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Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South

by Stephanie McCurry

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1855147,908 (3.72)4
"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. Now, however, Stephanie McCurry tells a very different tale of the Confederate experience. When the grandiosity of Southerners' national ambitions met the harsh realities of wartime crises, unintended consequences ensued. Although Southern statesmen and generals had built the most powerful slave regime in the Western world, they had excluded the majority of their own people - white women and slaves - and thereby sowed the seeds of their demise." "Wartime scarcity of food, labor, and soldiers tested the Confederate vision at every point and created domestic crises to match those found on the battlefields. Women and slaves became crucial political actors as they contested government enlistment and tax and welfare policies, and struggled for their freedom. The attempt to repress a majority of its own population backfired on the Confederate State of America as the disenfranchised demanded to be counted and considered in the great struggle. The government was forced to become accountable to women and slaves, provoking an astounding transformation of the slaveholders' state. Confederate Reckoning is the startling story of this epic political battle in which women and slaves helped to decide the fate of the Confederacy and the outcome of the Civil War."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)
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A long time ago I was in a conversation about the American Civil War (this was in Virginia; it happens), when one of my friends acidly observed that, at the end of the day, the planter class that provoked secession, and the catastrophe that ensued, mostly did so in a bid preserve their own convenience. This book covers what those people disregarded by the southern agrarian elite, thought of the convenience of the planter class.

However, before McCurry even gets to the actions of the "soldiers' wives" demanding subsistence, and the slaves seeking freedom, she deal with the whole mechanics of secession, which entailed the planters pushing their effective power to the hilt, and using a lot of intimidation, to take their states out of the Union. This being over the protests of significant minorities of pro-union opinion. There was just one long term element of weakness for the new state, but this was overlooked, considering that the Southern elites seem to have always considered adherence to the United States, and its constitution, a matter of, well, convenience.

From there, McCurry devotes two long chapters to the behavior of non-elite women in the Confederacy, the women who wound up staging food riots through-out the South in 1863. While I had been aware of these riots, I was not aware of the details, that they were preceded by a long political pressure campaign by women to make Confederate governments live up to their obligations to support the wives of the soldiers, followed by armed insurrection to take food by force when all else failed. The Confederate politicians did not think of these women as being anything other than part of the households of their husbands, and these women didn't think of themselves as citizens, but they certainly acted like an estate, and left the authorities slack-jawed and scrambling for solutions. Just one of many surprises the reality of total war presented men who thought they could just waltz out of their own political obligations.

This then brings us to the last third of this book, wherein McCurry deals with the practical aspects of what slavery meant to the Confederacy, and while the Confederate leadership convinced themselves that slavery would be a force-multiplier for them in the case of an unlikely war, the slave owners and the slaves had their own agendas. The bottom line is that the average slave holder saw themselves as a sovereign citizen, for whom adhesion to government requirements was optional, and if complying with Confederate requisitions for labor risked the loss of their "property," they were opting out. Even if it meant, ironically, the failure of the Confederate project.

As for the slaves wanting to be free, well, Thomas Jefferson hit the nail on the head when he observed that, in time of war, a population of slaves would always be a security weakness, and such was the case for the Confederacy. McCurry spends a lot of time discussing how war broke all the plantation colonies of the Western Hemisphere, as states waging war needed to maximize every resource, including men of military age. McCurry works very had to give the reader some sense of how the slaves helped themselves in the course of getting their freedom, opening up a second front in the American Civil War that further drained Confederate military resources.

A particular value of this book is that McCurry goes to some lengths to rise above the cliches of American Exceptionalism, and this book is part of the now long-running trend to adopting an "Atlanticist" perspective. Besides comparing the Confederate experience with slavery with the collapse of the institution in the other societies of North and South America, she tends to place the revolt of the "soldiers' wives" into European tradition of social revolution, when authoritarian states demanded too much of their people, and political authority buckled under the pressure.

