Confederate Reckoning

Historian Stephanie McCurry tells how women and slaves drove old Dixie down.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

By Peter Nichols

When the Confederate States of America seceded from the Union in 1861, its founding fathers reckoned that they could build a nation and fight a war while uniting the Southern population behind their cause. Most of “the people” were not consulted on the wisdom of their project. What the C.S.A. architects did not reckon on was that the disenfranchised majority—white women and slaves—would become a force to be reckoned with. The reckoning that arrived in slow motion over the next four years came not simply because the Confederacy was defeated militarily by outside enemies but also because of internal resistance and outright rebellion from its own people, those assumed to be politically insignificant or mere “property.” That is the main thesis of history Professor Stephanie McCurry’s new book, Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South.

McCurry is a specialist in 19th-century American history, with a special focus on the American South and the Civil War era. She also studies the history of women and gender. Her previous book, Masters of Small Worlds: Yeoman Households, Gender Relations and the Political Culture of the Antebellum South Carolina Low Country, won several prizes. She is currently undergraduate chair in the history department and a distinguished lecturer for the Organization of American Historians.

“What the secessionists set out to build was something entirely new in the history of nations,” McCurry writes, “a modern proslavery and antidemocratic state dedicated to the proposition that all men were not created equal.” Alexander Stephens, the new Confederate vice president, declared that the breakaway state was founded on “the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery is his natural and moral condition.” When the class of Southern slaveholders conceived their nation-state, they did so in the name of “the people,” although the meaning of that political term was limited to “freemen.” To glimpse the structural flaw in their vision, one need only do the math. Out of a population of 12 million, four million were slaves and another four million were free white women who had none of the political rights and privileges of freemen, most of whom did not own slaves. And most of the Confederacy’s four million freemen did not necessarily share the same interests as the slaveholder class.

“The Confederacy turned into a moment of profound historical reckoning, and the forces reckoned with bore little resemblance to the people who were supposed to make history.” - Stephanie McCurry

When war came to their white-man’s slave regime, McCurry argues, it “provoked precisely the transformation of their own political culture they had hoped to avoid by secession, bringing into the making of history those people…whose political dispossession they intended to render permanent.”

As the Civil War ground on and 85 percent of freemen took up arms for the Confederacy, Southern white women struggled to keep farms running and also to pay the levy of “surplus” production needed to feed the army. By 1863, these mostly poor, rural women were facing starvation. To survive, they laid claim to their identity as “soldiers wives” and organized political protests (sometimes with hatchets and pistols) demanding that the slaveholders’ nation live up to its promise to protect and support them.

McCurry writes, “Every attempt to meet military need, every policy innovation, imposed a new toll on the population and set in train a dangerous political dynamic.” Nowhere is this truer than when the C.S.A.’s need for more soldiers and labor ran head-on into the political aspirations of its four million slaves for emancipation. As many as 500,000 fled to Union lines to fight against the slave state. Another war of noncooperation and outright resistance was waged inside Confederate territory against plantation masters and against efforts by the state to use its “property” as a resource to advance the slaveholders’ war. McCurry writes that the “slaves compelled Confederates into a competition for the political loyalty, labor, and military service of slave men that implied the recognition of exactly the human and political personhood the proslavery republic had tried to deny.”

After declaring independence from the Union, the founding fathers of the C.S.A. set about making history by building one of the most powerful slave regimes in the Western world. Theirs was a vision blind to the latent power of those they discounted. The stark exigencies of the war that secession made inevitable brought these invisible peoples into political play and the slaveholders’ state to ruin. “The Confederacy turned into a moment of profound historical reckoning,” McCurry concludes, “and the forces reckoned with bore little resemblance to the people who were supposed to make history.”