of conflict appeared to have destroyed her lingering attachment to the United States and to the northerners she had once called brethren. “I cannot bear to stay here,” she wrote in angry desperation, “I will never call myself a citizen of the United States, let it be where it will, only away from here.”

Like all her contemporaries, in the North as well as the South, Wadley had lived through a wrenching crisis of nationalism. White southerners would indeed re-join the United States, and in time even rebuild the “real heart Union” that Wadley had prized so much in 1860. Yet their understanding of what nations were, how they were born and died, what they demanded of their members, had been forever transformed—transformed by a cruel war that embedded nationalism deeper than ever within daily life, making it an inescapable matter of life and death.


A transcript of Sarah Lois Wadley’s diary is available to read online via the University of North Carolina’s Southern Historical Collection here

About the Author:

Paul Quigley is Lecturer in American History at the University of Edinburgh, where he specializes in the history of slavery and the American Civil War. He is the author of Shifting Grounds: Nationalism and the American South, 1848-1865, which won the British Association for American Studies Book Prize and the Jefferson Davis Award from the Museum of the Confederacy.