Until around 1930 few United States Civil War historians paid much attention to Southerners who opposed the 1861-1865 secession from the United States by a confederacy of Southern states. Southern historians clung instead to a notion of the South`s unanimity in the face of Northern aggression. Only when scholars such as Lonn decided to examine this side of the war did historian of the Confederacy begin to recognize the existence of Southerners loyal to the Union (Unionists). While these early historians of Southern dissent broke new ground, they also reproduced Confederate authoritie`s negative view of loyalists as shady characters driven by dubious motives. Even Tatum, who took a largely sympathetic attitude toward loyalists, tended to lump them into nebulous categories, offering broad generalizations that ignored the particulars of Unionists` identities and experiences.
This early-twentieth-century historiography nonetheless represented the leading research on dissent in the South until the 1960s and 1970s. Spurred by the advent of social historical methods, a new generation of historians found Unionists interesting as manifestations of the Confederacy`s internal weaknesses. Focusing on the Appalachian Mountain and upper South regions of the Confederacy, these scholars argued that there was a profound divide among Southern Whites between those who benefited economically from slave-run plantations and those who did not. One such historian was Escott, who emphasized regional and economic conflict among Southerners. Escott cast Unionists and other dissenters as antiplanter mountaineers who could not, by reason of economic and social alienation, identify with the proslavery Southern cause. This theme has heavily influenced the work of subsequent scholars, who commonly place Unionists at the extreme end of a continuum of class-based Confederate disaffection that was ultimately responsible for the South`s collapse. Because the driving force behind such inquiries into loyalist history has been a desire to explain Confederate ideology, politics, and defeat, emphasis has been placed on the ways loyalist Southerners diverged from the political and economic mainstream of Confederate nationalism.
Only recently have some Civil War historians begun to make Unionists and their experiences, rather than the Confederate state, the center of inquiry. These scholars have done intensive community and local studies of dissenting groups that take into account a range of social and cultural, as well as military and political, factors at work on the Southern home front. Hoping to better understand who remained loyal to the Union during the war, these historians have sought to explain the Civil War`s underlying character, dimensions, and impact in particular counties or towns, especially in the upper South and Appalachia. This relatively new trend has stressed the particular, delved into the complexities of political allegiances on the home front, and, as Sutherland notes, highlighted "the gritty experience of real people".
Historian E.H Carr`s thesis that all debates concerning the explanation of historical phenomena revolve around the question of the priority of causes is so familiar to historians as to constitute orthodoxy within their profession. The true historian,as Carr puts it, will feel a professional obligation to place the multiple causes of a historical event in a hierarchy by means of which the primary or ultimate cause of the event can be identified. In the Marxist mode of historical explanation (historical materialism), a universal hierarchy of causes is posited in which economic factors are always primary. In the classic, more widely accepted alternative ultimately derived from Weberian sociology, hierarchies of causes are treated as historically specific: explanatory primacy in any particular historical situation must be established by empirical investigation of that situation, not by applying a universal model of historical causation.
While the need to rank historical causes in some order of importance may seem obvious to most historians, such hierarchies raise serious philosophical difficulties. If any historical event is the product of a number of factors, then each of these factor is indispensable to the occurrence of the event. But how can one cause be more indispensable than another? And if it cannot, how can there be a hierarchy of indispensable causes? It was this problem that first led Weber himself to argue for the impossibility of any general formula specifying the relative importance of causes; we cannot, for example, conclude that in every capitalist society religious change has been more significant than economic change (or vice versa) in explaining the rise of capitalism.
Runciman offers a different argument leading to the same conclusion. He points out that it is possible to identify specific factors as the primary causes of a particular historical event only relative to an initial set of background conditions. For instance, if we accept English defeats after 1369 in the Hundred Years War as a given, then we may identify the high levels of taxation necessitated by these military reverses as the main cause of the Peasants Revolt of 1381. If instead we regard the financing of warfare by taxation in this period as a background condition, then we will see the English reverses themselves as the main cause of the revolt. However, neither ordinary life nor historical practice offer reliable criteria by which to distinguish causes from background conditions and thus to resolve historical debates about the relative importance of causes. And this difficulty casts doubt not only on the Marxist effort to identify a universal hierarchy of causes, but also on any attempt to identify an objective hierarchy of causes–even of the historically specific kind favored by non-Marxists.
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