Sunday, March 25, 2012

Just Finished Reading

Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South, by Dr. Stephanie McCurry of the University of Pennsylvania, is a book that was receiving significant notice even before it was released in 2010. I had read McCurry's Master's of Small Worlds: Yeoman Households, Gender Relations, and the Political Culture of Antebellum South Carolina Low Country in graduate school and thoroughly enjoyed it, so I looked forward to reading this new work.

An informative opening prologue provided insight into what was to be covered over the following eight chapters. However, I thought the author kind of beat a dead horse by reminding the reader that, "The short-lived Confederate States of America was a signal event in the history of the Western World. What secessionists set out to build was something entirely new in the history of nations: a modern proslavery and antidemocratic state, dedicated to the proposition that all men were not created equal." I don't disagree with that summation, but the author apparently felt the need to repeat it again and again and again.

The thesis of the book, as I interpret it, is that some of those who were not intended to have a political say in the newly created nation - namely white women and African American slaves - did indeed end up forcing the C.S.A. to deal with them politically.

Women in the South, like women in the North, basically had no political power in the mid-nineteenth century. They could not vote or serve on juries and were for the most part "covered" by their husbands, or fathers if not married. McCurry used numerous letters written to Confederate officials and state governors, largely from soldiers' wives and mothers, as evidence to show that these women demanded attention during the war. Attention was demanded because many of them were starving with their husbands and military age sons in the war and therefore not able to grow subsistence crops. These poor women naturally did not own slaves that could have done that work, and many of the wives had sons too young to help with labor intensive farm chores. In addition to the petition letters, a number of riots, the so-called "bread riots," the spring of 1863, in which women were the principle players, forced the Confederate government's attempt to create a quasi-welfare system to make provisions and better attempts to provide for these destitute soldiers' wives and mothers in order to try to prevent further internal demoralization.

Slaves too, like women, were not supposed to have any political power, especially in a society where they were considered property rather than persons. The Dred Scott Supreme Court decision had clearly stated in 1857 that slaves could not be citizens. But, during the Civil War South, slaves forced the issue by exercising political power with the feet. When slaves fled to Union lines upon the approach to their locales, it posed a serious problem for the Confederates. When the war began Southerners felt that slavery provided them with great strength rather than a terrible liability. Southerners simply thought that slave labor would offset the North's population advantage because slaves could do various work that would allow as many white men as possible to serve as fighting soldiers. But, they didn't think their slaves would be unfaithful and runaway. To be fair, most slaves were not touched by the Union army, but those areas that were invaded by the Union army were flooded with bondsmen and women. Many of these runaway slaves aided the Confederate's enemy by providing vital military information. And, they also provided valuable labor that the South needed. Through slaves' agency the Confederate government was forced to consider questions they never thought about before. Could a slave be charged for treason? If he or she was not a citizen, did they owe any allegiance to the government, which they could break? In addition, as attrition wore down the Confederate army through deaths by battle, diseases and captures no more white men were forthcoming because there simply were too few. Confederates had to eventually consider the previously unthinkable. Could slaves be made into soldiers? The issue was debated by soldiers and officers in the field, most famously by General Patrick Cleburne, but it was also debated in the Confederate Congress and among the highest levels of the Confederate cabinet and military officials. Slaves in the most unusual way showed they had the ability to influence Confederate politics.

The things I enjoyed most about Confederate Reckoning is that it made me ponder some things that I had not previously considered, and it exposed sources such as those soldiers' wive's letters that have not been explored much.

On a scale of 1 to 5, I give Confederate Reckoning a 4.75.

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