The story of the Confederate States of America, the proslavery, antidemocratic nation created by white Southern slaveholders to protect their property, has been told many times in heroic and martial narratives. Stephanie McCurry tells a very different tale of the Confederate experience. Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South tells the real story of what the Confederacy actually was— a proslavery anti-democratic state, dedicated to the proposition that all men were not created equal.
Something stunning — epic even — transpired in the American South between 1860 and 1865. Then, in a gamble of world historical proportions, a class of slaveholders, flush with power, set out to build an independent proslavery nation but instead brought down the single most powerful slave regime in the Western world and propelled the emergence of a new American republic that redefined the very possibilities of democracy at home and abroad. In the process, too, they provoked precisely the transformation of their own political culture they had hoped to avoid by secession, bringing into the making of history those people — the South’s massive unfranchised population of white women and slaves — whose political dispossession they intended to render permanent. The story of the Confederacy is a story of intentions, reversals, undoing, and unlikely characters that form an arc of history rarely matched for dramatic interest and historical justice.
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. Confederates were fully caught up in the turbulent currents of history that roiled the hemisphere in the age of emancipation; their proslavery experiment was part of a far larger struggle then being waged over slavery, democracy, and the powers of nation-states. Theirs was a nation founded in defiance of the spirit of the age. Emboldened by the “failure” of emancipation in other parts of the hemisphere, convinced that the American vision of “the people” had been terribly betrayed, Southern slaveholders sought the kind of future for human slavery and republican government no longer possible within the original Union. Theirs was to be a republic perfectly suited to them as a slaveholding people, a republic of white men, defined by slavery and the political exclusion of the mass of the Southern people.
It was a risky undertaking, to say the least. Even in the absence of war — a distinctly looming possibility — the political demands of independence were daunting. The South was a particular, some would have said peculiar, place — a territory of nine hundred thousand square miles and fifteen separate slaveholding states. It would be no mean feat to unite it behind secession and independence. Of its twelve million people, four million were enslaved and disfranchised, and another four million, free white women, were formally citizens but possessed of none of the political rights or privileges of their male compatriots. Secessionists worried openly about the nonslaveholders, about how to secure the support of the region’s white male population of voters and citizens who owned no slaves. And well they might have. The campaign to get the South out of the Union would offer a painfully public demonstration of how difficult it was to unify even white men behind the Confederate project. But what of the eight million other Southerners who were never consulted about the wisdom of secession, national independence, or war? Would they remain nullities in the momentous events unfolding in the American South? Still, this was the Confederate project: to build a nation, perhaps in war, while winning the support of the majority of white Southerners who were not slaveholders, nullifying the individual and collective agency of women, and holding much of the population in slavery.
It is hard to exaggerate the drama of what unfolded in the Confederacy when its founders were free to pursue this reactionary dream. One of the most compelling parts of that story was the trial of its national vision by its own people in the war. Confederates’ proslavery and antidemocratic experiment was tested at every point, not just by the enemy armies arrayed against them but by the very people the founders had so definitively counted out. For, as it turned out, the vision of “the people” so passionately pursued proved utterly inadequate to the nation-building project Confederate architects undertook. The crisis of legitimacy unleashed in Southern life was not confined to matters of culture and ideology but played out decisively in the arena of politics and policy as the chrysalis state confronted, and attempted to surmount, the structural problems inevitably faced by a slave regime at war.
Within months of secession the fledgling C.S.A. was at war. In attempting to escape history, Confederates had lowered themselves into its most dangerous currents. War immeasurably upped the ante in the new white man’s republic and subjected its body politic to the kind of test few modern slave regimes willingly hazarded. As the new government turned to its white citizens to support and defend the bid for national independence, it faced the necessity of building support too among those whose consent for secession, nationhood, and war it had never solicited. Then began a relentless process in which government officials and military men all the way up the chain of command scrambled to execute policies designed to build a state and wage war, while preserving slavery and feeding and protecting a civilian population of women increasingly denied the support of their men. Then the slaveholders got a hard lesson in the political powers of the Confederate unfranchised. There would be far more of the people to contend with in the making of history in the Civil War South than the founders ever bargained on.
