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Restless Confederates | The Nation

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Restless Confederates

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Like the actions of white women, those of slaves strongly affected public policy, in ways that weakened Southern unity and wartime mobilization. Unrest on the plantations led to the twenty-Negro exemption, which, in turn, heightened discontent among nonslaveholding farm families. Slaves' propensity to escape when near Union lines explains why planters resisted their use as military laborers, weakening the war effort. Planter resistance to the army's impressment of slave labor drew support from state governments that tried to undermine the policies of the Davis administration. The well-known battles over states' rights in the Confederacy, McCurry convincingly argues, were really arguments over whether the needs of the national government should take precedence over the property rights of slaveholders.

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.
Buy this book

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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The struggle over slave impressment offered a prelude to the well-known debate of 1864–65 over the enrollment of slaves in the Confederate army. In the Emancipation Proclamation Lincoln had authorized black enlistment, and by war's end some 200,000 black men had served in the Union army and navy. As the Confederacy's situation worsened, military leaders including Robert E. Lee called for enrolling blacks. Lee went so far as to propose coupling enlistment with a plan for "gradual and general emancipation." This was far more than the Confederate Congress could stomach. In March 1865, it finally authorized slave enlistment, in a law that made no mention of freedom. In his implementation order, however, Jefferson Davis promised freedom to those who agreed to serve. In other words, Davis acknowledged that slaves were able to make independent decisions and that their loyalty had to be won, not simply commanded.

McCurry correctly points out that enlisting blacks in the Confederate army and offering them freedom did not necessarily mean the end of slavery. Both the British and the Americans had used slave soldiers in the War of Independence, yet slavery survived. It did so as well in the West Indies, where the British raised and freed slave regiments. Had the Confederacy emerged victorious, slavery would certainly have continued. In any event, a few days before the war ended, two companies of Confederate black soldiers from Richmond were sent to the front. Most of these men had already been impressed to work in a Confederate hospital; whether they were truly volunteers may be doubted. Certainly, as McCurry makes clear, the idea that legions of slaves fought for the slaveholders' republic—a notion propagated by neo-Confederate organizations and widely disseminated on the Internet—is a myth.

Confederate Reckoning offers a powerful new paradigm for understanding events on the Confederate home front. Unfortunately, the book's structure to some extent stands at cross-purposes with its argument. Its two parts are not really integrated. White women pretty much disappear from the second half of the narrative, and there is little attention to how the political mobilization of slaves and white women of the nonslaveholding class, so expertly delineated, intersected. Moreover, a full account of how the war politicized previously marginalized groups and heightened tensions within Southern society would require attention to a group neglected in this study—disaffected white men from the nonslaveholding class.

McCurry explains her decision not to write about these white men by pointing out that, thanks to studies of desertion from the Confederate army, we already "know a great deal" about them. But as Victoria Bynum notes in The Long Shadow of the Civil War, the "communities of dissent" that emerged in the Civil War South involved both men and women. Bynum studies three areas of disaffection within the Confederacy: the "Quaker belt" of central North Carolina; Jones County in southern Mississippi's Piney Woods; and the Big Thicket of East Texas. These localities lay outside the main plantation region and were populated mostly by nonslaveholding families. The three regions shared more than a similar demography. Many of the Mississippi Unionists had relatives in North Carolina, and some of the Texas guerrillas had emigrated from Jones County.

Bynum's subjects "hated the Confederacy" and in some cases took up arms against it. In these areas, bands of deserters plagued the Confederate war effort, and an internal civil war took place that pitted neighbor against neighbor. Unionist activity rested on extended family networks. The wives of deserters and draft dodgers acted not as Confederate soldiers' wives but as anti-Confederate cadres. They threatened public officials; stole from wealthier neighbors; and provided shelter, food and information to male relatives hiding out in the woods.

Bynum, whose well-regarded book on Jones County, The Free State of Jones: Mississippi's Longest Civil War, dispelled the idea that it actually "seceded" from the Confederacy, clearly sympathizes with her subjects. Some of her ancestors, she writes, were among these lower-class Unionists. But she avoids over-romanticization. Bill Owens, the leading Unionist guerrilla in North Carolina, she notes, was a cold-blooded killer. But heinous acts were not limited to one side. Confederate soldiers tortured Owens's wife to gain information about his whereabouts. Local militia units mistreated Unionist women and children. Owens himself, after his capture toward the end of the war, was taken from his jail cell by unknown parties and murdered.

Bynum's book is not so much a narrative history as a series of discrete, overlapping and somewhat disjointed case studies. But it adds a dimension to McCurry's far broader study by taking the story beyond the end of the Civil War to trace the long-term legacy of pro-Union activism. One chapter shows how family traditions of dissent survived in new forms as veterans of the "inner Civil War" and their descendants joined the biracial Republican Party during Reconstruction and emerged as leaders of Populism in the 1890s and the Socialist Party of Eugene Debs. The legacy of violent white supremacy also survived. The wartime Confederate militia was succeeded by the Ku Klux Klan after the war and "whitecappers" around the turn of the century.

Bynum invokes court cases to track the shifting political fortunes of the postwar South. In one North Carolina county, the members of an extended family challenged the right of a female relative to inherit land on the grounds that she had African ancestry. In 1892 a court ruled against the woman, and she lost the farm she and her late husband had tilled for two decades. Honor, supposedly a central characteristic of white Southern culture, seems to have been in short supply after the Civil War.

One of the more fascinating figures Bynum discusses is Newt Knight, the leader of an armed band of Unionists in Jones County who lived with a black woman and became "the patriarch of an extensive mixed-race community." Bynum relates his long, unsuccessful campaign for monetary compensation from the federal government for his wartime activities. She also explores the fate of his mixed-race children and grandchildren. Some identified as people of color; some disappeared into white society. One descendant, David Knight, served in the Army during World War II, married a white woman in 1946 and two years later was convicted in Mississippi of the crime of miscegenation. The Confederacy certainly cast a long shadow.

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