Stephanie McCurry Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South, Harvard University Press, 2012, 449 pages, $21.95.
Like many Southerners, I am a Civil War buff; I have been reading about the war for most of my life. I had always thought that the Confederacy was defeated, after four bloody years of fighting, by the Union Army and Navy under the leadership of Lincoln, Grant, and Sherman.
Turns out, I was wrong. According to Professor Stephanie McCurry, who teaches history at University of Pennsylvania, what she calls the “perfected republic of white men” was brought down at least as much from within as from without:
The new nation Confederates set out to build had fallen victim not just to enemy armies but to the manifest poverty of its reactionary vision of the republic, and the determined resistance of the Confederate people to it.
The bulk of this book is an attempt to show that the Confederacy’s own women and slaves waged “war” against it by playing a huge—and previously ignored—role in sabotaging the war effort. Lower-class women, whose husbands were off serving in Southern armies, worked to undermine the regime, and slaves, who had always resisted the ante-bellum regime, saw the war as a new chance to win freedom. Professor McCurry criticizes previous historians for failing to consider the role of women and slaves, who made up 60 percent of the “slave republic’s” population. She claims to have staked out such a “broad set of [new] coordinates” to explain the downfall of Dixie, that all previous works on the subject are flawed because they do not include her insights.
Prof. McCurry’s analysis is Marxist and feminist. She argues that two “disdained” and “excluded” classes of people in the Confederacy—non-elite women and slaves—were able to force their way into politics and destroy the Confederacy by exercising “agency.” “Agency” is a part of Critical Theory that emphasizes the previously unrecognized ability of “historically oppressed,” “dis-empowered groups” (in plain English: women and slaves) to shape their own environments, resist many of the demands of “empowered groups” (in plain English: white men) and make history.
In good, Marxist style, she also loves to call the Confederacy “reactionary,” adding that it was “founded in defiance of the spirit of the age.” She considers the South solely responsible for the war, but notes happily that the “war Confederates launched to escape history only confirmed their place in it.”
Before going further, it may be useful to have an idea of how Prof. McCurry feels about the Confederacy. On a C-SPAN broadcast she was asked what continues to surprise her about Civil War history. She expressed her displeased astonishment that Confederate leaders were not hanged for treason (only the commandant of Andersonville prison was executed, and for murder rather than treason). She is also astonished that the Confederacy “still enjoys such a good press”—which is false. The Confederacy has been the object of scorn in popular culture and academia for some time. Presumably anything short of advocating mass hangings is “good press.”
According to Prof. McCurry, war dramatically altered the condition (or the potential condition—she can never quite decide) of Confederate women. At the beginning of the war they were “ciphers,” excluded from politics and not allowed to vote. “Nobody thought they had anything of value to offer the state,” she writes. But as the hardships of war affected the home front, women began to exercise “agency.” Alone and unsupported by husbands who had gone off to fight, they petitioned the government, with increasing stridency, for help in raising crops, buying food, or to bring their husbands home from the war. On several occasions when there were food shortages, women rioted in Atlanta and Richmond.
In Professor McCurry’s eyes, these women were “encroaching on foreign gender terrain” and creating a “politics of women” (in Critical Theory, every group has its own “politics,” whether they know it or not). By pressuring the government they presaged a separate identity for women outside of marriage, and inside the “body politic” of the Confederacy, much to the dismay of Confederate officials. Prof. McCurry would love to say that the new “politics” sparked a feminist consciousness, but sadly admits that it did not. Still, the women’s demands on the government, along with other more subversive actions, disrupted the Confederate war effort and contributed to defeat.
To give her argument the force it needs to be plausible, Dr. McCurry conflates three different groups of women, with differing attitudes toward the war and the Confederacy. To her, there is little difference between women petitioning the government for food relief, women writing to their husbands urging them to desert and come help with the crops, and women joining or supporting the outlaw bands of deserters who began to plague parts of the Confederacy beginning in 1863.
To begin with, the women in all three groups were a minority of Confederate women. According to University of Virginia professor Gary Gallagher, who made a study of the subject in his Confederate War, most women actively supported the war. They did not petition, urge desertion, or feed outlaw bands. These pro-Confederate women were not only members of the planter class, but of all ranks, including thousands of women who worked in factories producing munitions and uniforms for “the Cause.”
As for petitioners, Prof. McCurry fails to realize that the “newly empowered soldiers’ wives” were not seeking political power or trying to help the Yankees win, but trying to shelter and feed their children during a chaotic war, with their husbands away at the front. It does not occur to her that the act of petitioning could have been driven by desperation rather than disloyalty.
Prof. McCurry also completely misunderstands the support that petitioning women and even rioters received from men—including Confederate officials of the government their actions were supposedly undermining. She thinks the men were simply intimidated, but this is not surprising in a neo-Marxist, for whom all people are merely individuals. Prof. McCurry seems to believe that people have only economic relations, that they have no connections or loyalties to each other or to a greater whole. In her ideological template, the people of the Confederacy were not bound together by ties of blood and sentiment and patriotism, and these bonds could not transcend class, sex, or economic interests. She does not understand that both men and women could petition the government for change and still be loyal Confederates.
