Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Civic War

In Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South, Stephanie McCurry offers a compelling account of how women and slaves defeated a society dedicated to the proposition of inequality

The following review was published last week  on the Books page of the History News Network site.

No: It was not a matter of overwhelming numbers. Nor was it the outcome of particular battles. Or the vision of statesmen (sorry, Mr. Lincoln). Professor Stephanie McCurry of the University of Pennsylvania doesn't deny these things made a difference. But in the end, the Confederate States of America was doomed from the start because the people who weren't consulted about its creation -- principally white women and black people -- exerted their overlooked power and destroyed it from within. This is what happens, she says, when your vision of politics, and your notion of who counts, gets too narrow.

Confederate Reckoning lies at the confluence of three streams of recent scholarship: studies of secession explored by William Freehling, the pioneering work of Drew Gilpin Faust on Southern women, and Ira Berlin and company's massive body of work documenting the saga of emancipation. There is also a tributary on the discourse of comparative slavery (think George Fredrickson), which surfaces periodically to demonstrate that the closely linked political and military dynamics of the Confederacy were not unique to the western hemisphere or the western world in the 19th century, from Cuba to Russia. But the integration of these bodies of discourse into one forceful and elegantly written volume makes this book a landmark piece of Civil War historiography. 

Part of what makes it so is McCurry's ability to make truly surprising points along the way. For example, she shows in the opening chapters of the book that even white male voters were effectively disenfranchised in many Southern states during the pivotal months of 1860-61 when the Confederacy first took form. The actions of the plantation elite in states like South Carolina and Mississippi give the lie to an oft-invoked ideal of herrenvolk democracy, as resolutions were rushed into approval on dubious grounds, the results of voting were suppressed, and widespread intimidation was practiced. Even in Alabama, the very heart of Dixie, opposition to secession never dropped below 39%. These widespread efforts to railroad through secession in face of more obvious resistance would bear bitter fruit in places like Virginia, whose western residents would ultimately secede from the seceders. But passive as well as active resistance would be widespread from North Carolina to Texas. The so-called "Slave Power" invoked by Northern politicians in the 1850s was no myth, and its power was nowhere more evident than in the South of the 1860s.

But that power, while real, was destroyed because those who wielded it failed to consider people they considered beneath notice in their deliberations. Confederate women, assumed by government policymakers to be merely ancillary, quickly became a force in their own right. Ironically, the first way womens' power became apparent was through their presumed dependency. Since the defense of home and hearth was endlessly invoked at the basis of Confederate independence, anything that at least appeared to undercut that defense -- like the death or prolonged absence of men unable to protect families increasingly subject to invading armies and hostile slaves -- became matters of insistent appeals, and, eventually, demands. As McCurry shows, women, especially non-elite women, were increasingly direct in addressing government leaders. By 1863, they began taking matters into their own hands; McCurry emphasizes that the well-known Richmond food riot that summer was only one of a number of highly organized, female-led political actions. In their wake, Confederate leaders were forced to make systematic efforts to address the well-being of wives and widows by allocating precious resources in response to their demands. Which brings us to another surprising finding: McCurry's suggestion that the modern welfare state actually has its origins in the increasingly desperate statist behavior of C.S.A. state and federal governments. While she would never put it that baldly, principally because the women in question did not really use a language of citizenship and explicit political assertion we tend to think of as central to the modern liberal tradition, she makes a compelling case not only for rethinking Confederate history, but American history as well.

To a great extent, the last generation of Civil War scholarship has focused great attention on the African American experience, with a special emphasis on the agency of slaves in achieving their emancipation. This book is broadly consonant with that disposition, but situates it less in terms of liberation that swept down from the North than to the degree to which slave resistance emerged from the very heart of Confederate society. Once again, this hugely damaging power was a direct result of slaveholder inability to grapple with the implications of simply assuming that black people were property, an asset to be deployed to serve their own political ends. For this particular form of property had a mind and a will of its own, and its total exclusion from any rights or privileges meant that slaves had little if any reason, incentive, or loyalty to help advance to those ends (and indeed powerful motives to subvert them). McCurry says that slaveholders could not confront this reality, because their commitment to property rights trumped their patriotism. When a besieged Confederacy sought to utilize that property, the planters balked: the relationship between slave and master mattered more than the relationship between citizen and state. Challenging historians who argue the Confederates were willing to sacrifice slavery for independence, she shows that even in its death throes, slaveholders could not bring themselves to allow the conscription or arming of slaves until it was far too late, and even then in a hopelessly illogical and useless way. They were just too addicted to their peculiar institution.

Confederate Reckoning is not a perfect book. The last third seems a bit labored, even overdetermined. McCurry's moral fervor animates her analysis, but her zeal sometimes gets the best of her, as when she asserts, in the closing pages of the book, that "The Confederate political project had been tried before the eyes of the world and it had failed. The poverty of Confederates' proslavery political vision had been proved once and for all time." For once, certainly. But not all time: the past may belong to the historian, but the future is beyond her reach. We cannot escape history, but we can hope, however dimly, it can light our way.