By: Lindsay Rae Smith and Melissa Farah Young, History PhD students
The formation of the Confederate States in early 1861 threw many southern printers and publishers into turmoil. While many southern intellectuals were pushing for an independent print culture prior to secession, independence and the threat of war made the creation of a new and unique body of Confederate literature a necessity. For many Confederates, the new nation was not only delineated by a separate territory, military, and government, but also by the unique character of its people. They believed that the South’s complete intellectual and cultural separation from the North was as important to the Confederacy’s survival as any military or political victory.
The documents published by southern printers between December 1860 and April 1865—known today as Confederate imprints—sought to legitimize southern nationhood in the eyes of foreign governments and create a culture that would strengthen a sense of unity among the general population. Confederate imprints are divided into two categories. Official publications include military and government documents such as the newly drafted Constitution, and official military decrees. These texts circulated information essential to the nation’s survival.
Unofficial documents, however, were published for the private sector. Many books and journals contained strong pro-Confederate sentiment. Popular novels were reprinted with prefaces centering them within the southern struggle. Textbooks played an important role in educating a new generation of Confederates for service to their country, and history books worked to cast them as the true inheritors of American democracy.
Since the Confederacy lacked a publishing infrastructure that could compete with the North, southern printers were keenly aware of their disadvantages. The Union blockade of southern ports made it difficult for publishers to obtain adequate supplies. To overcome paper shortages, printers advertised for donations of old rags, which could be pulped and boiled to make new paper. Pages from old journals, ledger books, and reams of unused wallpaper were also used in the printing and binding processes. Fig and pomegranate juice were substituted for ink, and seldom-used typesetting blocks were flipped to replace those that became worn. Perhaps the most challenging obstacle was the absence of trained printers and engravers. Presses and supplies could be smuggled or improvised, but skilled tradesmen often demonstrated their own passionate devotion to the Confederacy. They often enlisted in the Confederate Army even though they were exempt from military service.
Nevertheless, despite the challenges of wartime scarcity, southern publishers were dedicated to creating a distinct national literature. As a result of the nationalism inherent in many of the surviving texts, Confederate imprints continue to relay the beliefs and hopes of a people struggling to create a country in the midst of war.
Want to learn more about the exhibition? Read our “Curating the Confederacy” five-part series or come to our Curator’s talk tomorrow, April 21, 2015, at 3:30 PM in the A.S. Williams III reading room, level three, Amelia Gayle Gorgas Library.