Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South

By Stephanie McCurry

(Harvard University Press, 449 pp., $35)

We are going to be hearing a great deal about the Civil War. November 6 will mark the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s election; December 20, the secession of South Carolina, the first Southern state to withdraw from the Union; April 12, the firing on Fort Sumter; July 21, the First Battle of Manassas, the first major engagement of the war. States North and South have established sesquicentennial commissions, which are planning a wide range of observances. Virginia, where so much of the military action took place, has launched an effort chaired by the speaker of the House of Delegates. But even Wisconsin, a state distant from the field of battle, seeks to honor and to remember the 91,000 of its citizens who served in the war. It seems hard to believe that a half-century has already passed since we observed the Civil War Centennial, which was a central event of my youth in Virginia. I attended the commemorative re-enactment of the Battle of Antietam with my family, and I remember my brother’s efforts to learn to ride well enough to be part of the re-enactments of cavalry battles that had taken place near our Shenandoah Valley home.

But if these fifty years seem fleeting, they have been in fact momentous, for we will in the course of the next four years remember a Civil War very different from the one that we commemorated in the 1960s. Those years were not just a historic anniversary, but also themselves a time of history-making. The summer of the Gettysburg centennial was the summer of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birmingham campaign, and the voter registration drive in Selma in 1965 took place exactly one hundred years after the engagements around Richmond that culminated in Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

The rapid pace of racial change in the early 1960s created an unsettling conflict within the centennial observances, as segregationists struggled to seize the anniversary as an instrument to defend a way of life under intensifying attack. But the historical record had only begun to reflect the altered assumptions of an era in the process of rejecting doctrines of racial separation and inequality. In 1956, when Kenneth M. Stampp proclaimed, in The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South, his revolutionary study of slavery, that “Negroes are, after all, only white men with black skins, nothing more, nothing less,” he revealed both the possibilities and the limitations of a changing relationship to America’s past. Today we understand ourselves—as citizens and as a nation—very differently than we did fifty years ago, and many of the most critical aspects of that transformation directly reflect issues central to the Civil War.

The Sesquicentennial will differ from commemorations of fifty years ago in a variety of dimensions. The availability of Civil War podcasts on iTunes to guide the curious traveler through the peach orchard at Gettysburg or the cornfield at Antietam is one arresting example. But a conference in Norfolk, sponsored by the Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission, titled “Race, Slavery, and the Civil War: The Tough Stuff of American History and Memory,” marks a change perhaps even more profound. It reminds us that the “tough stuff” that the centennial organizers struggled to avoid a halfcentury ago cannot be ignored any longer. The polity of Virginia in 2010 includes hundreds of thousands of black voters. Owing to the poll tax and other tools of disfranchisement, they were largely excluded from the electorate and the public discourse fifty years ago. A state commission today has a very different sort of accountability from one that served in a Virginia of segregation and “massive resistance” to racial change.

The conference reminds us, too, of the enormous amount of historical research and writing that has occurred since the 1960s, building on the early efforts of scholars such as Stampp, John Hope Franklin, W.E.B. Du Bois, Winthrop D. Jordan, Herbert Gutman, Eugene D. Genovese, and others to transform our understanding of the past. We will commemorate a very different Civil War between 2011 and 2015 partly because we know so much more—on average, more than a hundred books are published on the war each year—and partly because we look at what we know with changed eyes.

 

Stephanie McCurry’s important book reflects and exemplifies this transformation. Building upon her work over almost two decades, McCurry presents a new history of the South’s experience during the war. It is an account that foregrounds social history as contrasted with military history, and in this respect it is of a piece with much of the pathbreaking new scholarship on the war. It moves political history from the study of elected politicians and government institutions to an exploration of power in all its dimensions.

In the context of a war’s demands, that power came increasingly to lodge with the people whose contributions and loyalties were essential to victory. But “who are the people?” That is the urgent question asked in the title of McCurry’s initial chapter. The requirements of waging war, she demonstrates, would test “not just the unity of the people but the very definition of the people itself.” When we ask who mattered in the Confederacy, and thus who should be the objects of our historical inquiry, McCurry leaves us with little doubt about how impoverished earlier approaches have been. Hers is, in one sense, “a story ... hidden in plain sight.” Perhaps the highest praise one can offer McCurry’s work is to say that once we look through her eyes, it will become almost impossible to believe that we ever saw or thought otherwise.