The struggle with the nonslaveholders was expected and it exacted its price. But nobody expected to have to contend with the women. White women, although citizens, were not a population that figured in anybody’s political calculations. Women had never been of much interest to state officials. As a matter of law and custom they were regarded, like Antigone, as outside politics and war, members of the household, under the governance of husbands and fathers. But war had barely begun when officials on both sides were thrown into a series of confrontations with women engaged in what could only be called political acts, forcing fundamental recalculations about loyalty, treason, and political clout.
As war exacted its toll and old assumptions crumbled, politicians and military men in the Civil War South ended up contending with the women — even, some charged, making war on women. In the occupied South, Union forces struggled to limit the damage done by Confederate women and were eventually forced to recognize them as enemies in war. Women would be required to take oaths of allegiance, subjected to Union court martial, and clapped in prison. In the heart of their own national territory the mass of white Southern women emerged as formidable adversaries of their government in the long struggle over the military policies of the C.S.A. Pushed into a newly intimate relationship to state authorities, and embracing a new identity as soldiers’ wives, they forged a politics of subsistence by which to claim entitlement and demand justice. By insisting that the state live up to its promises to protect and support them, even taking up arms to do so, the women — poor white rural women with no previous history of political participation — defied notions about their incapacity and irrelevance to step decisively into the making of history. If the new political assertiveness of Southern women did not bring down the Confederacy, it did represent a powerful challenge to the Confederate vision of “the people” and the republic, and speaks to the particular pressures and ruptures of war in slave society. Any state that took their men would ultimately have to answer to them.
More critical still was the way the problem of slaves’ political allegiance — a problem that had troubled Thomas Jefferson from the birth of the republic — reared up decisively in the face of Confederate politicians, policy makers, and military men, forcing them into a constant confrontation with slaves’ own political objectives in the war. The idea that a republic could be built in war without contending with the political desires of four million slaves strikes moderns as fantastic. But Confederates’ hubris on this account is stunning, especially given the troubling hemispheric history in which they operated. For the relationship between war and emancipation weighed heavily on every slave power in the nineteenth century. Since the late eighteenth century, slave regimes at war and chronically short of men had been forced into negotiations with their own slaves, usually to recruit them as soldiers, often on condition of emancipation. In that hemispheric history Saint-Domingue, or Haiti, was the critical case. Confederates were haunted by the history of that island. Indeed, many Southerners embraced secession precisely to avoid the fate of whites in that (to them) dystopian post-emancipation society. But it wasn’t just white Confederates who looked to Saint-Domingue. Confederate slaves did too, drawing the opposite lesson that in the maelstrom of war, slaves had been able to fight for their own emancipation and the wholesale destruction of the institution of slavery. Confederate slaves were entirely alert to the meaning of national and international developments. Would the C.S.A. manage to escape the fate of other slave regimes at war? The two remaining slave regimes in the hemisphere, Cuba and Brazil, attended carefully to the answer.
The idea that Southern slaves shaped the history of the American Civil War is now a foundational part of the national narrative. But that new story — about how slaves transformed a war for the Union into a war for emancipation — is really a story about the Union side in the war. It traces out a particular historical dynamic of slaves’ flight to Union lines, labor for the Union military, and eventual enlistment in the armed forces of the United States. Developments in the C.S.A. are of little significance in the drama of emancipation it plots. Yet the slaves’ war started in Confederate territory, was first waged against their own masters on their own plantations, and, in ways we have never really appreciated, forced constant revision not just in Union but in Confederate politics and policy. As every enslaved man, woman, and child knew, the destruction of slavery required the destruction of the slaveholders’ state, with all of its horrifying national ambitions. The revolt slaves unleashed thwarted every administration attempt to make them an element of strength in war, and fundamentally shaped Confederate military labor policies. Indeed, one of the most dramatic elements of the Civil War story is how 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. In the end, the proslavery C.S.A. would be forced down its own path to slave enlistment and partial emancipation, recapitulating elements of a struggle that had unfolded across the hemisphere since the American and French revolutions. The C.S.A. was transformed by war, and the Confederate political project was undone by those who had been taken for ciphers in it.
