Review- McCurry, “Confederate Reckoning”

Stephanie McCurry, “Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South” (2010) – The entire point of the Confederate project was to create a polity that excluded black people and, to a lesser extent, women (women being formally excluded from the polis in the US as well). But in an ironic turn, historian Stephanie McCurry argues, the war that inevitably (in her telling- I’m less sure but she’s probably right) followed wound up creating conditions for women and slaves to agitate for themselves, making them political actors in spite of it all.

There are two main stories here. Both were made possible by the strain of the war and the massive reach the Confederate government developed to deal with it, the taxation and conscription policies unlike anything the US would see until the period of the world wars, with some unique characteristics like the rule saying men with more than twenty slaves were exempt from the draft. McCurry makes clear the stakes of internal conflict in the CSA, including domestic counterinsurgency (avant la lettre) against unionists and deserters that involved brutal massacres against civilian populations in the mountain south.

One story is the rise of the soldier’s wife as a political subject in the CSA. Farm families faced the dire double squeeze of their men being conscripted away and their reduced agricultural output being taxed more heavily than ever before. Women found themselves acting in the political sphere out of sheer desperation, writing their political representatives and groping towards the most effective framing of their grievances- they were the wives of the soldiers risking their lives for the Confederacy, much of the rhetoric of which was about protecting women and children, and here were both going hungry. This politics culminated in at least a dozen food riots throughout the CSA, where well-organized groups of women seized grain from merchants and speculators and forced the Confederacy to spare scarce men to protect the markets.

The other story is that of what was supposed to be one of the great strengths of the Confederacy, its millions of slaves, becoming a massive liability. As it turned out, there was no way to mobilize the slaves in such a way to bolster Confederate military efforts that worked politically. Masters and slaves both resisted slaves being torn from their homes to do dangerous military labor, and the military wasn’t crazy about their troops treating spadework as beneath them, the realm of slaves, either. Being close to the line, slaves working in war zones had more opportunity to escape to the north, especially once the US instituted the contraband rules that freed slaves who made it across to them. Moreover, slave resistance spiked as the war went on, especially after the Emancipation Proclamation, once again forcing the CSA to dilute its strategic resources to keep the home front in line. It all culminated in a debate over enlisting slave soldiers, which the CSA ultimately steered away from doing in any systematic way- protecting the racial caste system was more important to the Confederate leadership than southern nationalism, states rights, or any of that crap.

This is a very interesting book that raises a lot of questions about how the Confederacy negotiated with the strains that defined modern politics in the nineteenth century. Is there a version of the Confederacy that could have survived? Signs point to no, at least not against really determined northern opposition- the strains of war is really what did the CSA in, domestically arguably more than militarily. I don’t know whether that means states organized around the systematic exclusion of much of its population from political decisionmaking is always doomed, but the Civil War prefigured the total wars of the 20th century and the mass mobilization those entailed, which always meant a negotiation between state and society. This was something the Confederacy couldn’t manage. *****

Review- McCurry, “Confederate Reckoning”

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