“There would be far more of the people to contend with in the making of history in the Civil War South,” McCurry asserts, “than the founders ever bargained on.” The total mobilization required by the Confederate war effort empowered Southerners who had previously been excluded not just from the exercise of traditional political power through the franchise, but also from basic rights of freedom and self-determination. The enterprise of the Confederacy, McCurry shows, was profoundly shaped by the need to engage these marginalized individuals in the war effort, and the Confederacy was ultimately “undone” by those who “defied notions about their incapacity and irrelevance to step decisively into the making of history.” Confederate Reckoning is a book about politics that stretches far beyond the ballot and the statehouse, all the way into plantations and farms and families and communities across the South.

McCurry’s first book, Masters of Small Worlds: Yeoman Households, Gender Relations, and the Political Culture of the Antebellum South Carolina Low Country, which appeared in 1995, was an acclaimed study of Southern yeomen, the small or non-slaveholding farmers whose loyalties in the pre-war period became so closely aligned with the slaveholding elite that defined regional politics. This was an enfranchised group that often seemed—at least in our eyes—to vote against its evident selfinterest. McCurry demonstrates how war brought shifts in power relationships even within this community of white men. She details the manipulations of democratic processes that made secession possible in a population with significant Unionist ties and sentiments. In Georgia, the governor suppressed electoral results and later “cooked the numbers.” In South Carolina, in the words of one farmer, elections were structured so that a citizen simply “could not vote for the union.” Opposition to disunion in northern Alabama led to a “brawl” in the state secession convention, and Southern nationalists kept the ordinance of secession from ever being submitted for popular ratification. In the Upper South, which remained within the Union well into the spring of 1861, only Lincoln’s call for troops broke the political impasse. But as the war came and the demand for troops escalated beyond anyone’s expectations, Confederate leaders found themselves increasingly dependent on the willingness to fight of these same ordinary white men, most of whom were not direct participants in the slave institution that the war was waged to defend.


Yet the war’s empowerment of the men required to serve as its foot soldiers is not the main focus of McCurry’s interest in her new book. Instead, she directs the bulk of her attention to two groups, both excluded from the franchise and even from citizenship. Until recently, they were also all but excluded from historical consideration. McCurry offers, as she puts it, “a political history of the unfranchised.” Those two groups are, not surprisingly, women and African Americans.

The Confederate States of America possessed an economy and a population a fraction the size of its Northern opponent. The North had ten times the South’s manufacturing capacity and two and a half times its population. In a war of mass armies and total economic mobilization, these deficiencies would require the Southern nation to exert significant and ever-expanding demands upon its populace. It would also, ironically for a country founded to resist centralized federal power, require an almost unimaginable growth in the role of the state—an expansion, as McCurry remarks, that is “hard to exaggerate.”

A critical aspect of this shift was the increasing contact between the agents, officials, and policies of the government and the South’s white women. As three out of four white men of military age marched off to war, women succeeded them as heads of households. They became responsible for the society and economy of the Confederate home front, as well as for management of the slave institution. And as the Confederacy came to depend more and more on its women, so those women, in the absence of husbands and fathers, turned to the state for the guarantees of protection that they had long regarded as their fundamental right—the price of their acceptance of subordination and dependency.

Treasonous actions by women posed the conundrum of their political status directly. If their loyalty mattered, then they clearly enjoyed political salience—and women spies confronted officials with this dilemma from the early days of the war, often using confusion about their status and accountability to significant advantage. As the Confederacy began to face the challenge of draft evaders and deserters, soldiers were charged to pursue not only the resistant men, but also the women who assisted in aiding and hiding their loved ones. Governor Zebulon Vance of North Carolina, a state particularly plagued by desertion, authorized the arrest of “parties of any age or sex,” and reports abound of women intimidated, beaten, and even tortured by the Confederate Home Guard. (Anyone who has read or seen Cold Mountain is familiar with a chilling contemporary rendition of this historical reality.) “Behind all of these developments,” McCurry observes, “lay a wholly new estimation of women’s political significance and a new view of women’s standing in relation to the state.”