I wound up wishing that I had read this book years earlier, and had been on the verge of striking it from by own version of Mount TBR. Due to it being a relatively old study at this point, there are new considerations, that McCurry couldn't have thought of. Yes, she doesn't gloss over post-1865 racial violence in the United States, just concluding that organized slavery was broken as a social order. That there are state and local governments in the former states of the Confederacy who are mounting a new campaign to white-wash the experience of the Civil War demonstrates that the past of that war is not really past. ( )
  Shrike58 | Dec 19, 2023 |
In Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South, Stephanie McCurry focuses on the agency of women and slaves, groups who lacked traditional political power in the Confederacy. She writes, “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” (pg. 2). McCurry argues, “Gender, as the Confederate experience reminds us, was a fundamental, not incidental, feature of emancipation wherever it transpired” (pg. 9).
McCurry writes, “In defining the people and the citizens as white, politicians not only proscribed black men from the body politic; they also dispensed with white women. In moving seamlessly between citizens and voters, they elided white women entirely and arrived at a radically delimited definition of the people” (pg. 23). Despite this, McCurry argues, “Even among ‘the people,’ the white male voters soon to be soldiers, unity was elusive” (pg. 77). She further argues, “In the American Civil War, white Southern women’s politics and allegiance came to matter as never before. Taken as a while, the swirling set of developments around the matter of women and war amounted to nothing less than an assertion and reluctant recognition of women’s political personhood and capacity for treason” (pg. 89). Beyond spies and those who harbored Unionist sympathies, “deserter networks were familial in shape, and women were key parties to their operations” (pg. 125). Women further used the identities of soldiers’ wives to form a new constituency in Confederate politics. McCurry argues, “For all intents and purposes women citizens’ relationship with the state dates from the Civil War” (pg. 141). Of the food riots in 1863, McCurry argues, “The key [to understanding them] lies closer to home, in events on the Confederate home front, in the breakdown of rural and urban household economies, and in women’s assumption of leadership on the critical politics of subsistence that convulsed the C.S.A” (pg. 179). Looking at later programs, McCurry writes, “In the C.S.A. the soldier’s wife was the very prototype of the welfare client and provided the political model for the new welfare system and its entitlements” (pg. 207). She concludes, “Whether they liked it or not – and most didn’t – local officials were accountable to the women, forced to treat them as significant members of the political constituency they had been elected or appointed to serve” (pg. 214).
Of slavery, McCurry writes, “In relegating slaves to their masters’ authority, slavery also left them beyond the reach of the state. Slaves’ standing in relation to the state and the way slavery shaped the state this were two sides of the same Confederate coin” (pg. 219). She continues, “The plantation emerged as a critical site of Civil War politics because it grounded a struggle that radiated out and up through the various levels of power and sovereignty in the C.S.A. The war between slaves and masters on Confederate plantations could hardly be contained to those allegedly private domains” (pg. 252). Slaves exercised their own forms of legitimacy. McCurry writes, “Ironic as it might seem, slaves’ consent emerged as a critical factor in Confederate impressment policy” (pg. 267). In terms of slaves assisting Union soldiers or sympathizers, “It was one thing for private citizens to call slaves traitors and quite another for the government or military to formally acknowledge them as such, given the Pandora’s box it would open about their standing in the slaveholders’ republic” (pg. 301). McCurry concludes, “The dynamic of war, including the policies Confederates forged to wage it, so profoundly shifted the balance of power that slaves gained unprecedented opportunities to resist their enslavement” (pg. 360). In this way, "the poverty of Confederates' proslavery political vision had been proved once and for all time" (pg. 357). ( )
  DarthDeverell | Aug 22, 2017 |
A really insightful new book highlighting the structure of the Confederate state, and the ways that non-citizens (white women and enslaved folks) still had political clout despite their deliberate exclusion from conceptions of citizenry. It's a great, easy read that really challenges a lot of dominant narratives about the Confederacy and opens up new avenues for considering that political project. ( )
  aijmiller | Dec 24, 2016 |
I haven't read much of this history yet but have been told by a neighbor who judges for a major US History prize that it is one of the best histories published this year, if not the best.
  flashflood42 | Oct 5, 2010 |
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"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. Now, however, Stephanie McCurry tells a very different tale of the Confederate experience. When the grandiosity of Southerners' national ambitions met the harsh realities of wartime crises, unintended consequences ensued. Although Southern statesmen and generals had built the most powerful slave regime in the Western world, they had excluded the majority of their own people - white women and slaves - and thereby sowed the seeds of their demise." "Wartime scarcity of food, labor, and soldiers tested the Confederate vision at every point and created domestic crises to match those found on the battlefields. Women and slaves became crucial political actors as they contested government enlistment and tax and welfare policies, and struggled for their freedom. The attempt to repress a majority of its own population backfired on the Confederate State of America as the disenfranchised demanded to be counted and considered in the great struggle. The government was forced to become accountable to women and slaves, provoking an astounding transformation of the slaveholders' state. Confederate Reckoning is the startling story of this epic political battle in which women and slaves helped to decide the fate of the Confederacy and the outcome of the Civil War."--BOOK JACKET.

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