Saturday, February 08, 2014


I was going to skip today, then I ran into this post from Noel Ignatiev...and here I am.  Today Theoretical Weekends is not Theoretical at all, but historical.  It is also a book review.  Actually, two...It's a story about the South in the Civil War which you almost never hear.  

The first is from PM Press and Noel.  The second is from Counterfire.

Bitterly Divided

The best kept secret in U.S. history is the resistance of southerners, and especially southern nonslaveholding whites, to the slaveholders during the Civil War. W.E.B. Du Bois, in the chapter “The General Strike” in Black Reconstruction in America, told the story of black resistance. Bitterly Divided: the South’s Inner Civil War by David Williams (New Press: 2008), while giving due weight to the resistance of black people and Indians, focuses on southern whites. Williams teaches at Valdosta State University in Georgia; this was his fifth book on this topic. He writes:

Between 1861 and 1865, the South was torn apart by a violent civil war, a war no less significant to the Confederacy’s fate than its more widely known struggle against the Yankees….

The South’s inner civil war had deep roots in the antebellum period. Many southern whites, like North Carolina’s Hinton Rowan Helper, saw plain folk as impoverished by the slave system. Slaves, too, like Frederick Douglass, were becoming more difficult to control…. By 1860, slaveholders worried that although Abraham Lincoln was a direct threat only to slavery’s expansion, his election to the presidency might give encouragement to southern dissenters and resisters… Such fears among slaveholders… were a major driving force behind the secession movement.

But how could a slaveholders’ republic be established in a society in which slaveholders were a minority?... [S]tate conventions across the South, all of them dominated by slaveholders, in the end ignored majority will and took their states out of the Union….

Still, there was some general enthusiasm for the war among common whites in the wake of Lincoln’s call for volunteers to invade the South. Whatever their misgivings about secession, invasion was another matter. And, despite Lincoln’s promise of noninterference with slavery, “fear of Negro equality… caused some of the more ignorant to rally to the support of the Confederacy.” But southern enlistments declined rapidly after First Manassas, or Bull Run, as Yankees called the battle. Men were reluctant t leave their families in the fall and winter of of 1861-62, and many of those already in the army deserted to help theirs.

The Confederacy’s response to its recruitment and desertion problems served only to weaken its support among plain folk. In April 1862, the Confederate Congress passed the first general conscription act in American history. But men of wealth could avoid the draft by hiring a substitute or paying an exemption fee. Congress also made slaveholders owning twenty or more slaves automatically exempt from the draft. This twenty-slave law was the most widely hated act ever imposed by the Confederacy....

To make matters worse, planters devoted much of their land to cotton and tobacco, while soldiers and their families went hungry….

The inevitable result… was a severe food shortage that hit soldiers’ families especially hard….

… As early as 1862, food riots began breaking out all over the South. Gangs of hungry women, many of them armed, ransacked stores, depots, and supply wagons, searching for anything edible. Major urban centers, like Richmond, Atlanta, Mobile, and Galveston, experienced the biggest riots. Even in smaller towns, like Georgia’s Valdosta and Marietta and North Carolina’s High Point and Salisbury, hungry women looted for food. [There may well have been cases, although Williams does not make this point explicitly, where slaves ate better than the families of soldiers, since the slaves were vital to the production of cotton and tobacco, and the families of soldiers were, from the standpoint of capital, “useless”—NI]….

Desertion became so serious by the summer of 1863 that Jefferson Davis begged absentees to return… But they did not return. A year later Davis publicly admitted that two-thirds of Confederate soldiers were absent…. Many of these men joined antiwar organizations that had been active in the South since the war’s beginning. Others joined with draft dodgers and other anti-Confederates to form tory or layout gangs. They attacked government supply trains, burned bridges, raided local plantations, and harassed impressment agents and conscript officers…..

Among the most enthusiastic southern anti-Confederates were African-Americans, especially those held in slavery…. With Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation came a promise of freedom that enslaves blacks eagerly embraced. In fact they were taking freedom for themselves long before the Proclamation… [Williams adopts Du Bois’s notion of the “general strike,” one of the few historians to do so.]