Women were not just victims of this redefinition of their power and significance. McCurry makes much of white women’s own redefinition of themselves as “soldiers’ wives” with special entitlements deriving from the sacrifices that this role entailed. Their resulting claims on the state, McCurry argues, rendered them a “powerful voice for social justice” in the Confederacy. An extraordinary expansion in welfare activities in states across the South followed fast on the heels of women’s protests and threats of violence in bread riots in Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia in the spring of 1863. With these demonstrations, women were demanding that governments meet their obligation to provide for soldiers’ dependents. As McCurry shows, the protests reflected an unprecedented level of political organization and self-consciousness on the part of their female participants.

Confederate officials certainly took notice. They diverted food supplies from the army to needy families at home, and they established relief policies that, in McCurry’s view, deserve to be ranked with the North’s wartime pension system as the origins of the modern welfare state. As newly empowered and emboldened political actors, women had “forced a significant revision of public policy.” Even though women stopped short of advancing universal claims to equal rights of citizenship, they profoundly altered the constrained Confederate definition of the people who counted in the South’s struggle for nationhood.

 

The war’s empowerment of slaves as agents in their own destiny was even more unexpected and more consequential than the war’s effects on white women. A fundamental assumption of the pre-war South had been that the master ruled sovereign in his household, and that slaves existed largely beyond the reach of the state. Yet slaves were essential to the war effort, and policies that recognized that reality necessarily drew slaves into the polity. With the overwhelming preponderance of Southern white men entering military service, the burden of labor on the home front and on military fortifications rested on slaves, and so the Confederacy needed to establish reasons for its claim upon their loyalty and service—and also to protect against their flight or subversion, possibilities that Southern proslavery ideology initially led Confederates to significantly discount. The “Twenty-Negro Law” of 1862, providing that white men responsible for mastery of at least twenty slaves could be exempted from military service, was an early recognition of the power of slaves to pose domestic dangers, and it provided for a consequent diversion of manpower resources from battlefield priorities. Throughout the war—in resistance, in flight, and in myriad other efforts to claim control over their lives—“the property insisted on acting as persons.” In this way slaves re-defined their place within Southern society and consciousness.

McCurry traces a continuum stretching from early contention surrounding the impressment of slaves as laborers to debates late in the war about enlisting slaves as Confederate soldiers in a last-ditch effort to establish Southern independence. Slaves detested the impressment policies that seized them as property, separated them from home and family, and forced them into military labor. Their objections, taken up by masters who feared they would run away rather than comply, became a foundation of opposition to Confederate government requisitions. “Ironic as it might seem”, McCurry writes, “slaves’ consent emerged as a critical factor in Confederate impressment policy.” Slaves threatened to vote with their feet. The Confederacy’s need for their labor delivered to slaves a leverage that transformed their place within the South’s social and political order.

The desperate situation in which the Confederacy found itself in the winter of 1865 created a place for the slave within its military order as well. Southern generals and politicians hoped that the mobilization of the black population might fill the army’s depleted ranks and stave off defeat. But at the same time they recognized that military service could come only with a promise of freedom designed to secure political loyalty. Official enabling legislation provided that “no slave will be accepted as a recruit unless with his own consent,” thereby acknowledging a fundamental and revolutionary right of self-determination.

McCurry estimates that out of a total population of twelve million, fewer than two million Southerners were actually consulted about secession. But if it took only one-sixth of the population to create the Confederacy, it would have required all twelve million to secure its survival. Confederate leaders recognized this truth too slowly and too reluctantly. The Confederacy’s experiment in nation-making “involved a reckoning with the political will of all the Southern people, including the mass of unfranchised women and slaves, and not just the white male voters originally counted and consulted.” For us, the consequence is plain: once history reckons with all those twelve million Southerners, it cannot be the same again. In this way, McCurry has helped to transform our understanding of the Confederacy—and of its impossibility. Distracted by struggles over loyalties at home, the Confederacy could not achieve the unity of action or purpose necessary to defeat its powerful enemy. The commitments to slavery and inequality that rested at the heart of the Confederate experiment proved to be the roots of its failure.

At the outset of her book, McCurry insists that she is not going to ask or answer the timeworn question of why the South lost the Civil War. Yet in her vivid and richly textured portrait of what she calls the Confederacy’s “undoing,” she has in fact accomplished exactly that. And in doing so McCurry has written also a paean to social justice and to democracy, commitments and aspirations we would be well-served to make the heart of our forthcoming commemorations.

Drew Gilpin Faust is the author, most recently, of This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (Knopf). She is the president of Harvard University. This piece ran in the October 28, 2010, issue of the magazine.

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