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Alumna returns to discuss Civil War and the South
May 3, 2011Tweet
The Confederacy was not only challenged militarily by the might of the Union, but politically by two groups of people that Southern leaders took for granted, a Binghamton University alumna and University of Pennsylvania professor said at a lecture on April 28.
“For slaves and white women, people whom the (Confederate) government had expressed no previous interest, the Civil War posed more than a test of political commitments,” Stephanie McCurry said. “It was a profoundly transformative event. For them, the war was a moment when time itself opened up and they stepped into the making of history.”
McCurry, who received her doctorate in history from Binghamton in 1988, is a specialist in 19th-century history, with a focus on the American South and the Civil War. Her first book, Masters of Small Worlds, won numerous awards, but her latest book, 2010’s Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South, has brought McCurry even greater acclaim. Just last month, the book was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history.
“I really am delighted to be back here in Binghamton,” she said. “(History) was a wonderful department to be in then and I’m sure it still is now.”
McCurry’s book and talk are especially timely in light of the Civil War’s sesquicentennial. She began her lecture – an overview of Confederate Reckoning – by describing how South Carolina and other states opted out of the Union.
“Standing on the brink of war, no one in the American South could’ve known what lay ahead: the scale of war, the demands of waging it, the level of mobilization for it, the dominion of death it would usher in,” McCurry said. “All of this was unimaginable in 1860.
“There is one question above all that I think we must ask and answer: Why did they risk it? You have to start there to grasp the reckoning that came after.”
Secessionists sought to build a new kind of government: “a modern, pro-slavery and anti-democratic state dedicated to the proposition that all men were not created equal,” McCurry said. The centerpiece of their electoral campaign was the need to defend slavery, even going so far as to write a clause into the Confederate constitution prohibiting the government from ever changing slavery laws.
“Secession was the south’s big gamble and it was a gamble on the future of slavery,” she said. “With secession, the poker players went all in. But with war came the reckoning.”
As the Confederate leaders tried to build the nation and fight a war, greater demands were placed on the people. It was a population of nearly 10 million – and only 1.5 million (white male voters) had been given a say about secession. By 1862, the Confederacy was forced to adopt a conscription act, requiring white men ages 15-55 to join the military.
“To say it tested the limits of popular support for the war is an understatement,” McCurry said.
Those protests soon extended to women, who undermined the South’s capacity to wage war by aiding deserters and those who refused enlistment. Orders were given to arrest women and non-combatants and many were intimidated or beaten for information about their husbands, sons and fathers.
In 1863, women began to mobilize after a food crisis reached “starvation proportions,” McCurry said. In the spring of that year, armed women from Mobile, Ala., to Richmond, Va., attacked stores, government warehouses, army convoys and railroad depots. Led by Mary Jackson, a farm wife and mother of a soldier, the women walked away with much-needed food.
“These food riots weren’t isolated events, but were the most dramatic manifestation of the new political realities at work in rural and urban communities,” McCurry said. “It was truly a Confederate spring of soldiers’ wives’ discontent. These women made themselves count.”
Thanks to the work of women, the government would hand out food to help the people through trying times.
“The mass of white southern women had emerged as a formidable adversary of the government in the long struggle over the justice of its military policies,” McCurry said. … “Any state that took their men would ultimately have to answer to them.”
Confederate leaders would also have struggles with slaveholders and slaves. Slaveholders demanded that their “property” be protected from war and were unwilling to give up slaves for war-building activities. For example, a call for 30,000 slaves to build fortifications would not generate more than 3,000 for the cause.
“Confederate slaveholders often proved to be more concerned with property than nation,” McCurry said. “Do historians’ robust assertions of the strength of endurance of Confederate nationalism take that into account? How else are we to explain the actions of a group of people reckless enough to take a region and all of its people into a perilous war but not patriotic enough to do what it took to fight it?”
For some reason, secessionists assumed slaves would pledge allegiance to the Confederacy. But evidence of sedition was already showing by 1861, and in 1862, a Confederate officer initiated a court-martial of six slaves caught trying to escape and give intelligence to the Union. If slaves could be charged as traitors, they were now more than just slaves, McCurry said.
By 1864 and 1865, the Confederacy had reached a point of desperation and needed slaves as soldiers. Even then, its leaders would not consider emancipation. The move to enlist slaves to save a slaveholders’ republic cemented the Confederacy’s failures.
“The Confederacy was transformed by war and the Confederate political project was undone by the various people who had been taken for ciphers in it,” McCurry said. “Military defeat was coupled with political failure. Given the pro-slavery and anti-democratic aspirations of the Confederacy, there’s a lot of justice in that.”