This is a book about politics and power in the Civil War South, about the bloody trial of the Confederacy’s national vision, and about the significance of the disfranchised in it. In that sense it engages a critical methodological question about how we write political history and whose political history it is we write. If Confederate founders routinely discounted the salience of slaves and white women in laying their political plans, it was not a posture they could sustain once the nation-building project got under way. A history focused on the original “men of the community,” as Jefferson Davis put it — a conventional political history of voters and politicians — would hardly grapple with what was fundamentally at stake in the history of the Confederacy or take its full historical measure.
The story told here thus strikes out in new directions. It asks not why the South lost the war, the usual approach, but why Southerners seceded when they did, what happened when they did, and what it meant that they failed. It focuses more on processes than outcomes, putting the emphasis not on defeat but on the profound and unpredictable transformation into which the Confederacy was propelled by war. It looks at the interplay of political and military forces in ways that bring a whole new cast of characters into the making of history, including poor white rural women. And it takes an international perspective on the history of the C.S.A., which both brings to light a gendered history of war and emancipation otherwise obscured, and firmly establishes the centrality of developments in the C.S.A. to the history of the Civil War and emancipation as it is now told.
It is no exaggeration to say that the literature on the Confederacy has long been characterized — and limited — by a preoccupation with the matter of military defeat and related questions about the strength or weakness of Confederate nationalism. The question of why the South lost the Civil War is hardly a minor one. But the preoccupation with defeat has made it difficult to ask other questions about the slaveholders’ war and the profound changes it propelled in Southern and American political history. Even the rare scholar who emphasizes the revolutionary nature of the Confederate experience has cast it as an aberrant episode in the long continuity of Southern history, a discrete and self-contained experiment entirely comprehensible within the history of the region and of significance primarily to itself.
From my perspective, the social and political transformations into which the nation was propelled, including the enlistment of slave men, are best understood in an international context. In terms of causes, dynamic, and consequences the entire history of the C.S.A. was part of a far larger set of historical struggles over the future of slave and servile systems, the political survival of slave states, the terms of emancipation, and the democratic imperatives of male citizenship in societies at war that erupted across the Western world in the age of emancipation. Far from working within national boundaries, what happened in the C.S.A. really only makes sense in light of related developments in other times and places. As a result, I adopt a broad set of coordinates for the history of the Confederacy and draw on an abundance of literature on comparative slavery and emancipation, state formation, agrarian and subaltern studies, and women’s and gender history to write it.
This book is also a political history of the unfranchised. This approach, it seems to me, is virtually mandated by the particular proslavery and antidemocratic objectives of the Confederate political project. For if “policing the interior frontiers of a national community” — fencing off those disqualified from membership — is a key function of political systems everywhere, it was the very raison d’être of the C.S.A. The relationship between state actors and the nation’s vast population of free women and slaves thus necessarily emerges as a central focus of the analysis and in that the broad perspective was crucial. These were people, after all, in a formally democratic society, excluded from the official domains of political life, with no rights by which to levy claims but possessed of other means by which to engage in the act of making history. To write that story I have borrowed liberally from historical and theoretical literatures on other times and places.
To write about Confederate women I have drawn on feminist theories and histories, but I have also looked to agrarian and subaltern studies to illuminate the political strategies of rural poor people. Planter women are not the key characters in this story. It was yeoman and poor white women who moved decisively into the practice of politics in the Civil War South, reshaping labor and welfare policy in their own image. Theirs is not a political history easily assimilated to the usual frameworks of nationalism or citizenship, with the expectation of claims made in terms of political rights. Poor white women did not usually speak of themselves as members of the nation or as citizens. Their political strategies were those common to rural people everywhere excluded from official political life. It is to the politics of the governed in most of the world and not to the liberal frameworks of American political history that I look to write the history of the female unfranchised in the American Civil War.
