By Noel Ignatiev
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 to 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 food 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. The titles of the six chapters give a good idea of what the book covers: “Nothing but Divisions Among Our People,” “Rich Man’s War,” “Fighting Each Other Harder Than We Ever Fought the Enemy,” “Yes, We Shall All Be Free,” “Now the Wolf Has Come,” “Defeated… By the People at Home.” (Curiously, Williams omits the story of the 1st Alabama Cavalry Regiment, made up entirely of white southerners who opposed the Confederacy. The unit served as Sherman’s personal escort during his March to the Sea; fired by hatred of the slaveholders, it was responsible for much of the destruction along the way.) The book is a vindication of the class-struggle interpretation of history. It would be useful to read it along with Marx’s articles in the Vienna Presse, especially those of November 7, 1861 and March 26, 1862 (all on the Marxist internet archive).
The reviewer can be reached at [email protected]