What about women who urged their men to desert? In his history of the Army of Northern Virginia, General Lee’s Army, Joseph Glatthaar notes that the wives who asked their men to come home often urged them to return to duty once the crops were planted or harvested. In fact, through most of the war, many deserters—in some states a majority—returned to their units. For the four-fifths of Confederate household with no slaves, a husband away in the army meant a serious labor shortage. Again, Prof. McCurry sees a desperate effort to survive as opposition to the Confederacy.
In her analysis of women, Dr. McCurry commits the error of which she accuses other historians—examining her subject in isolation. She considers the letters women wrote, but not the letters they received. Gary Gallagher has emphasized the positive effect of soldiers on their loved ones at home: in the heroic example they set, and in the encouraging letters they wrote to their wives, urging them to be strong and to support the war.
In Civil War historiography, the rise of “agency” has replaced the long-held view that the majority of black slaves were simply pawns of the Union or Confederacy. Indeed, so the argument goes, the most potent force in freeing the slaves was not the occupation of Confederate territory by the Union army, but the efforts of the slaves themselves. They are now the leading actors in the historical drama of the Civil War.
Here are a few passages that illustrate Dr. McCurry’s views:
In Mississippi and Louisiana, few doubted that the war had become a slave rebellion.
That the Civil War was, among other things, a massive slave rebellion, seems clear in hindsight.
The transformation of slavery [was] initiated by slaves . . .
In the C.S.A., slaves quickly emerged as powerful enemies of the government, working to destroy slavery and the slaveholders’ state from within . . .
Dr. McCurry therefore portrays slaves, along with women, as another great wrecking ball that tore the Confederacy apart from inside. She does not accept the idea that slaves were a net plus for the South because their agricultural labor freed many thousands of white men to fight Yankees. Without slaves, these men would have had to stay home and grow the crops the South needed to feed its armies. And yet, Dr. McCurry herself acknowledges that the Confederacy was able to mobilize a larger share of its manpower—up to 85 percent of draft age men—than any American government before or since. This was possible only because slaves kept the economy running.
Dr. McCurry’s evidence of “agency” is mostly anecdotes: slaves refusing to work on fortifications, running away en masse from plantations, or guiding Union troops around Confederate positions. She claims that these “insurrections” forced the Confederate army to fight a “two front war” that led to its ultimate destruction.
Almost all these accounts come from areas occupied by or in close proximity to Union forces, mainly northern Virginia, coastal Georgia and South Carolina, and the area around New Orleans. Many accounts are from 1865, when most of the Confederacy had been invaded by Northern armies, and the rest was disintegrating.
Historians have always acknowledged that slaves in these areas, especially during the second half of the war, sometimes refused to work when Yankee armies drew near, and were quick to run away. But one would expect to see some basic data to support the claim that black slaves were the authors of their own emancipation, and played a huge, perhaps even decisive, role in bringing down the Confederacy.
How many slaves did the South use to build fortifications and how many deserted or refused to work? How many, or what percentage, of slaves left plantations for Union lines? How many stayed? Dr. McCurry is either uninterested in such questions, or doesn’t like the answers. In fact, the South made extensive and well documented use of slave labor to build fortifications throughout the war.
Dr. McCurry also ignores the thousands of black servants, cooks, teamsters and nurses who accompanied Confederate armies in the field. According to one respected expert, Allen C. Guelzo, Lee’s army may have brought as many as 30,000 slaves into Pennsylvania during the Gettysburg campaign. They would certainly have been left behind if slave desertion was as big a problem as Dr. McCurry claims.
Despite Dr. McCurry’s claim, noted above, that the war became “a massive slave rebellion,” the author she cites for the most detailed account of slaves “at war” with their masters, William Dusinberre, flatly disagrees: “Not a single substantial slave insurrection occurred in the United States [including the Confederacy] between 1831 and 1865.”
Ulysses S. Grant himself recognized the importance of slaves to the Southern war effort. As he explained in an 1878 interview with the New York Tribune:
4,000,000 negroes kept the farms, protected the families, supported the armies, and were really a reserve force . . . never counted in any summary of the forces of the South.
Grant certainly did not think the slaves were an important ally in the fight to crush the Confederacy.
Why should anyone pay attention to a book like Confederate Reckoning? It is not for the general public, and is written in the turgid jargon favored by modern academics. Its arguments are ridiculous. Still, Confederate Reckoning is sure to be assigned in undergraduate and graduate courses, and will help shape the minds of teachers and professors. And these people will shape the minds of students.
More importantly, Confederate Reckoning is no outlier in Civil War studies. Dr. McCurry’s hostility to the Confederacy and her desire fantastically to expand the role of black slaves in the War Between the States, is probably shared by the majority of professional historians working in the field today. Over the past 50 years, they have re-written Civil War history to fit the ideology of multiculturalism.
Confederate Reckoning is an instructive example of that process.
In a future article Gerald Martin will consider in more detail the takeover by multiculturalism of Civil War history.