The international perspective also lends new significance to the struggle over slavery waged on Confederate plantations and to the particular dynamic of war and emancipation that played out so dramatically in the short-lived C.S.A. For if the heroic story of black Union soldiers’ struggle for freedom and citizenship is one central dynamic of war and emancipation in the American Civil War, it is hardly the only one. It is surely worth remembering that only about 150,000 slaves served in the Union army and navy, that military service was a route to emancipation open only to men, and that while as many as 500,000 slaves may have made it to Union lines over the course of the war, the rest — as many as three million more — remained on plantations and farms in the Confederate South in a state of presumptive slavery. The vast majority of slaves, in other words, ended the war precisely where they began it, locked in Confederate territory, consigned to waging their war against slavery and the slave- holders’ state exactly where they lived. If the enlistment of black soldiers in the Union army “made strikingly clear the monumental changes wrought by the war,” as a group of prominent historians have rightly insisted, then what did the decision to enlist slave men in the Confederate army mean for the history of the Confederacy, the American Civil War, and the comparative history of slavery and emancipation? The Davis administration’s decision to enlist slave men is no indication that it chose independence over slavery, as so many continue to insist; it is, rather, a profound indication of the structural problems faced by that and every other slave regime at war since the French Revolution. And it is the ultimate measure of what slaves wrought in Confederate political life.
The focus on the Confederacy is a critical reminder that the struggle for emancipation proceeded on many fronts in the American Civil War. It was advanced by people and processes only partly aligned with the Union state’s emancipation policy, and it cannot be reduced to a history that follows a route through war to emancipation taken by some (but not most) men and no women. In that sense it reanimates a vital part of the national narrative. But it does something else as well: it illuminates a new history of gender and emancipation. The history of slave women in the struggle for emancipation — their political history — fits no state narrative, Union or Confederate. The recent focus on black soldiers makes that much clear. But the emphasis here on the actions of slaves in a war against slavery that started on Confederate farms and plantations, in developments not captured by federal agencies or their statist agenda, highlights the messy, uneven, and protracted process by which slaves fought for and won their freedom. Indeed, Union emancipation policy emerges from this analysis in sharper focus as a specifically military policy that opened up entirely different possibilities for men and women. In Confederate and Union territory alike, enslaved men and women were forced to take different paths through war to emancipation. For the most part, as in Saint-Domingue and other slave regimes at war, men (when they could) took the martial route and women (when they could) took the marital route. Indeed, one of the things this perspective unexpectedly reveals is the common recourse of military powers to the institution of marriage in their attempts to manage populations of enslaved women and children en route to freedom. Gender, as the Confederate experience reminds us, was a fundamental, not incidental, feature of emancipation wherever it transpired.
The Confederate experiment in nation building and war transformed the United States, and the American South and the people in it. Vital political change did not arrive in the South only with defeat, wasn’t all imposed on the region by a victorious army and a powerful Republican Party state. The four-year juggernaut of state building in war, the Southern people’s unprecedented experience of a radically activist state, and the unprecedented mobilization of the unfranchised were all part of a brief but searing national history. The C.S.A. was defeated, but the Southern people’s experience of the Confederate war lived on.
The road to the postwar South ran through the bloody struggles waged on Confederate ground. The people, male and female, black and white, Southern and Northern, who confronted each other in 1865, and engaged anew in paramilitary struggle over the terms of social and political life, were not the same people they had been in 1860. They had been through the fire, and it had remade them all and the governments under which they lived. The lessons of that war, and of the Confederate experience, registered in the region, the nation, and in the hemisphere.
The Confederate war involved a profound reckoning. Before Confederates were defeated, their political project had failed. 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. Their story tells us something surely worth remembering: That power counts in politics, is often exercised brutally, and almost always wins, but that once in a very long while — as in the Civil War South — history opens up, resistance prevails, and the usually powerless manage against all imaginable odds to change the world.