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Restless Confederates | The Nation

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Restless Confederates

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The bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth has come and gone, and with it a flood of books about the sixteenth president. But the sesquicentennial of the Civil War now looms on the horizon, promising its own deluge of books of every size, shape and description. We will be fortunate indeed if in sheer originality and insight they measure up to Confederate Reckoning and The Long Shadow of the Civil War, new works by Stephanie McCurry and Victoria Bynum, respectively, on the Confederate experience.

Confederate Reckoning
Power and Politics in the Civil War South.
By Stephanie McCurry.
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The Long Shadow of the Civil War
Southern Dissent and Its Legacies.
By Victoria E. Bynum.
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About the Author

Eric Foner
Eric Foner, a member of The Nation’s editorial board, is the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia...

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Most scholarly history on the Confederacy has been shaped, implicitly or explicitly, by a desire to explain Southern defeat. Devotees of the Lost Cause insist that gallant Southern soldiers inevitably succumbed to the Union's overwhelming advantages in manpower and economic resources. The stronger side, however, does not always win a war, as the United States learned in Vietnam. This fact has led historians to try to locate internal causes for the failure of the quest for Southern independence. They have identified such culprits as poor political leadership, excessive individualism, desertion from the army by non-slaveholding soldiers, waning enthusiasm for the war among upper-class white women and disaffection among the slaves.

McCurry and Bynum are less interested in why the South lost—although their books shed light on this question—than in the social and political consequences of how it conducted the war. Taken together, they show how the effort to create a slaveholders' republic sundered Southern society and changed the contours of Southern politics. The subtitle of McCurry's book—"Power and Politics in the Civil War South"—is surely meant to be ironic. Most readers will no doubt expect another study of Jefferson Davis's administration or the battle between advocates of states' rights and central control. But McCurry challenges us to expand our definition of politics to encompass not simply government but the entire public sphere. The struggle for Southern independence, she shows, opened the door for the mobilization of two groups previously outside the political nation—white women of the nonslaveholding class and slaves.

McCurry begins by stating what should be obvious but is frequently denied, that the Confederacy was something decidedly odd in the nineteenth century: "an independent proslavery nation." The Confederate and state constitutions made clear that protecting slavery was their raison d'être. Abandoning euphemisms like "other persons" by which the US Constitution referred to slaves without directly acknowledging their existence, Confederates forthrightly named the institution, erected protections around it and explicitly limited citizenship to white persons. McCurry implicitly pokes holes in other explanations for Southern secession, such as opposition to Republican economic policies like the tariff or fear for the future of personal freedom under a Lincoln administration. Georgia, she notes, passed a law in 1861 that made continuing loyalty to the Union a capital offense, hardly the action of a government concerned about individual liberty or the rights of minorities.

The Confederacy, McCurry writes, was conceived as a "republic of white men." But since of its 9 million people more than 3 million were slaves and half of the remainder disenfranchised white women, the new nation faced from the outset a "crisis of legitimacy." However much the law defined white women as appendages of their husbands, entitled to protection but not a public voice, and slaves simply as property, Southern leaders realized early that they would have to compete with the Union for the loyalty of these groups, treating them, in effect, as independent actors. The need to generate consent allowed "the Confederate unenfranchised" to step onto the stage of politics, with their own demands, grievances and actions.

McCurry's chapters delineating the political emergence of poor white women constitute the most dramatic and original parts of Confederate Reckoning. She makes clear that introducing gender as a category of analysis changes the definition of politics and power, but simultaneously warns against considering "woman" a unitary identity independent of class. All Confederate women struggled to cope as their loved ones were drawn off into the army, many never to return. Women of all classes called upon the state for assistance during the war. But when wealthy women made demands on the Confederate government, they did so as members of a national elite.

Poorer women forged a different political identity. They spoke the language not of Southern nationalism or upper-class identity but of family and community. They described themselves as soldiers' wives and invoked what McCurry calls a "politics of subsistence." Lacking the aid of slave labor, they found that the absence of their husbands from their previously self-sufficient farms made it impossible to feed themselves and their children. As the war progressed and the economic situation deteriorated, they flooded Confederate authorities with petitions seeking assistance, not as charity but as a right. In demanding aid from local, state and national governments, these women articulated a new vision of themselves as citizens with legitimate claims upon the state. Eventually, poor women took to the streets in food riots in major Confederate cities, the most dramatic example of their emergence as a political force.

The policies of the Confederate government and the actions of slaveowning planters exacerbated these women's sense of grievance. The Confederate Congress enacted the twenty-Negro exemption, allowing one adult man to remain at home for every twenty slaves on a plantation in order to forestall slave resistance. Policies like impressment and the tax-in-kind, which allowed the army to appropriate farm goods, were applied much more rigorously against poorer Southerners than wealthy ones. Planters showed little interest in assisting their suffering neighbors and resisted calls by Confederate authorities to grow edible crops instead of cotton. "The rich people about here there hearts are of steel," one Virginia woman wrote to Jefferson Davis. Indeed, planters' unwillingness to sacrifice self-interest for the common good is a recurring theme of Confederate Reckoning. Having created a nation based on slavery, they proved reluctant to provide blacks for military labor, fearing this would interfere with their hold on their slave property. "You cheerfully yield your children to your country," one antiplanter broadside asked, "how you refuse your servants?"

Later generations would create the myth of the ardently patriotic Southern woman. Contemporaries knew better. The agitation of poor women, McCurry shows, alarmed Southern officials and directly affected Confederate policy. Politicians could not ignore the pleas of soldiers' wives. Congress moved to exempt poor families from taxation. Governors like Zebulon Vance of North Carolina and Joseph Brown of Georgia distributed supplies to needy families. By the end of the war, McCurry writes, the Confederacy had created a significant "welfare system." Georgia spent more money on relief in one year than Massachusetts (a state with a significant poor population) did during the entire war.

In the second half of Confederate Reckoning, McCurry turns to the actions of slaves during the war. Here she covers more familiar ground but still manages to offer striking new insights. It is now widely recognized that the actions of slaves who ran away to Union lines helped to put the slavery issue on the agenda of the Lincoln administration, and that by serving in the Union army black soldiers staked a claim to citizenship in the post-bellum world. Most slaves, however, lived out the war behind Confederate lines. The government they had to deal with, McCurry points out, was Davis's, not Lincoln's.

From the outset, McCurry shows, slaves carefully followed national politics and the course of the war. Even before Lincoln's election, the planter Charles Manigault noted, his slaves had "very generally got the idea of being emancipated when 'Lincon' comes in." Once the war began, slaves took every opportunity to aid Union forces and resist the demands of their owners. McCurry describes Manigault's plantations as being "in a state of barely suppressed insurrection." How to characterize slaves' actions has long posed a challenge for historians. W.E.B. Du Bois wrote of a "general strike" in the Confederacy. McCurry goes even further, using the phrase "a massive slave rebellion." This seems an exaggeration. But she is on firm ground when she insists that a battle ensued between North and South for slaves' "political allegiance."

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