Fear of losing honour sparked the American Civil War

More than 620,000 people died in the American Civil War (1861–1865). One of the underlying factors that led to the war was the southern concept of honour, as personified by James Chesnut, a South Carolinian politician and statesman.

According to researcher Anna Koivusalo, honour has traditionally been seen as a rigid, unchanging code of conduct.

“However, honour was more like a conglomeration of individual concepts. This meant that individuals had to constantly recalibrate and correct their interpretations of honour, which made it a very unstable guideline that was constantly in flux,” Koivusalo explains.

Koivusalo’s dissertation studies the impact of honour on emotional expression in the 19th century in the southern United States. Honour was a powerful force in the lives of the southerners, as it was used to determine which emotions were considered appropriate and good in society. It also helped individuals express emotion in accepted ways, which made it easier to adapt to society and reach specific goals.

“This means that honour was a tool for coping in society. Society exclusively allowed, expected and encouraged emotions which aligned with honour.”

Fear camouflaged as bravery leads to war

James Chesnut, who effectively started the Civil War, changed his emotional expression according to what he considered to be honourable in the situation. According to Koivusalo, honour is considered one of the causes of the war.

“Chesnut’s choices and actions reflect the ways southerners reacted to demands regarding honour and emotional expression,” Anna Koivusalo explains.

“It was specifically the fear of losing honour, both Chesnut’s personal honour and that of the whole South, that led to Chesnut actively supporting the secession of the southern states from the union and to him in 1861 ordering the shots at Fort Sumter, Charleston Harbour, the first volleys fired in the Civil War.”

In times of crisis, the meaning of honour and the significance of honourable emotional expression could fluctuate dramatically. According to Koivusalo, the events at Fort Sumter are a good illustration of how fear – of war, of loss of control and reputation, of threats to society – were camouflaged and channelled into much more accepted emotions, such as bravery and determination.


MA Anna Koivusalo will defend her doctoral dissertation entitled “The Man Who Started the American Civil War: Southern Honor, Emotion, and James Chesnut, Jr.” at 10.15 on 3 June 2017 at the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Arts. The public defence will be held in Auditorium XII in the University’s Main Building.

The opponent will be Professor John Mayfield, Samford University, Alabama, and the custos Professor Markku Peltonen.

The dissertation abstract can be accessed through the e-thesis service.