Power and Politics in the Civil War South
I was very afraid of this book when reading the preface. There was quite a bit of modern buzzwords about feminist theory and gender politics. I’ve been burned before by books on even Ancient history suddenly being tarred by modern political posturing and trying to fit the more complicated values of the past into a simplistic framework to fit modern theories. Marxist historians used to be especially prone to this. Real life is a lot more complex, and a good history needs to remember that.
It did not take long to show that my fears were groundless, and that this is one of the most valuable corrective histories I’ve come across on the Civil War. The author starts out with a direct expression of the nature of the Confederate Experiment – that the founders of the CSA intended to produce a Republic for White Men, and founded on a bedrock institution of Slavery. This has been evaded for various reasons by the ex-Confederates after the war and by historians since.
The first case study is an examination of the secession campaigns in 1860. The speeches of pro-secession speakers was avowedly based on fears of amalgamation between the races, claiming that Lincoln was elected by black votes. The campaigns, even in South Carolina, featured armed bullies showing up at meetings to intimidate loyalists. Even there tensions between the upper class and lesser folk had to be papered over to gain the point. Other states, like Georgia, were likely only won by fraud. Even the official result of 54 percent for secession is hardly a mandate. One of the first acts of the new independent Georgia was to define a treason statute giving the death penalty for allegiance to the Union.
In theory, women had no part of this political action, as their sphere was defined to be the home. However, soon imperfections in this view were evident. When resistance to the Confederate state began, there were serious questions if a woman, as not really a citizen, could be treasonous. In practice, though, these mothers and wives of disloyal men were routinely harrassed, sometimes to the point of torture to get information.
The separation of women from the state continued to break down as the war continued. As more and more men were pulled into service, and killed there, the problem of relief for soldiers’ wives became acute. The CSA government was built as a war-making device, and to suddenly have to divert significant resources to nationwide welfare programs was a constant distraction. And to lobby to get these claims, women had to group and lobby from a local to national level.
The strain became even worse with the bread riots led by women in the late war period. As prices rose, the food kept by the government or by speculators became a matter of resentment and finally, mobs of women took matters into hand and looted shops and warehouses. While the lawlessness was troubling, the government response was conflicted since the claim that women were not being sheltered from want was undeniable.
The issue of slaves became a problem too, for similar reasons. The conventional excuse for slavery was that slaves, like children, were not responsible enough on their own. Thus slave relations were a personal issue between master and slave, and not a government matter. And again, slaves were purposely not part of the Confederate State.
So the war at once started to disrupt this pattern. Slaves would flee to, or inform US forces about military matters. If caught, masters usually resisted severe punishment. As the war continued, more white men left slaveholding regions so actual enforcement became difficult and counterproductive. Slaves often left and lived off in woods for months at a time. Owners resisted calls to divert slaves to the military for labor – partly out of fear they might be mistreated, partly out of fear they might lose them entirely.
As the end grew closer, the disjunction between the image of slaves and the reality grew more apparent. Overt violence was not common, but reports of a kind of watchful waiting that the owners found unsettling were common. And if the masters fled the plantation, slaves routinely took over and looted them. This happened to Jefferson Davis and his brother themselves.
The final rock that broke the image was the fight over slave soldiers. In the end, the overt need for more soldiers to preserve the nation could not quite prevail over the idea that each master could keep control over his own slaves.
Even to someone like me, that has read hundreds to thousands of Civil War books and articles, this book showed me something new and added depth to matters I already knew from the rare mentions in other books. This will definitely stay on the shelf with the other important books in my collection.