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.
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.