Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Just Finished Reading - Marching Masters

Upon reading a new take on an old subject, I have often asked myself, "Why hasn't someone looked at this before?" It all seems so clear once it has been presented, but, of course, that's after the fact. It takes someone with foresight to break new ground.

Slavery, and thus race, have been examined in many studies, but Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (Univ. Virginia Press, 2014), by Colin Edward Woodward, is the first book I can remember that offers such a solid and clear argument on how the institution influenced not only soldiers' motivations, but also the Confederate government's policies.

Woodward puts forth the fact that while the majority of Confederate soldiers did not own slaves, they lived in a society and economy that derived its lifeblood from the labor of human property. The book's first chapter "The Question of Slavery - Confederate Soldiers and the Southern Cause, 1861-1862," spells this out. Southerners believed that the election of Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party, which was wedded to the idea of the non-extension of slavery meant an eventual and certain death to the institution. And, whether soldiers claimed they went off to fight for adventure, defense of their homes, and "states' rights," all those ideas were upheld by a new country that made clear in its constitution that slavery would be at its foundation.

Marching Masters also looks into the relationship between enlisted men and officers, and thus how class divisions often played out in the Confederate army. Woodward contends that slavery was a bond that held an otherwise socially divided army together. Many of the officers were either slaveholders or came from slaveholding families and solders aspired to be like their officers inside the army and out.

One of the most interesting subjects covered in the book was the role of blacks in the Confederate army. Whether they were used to build fortifications, roads, and railroads, or labored as cooks, teamsters, and body servants in the army camps, slaves provided vital labor for the southern cause. And whether impressed by the government or brought by owners to the front, challenges arose that made civilian masters and soldiers think in news ways about the institution. African American labor allowed an enormous amount of white southerners to fight in the ranks. But when blacks ran off to nearby Union units or found ways around doing their required work, it tested antebellum conventions. Until very late in the war many Confederates believed that slavery could be saved and abolitionist gains since the Emancipation Proclamation could be overturned.

Encounters in combat between Confederate soldiers and black Union soldiers also figures into this study. This unpleasant reality meant that many southern soldiers would massacre black troops rather than see them taken captive. Much in these tragic episodes have roots that go back to antebellum fears of slave insurrections. In several battles black troops proved to be viewed as severe threats and received no quarter along with their white officers. Certainly not all captured USCT soldiers were killed nor their officers, but it was Confederate policy to turn over captured blacks to states to be dealt with as their laws prescribed. Some were returned to their former owners, while others were turned over to work for the Confederate army, and some were held in Confederate prisoner of war camps.

Of course, late in the war slaves became the topic of extensive discussions as to whether they could be made into Confederate soldiers and help fight for their continued enslavement. After debate the Confederate government decided they could, but they would not receive their freedom for their enlistment, and the policy went into effect so late tin the war that their impact was virtually nonexistent. And while some white soldiers supported the idea, just as many if not more were reviled by the idea.

Marching Masters is an important book that is changing what we thought we knew about Confederate soldiers. Woodward sums things up nicely by explaining the confusing nature of southerners' thoughts on blacks: "In the nineteenth century, white Southerners created a racial world-view that contained paradoxical tenets: blacks were lazy, but they formed the foundation of a social and economic 'mud sill' class; slaves were 'savages,' but the rarely revolted and were malleable to discipline; they were not intelligent enough to raise above  being field hands, but they were clever enough to make laws that subjugated the South during Reconstruction. Black people were faithful hiders of silverware, yet they were prone to resistance and running away. They were both human and property, beloved family members and 'aliens,' Africans and Americans, heathens and Christians." Such misunderstandings have unfortunately been passed from generation to generation and although much has changed, much still remains to be done in the present to ensure a better future.

On a five point scale, I give Marching Masters a 4.75. I highly recommend this important new study and the perspective it shares.


1 comment:

  1. Tim, thank you for reading my book and writing about it on your blog. I appreciate your kind words. All the best, Colin