… Deserters escaping the Confederate army could rely on slaves to give them good and shelter on the journey back home. Others joined tory gangs in their war against the Confederacy…. Tens of thousands of blacks fled to federal lines and joined Union forces. Of about two hundred thousand blacks under federal arms, over three fourths were native southerners. Together with roughly three hundred thousand southern whites who did the same, southerners who served in the Union military totaled nearly half a million, or about a quarter of all federal armed forces.

… [S]outhern Indians too were divided in their feelings toward the Confederacy… By the winter of 1861-62, a full-blown civil war was under way among the Indians, adding a further dimension to southern disunity.

Parts of the story have been told before, some in detail, but Williams tells it more effectively than I have read elsewhere, far more effectively than the brief summary (with elisions) I have quoted from the Introduction. I urge readers to get hold of the book and read it “kiver-to-kiver.” It will be especially useful as a corrective for those inclined to doubt the class-struggle interpretation of history.

The reviewer can be reached at 

David Williams, Bitterly Divided: The South’s Inner Civil War

Dominic Alexander reviews David Williams’ Bitterly Divided which details the astonishing scale of internal division in the southern states from the beginning to the end of the American Civil War.

David Williams, Bitterly Divided: The South’s Inner Civil War (The New Press, paperback 2010), 310pp.

‘ “This says I am Miss Caroline Fisher. I am from North Alabama, from Winston County.” The class murmured apprehensively, should she prove to harbour her share of the peculiarities indigenous to that region. (When Alabama seceded from the Union on 11 January, 1861, Winston County seceded from Alabama, and every child in Maycomb County knew it.) North Alabama was full of Liquor Interests, Big Mules, steel companies, Republicans, professors, and other persons of no background.’ 
Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird (1960)

Winston County was by no means the only part of the south to have broken from the Confederacy during the Civil War. By the end of the war localities across the deep south were, like Irwin county in Georgia, chasing Confederate officials out of their area and declaring for the Union and Lincoln (p.238). David Williams’ Bitterly Divided details the astonishing scale of internal division in the southern states from the beginning to the end of the war.
Over and again the contemporary sources record complaints from ordinary white southerners that the conflict was a ‘rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight’. Those whites who did not own slaves were likely to be at least sceptical of the whole business, as another telling quotation had it that ‘this fuss was all for the benefit of the wealthy’. Williams’ robust array of evidence shows a society riven with class conflicts, to the point where the ruling planter class came close to losing its grip entirely.
Although slavery was in the end abolished, as Williams shows as much by the actions of the slaves themselves as anyone else, the planters were ultimately able to re-establish themselves. The post war betrayal of southern blacks, and the creation of segregation, is not part of Williams’ brief in this book. However, the fact of it explains the creation of all those reactionary and racist apologetics for the south that Bitterly Divided so expertly explodes.
Opposition to the confederacy unquestionably grew in the course of the war, but it was substantial enough right from the start to require force, threats and fraud to secure the election of pro-secessionists across much of the south in the first place. Suspected ‘unionists’ were often threatened or actually attacked for attempting to vote. Many others voted for delegates who posed as pro-union, only for them to turn secessionist once elected. Williams estimates that at least a clear majority of southern voters were opposed to the very creation of the Confederacy.
Of course, planter rule and the Confederate cause depended upon widespread ingrained racism among poor, non-slave-owning whites. The surprise is how much evidence there is of dissent from the ruling racist ideology. Certainly wealthy planters even before the war were worried about how to stop ‘low down poor whites’ from organising to abolish slavery and redistribute the land, of which the planters held all the best. Conspiracies uniting poor whites and blacks in attempted uprisings against slavery and the planters had been by no means limited to the famous Harper’s Ferry insurrection of John Brown (p.30).
Once the war began, a conscription law blatantly favoured the richer slave owners, putting the burden of fighting squarely on poorer whites. Existing class tensions among southern whites became much more serious. One woman complained that ‘the brunt is thrown upon the working classes while the rich live at home in ease and pleasure’ (p.60). Some resisted the draft by fleeing to Mexico, in the danger of being caught by rebel troops and killed on the spot. Williams tells a host of stories of violent resistance to the draft. In some areas it became actively dangerous to be a Confederate soldier, while as one southern officer wrote in disgust it was ‘no longer a reproach to be known as a deserter’ across whole stretches of the country (p.123).
Opposition to the war reached new heights as it went on. One factor in this were the food shortages. Williams points out that while the industrial strength of the north is usually held to be at the root of its victory, in fact the south organised such a successful munitions programme that its soldiers never lacked equipment or ammunition. The south’s problem was that the rich planters reneged on their promise to provide food for soldiers and their families, and instead sold their crops to speculators, or invested in profitable cotton and tobacco crops.
Fully half the Confederate army had deserted by 1863. The Union suffered desertions too, but it could rely upon southerners, white as well as black coming north. Nearly half a million southerners fought on the Union side. A new underground railroad even came into existence in the course of the war in order to help ‘union men’ in the south escape through to federal forces.
Williams’ evidence is overwhelming that support for either Union or Confederacy was determined by class. Nearly all armed resistance to the Confederate draft came from small farmers, artisans and labourers. The often murderous Confederate armed gangs that attempted to enforce the draft tended to own three times as much land and twice as much personal property. Williams quotes the observation of one historian that ‘by engineering disunion, slaveowners fostered the growth of the kind of organisations they had long feared: class-based groups that pitted nonslaveholders against the interests of slaveowners’ (p.162).
It was however the slaves themselves who arguably determined the course of the war. Northern politicians like Lincoln tried to avoid making slavery the key issue of the war, but the slaves’ actions ensured it was. From the start, black southerners were effectively in a state of revolt: a south Carolina woman observed in 1863 that ‘if this war lasts two year longer, African Slavery will have ceased in these states’ (p.174). Perhaps the ultimate proof that the slaves had forced the direction of the war was the Confederacy’s desperate decision in March 1865 to attempt to recruit slaves into the Confederate army under conditions that effectively freed them. One southern newspaper commented that blacks had become ‘a sort of balance power in this contest, and that the side which succeeds in enlisting the feelings and in securing the active operation and services of the four millions of blacks, must ultimately triumph’. Needless to say, the Confederacy was never able to obtain black support. It was not northern troops which freed the slaves: as a Union general put it ‘it is not done by the army, but they are freeing themselves’ (p.173).
The American Civil War was not a ‘war between the states’ as some would now have it, but a genuine civil war in the south itself. For a time it looked as if that racial hierarchy, on which class in America is so dependent, would break down under the pressures of war. That the opportunity was missed and the planter class was able to re-impose white supremacy is one of the greatest tragedies of modern history.
Williams’ historical methodology is that of the classic ‘history from below’ school. His arrangement of his vast material makes the book vivid and alive with the sufferings, fears and thoughts of so many ordinary black and white southerners. The conclusions rest upon decades of thorough and careful scholarship, as can be seen in the detailed end references. However, for those to whom Williams’ arguments are unwelcome, it is possible to charge that the evidence is ‘anecdotal’, that quotations are unrepresentative, or that statements are unsupported by references and so on. None of these objections, such as can be found through a quick internet search, are remotely plausible to anyone who has read the book honestly.
Those who wish to cling to reactionary, and racist, versions of history will do so however powerful the historical evidence and arguments presented. However it is to be hoped that this very fine work of history, serious without being an exclusive academic text, will be read as widely as it deserves to be. Williams shows the reader the vulnerability of southern class society, founded upon the supposed eternality of racial division. He shows how contingent that racial order was, how hard the ruling class had to work to maintain it, and how close it came to coming apart in its entirety. The fact that such an order remains in (much modified) existence, and not just in the United States, is the reason why this book is so important.

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