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Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South Paperback – April 9, 2012
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Combining the best of the tradition of writing history "from the bottom up,"with prodigious research, and a red thread of analytical brilliance, Confederate Reckoning dramatically reshapes our understanding of the history of slavery and the Civil War. (Walter Johnson, author of Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market)
This is a major book [that] permanently rewrites the history of the Confederacy. (James L. Roark, author of Masters Without Slaves: Southern Planters in the Civil War and Reconstruction)
Analyzing the experience of women, African Americans, and others often placed at the margins of Confederate history, McCurry powerfully challenges readers to get beyond high politics and storied military campaigns to engage a profoundly complicated, and often surprising, story of struggle and change amid seismic events. (Gary W. Gallagher, author of The Confederate War)
McCurry strips the Confederacy of myth and romance to reveal its doomed essence. Dedicated to the proposition that men were not created equal, the Confederacy had to fight a two-front war. Not only against Union armies, but also slaves and poor white women who rose in revolt across the South. Richly detailed and lucidly told, Confederate Reckoning is a fresh, bold take on the Civil War that every student of the conflict should read. (Tony Horwitz, author of Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War)
[McCurry] has written a staggeringly smart analysis of the politics of the Confederacy--indeed, she has written one of the most illuminating and creative studies of 19th-century American political life, period...I have been waiting for McCurry's second book to be published since I read Masters of Small Worlds over a decade ago; it is a triumph of political history, and it was well worth the wait. (Lauren Winner Books & Culture 2010-04-28)
Forceful and elegantly written...this book [is] a landmark piece of Civil War historiography. (Jim Cullen History News Network 2010-06-11)
Good history teaches readers about the past, excellent history offers perspective on the present. By this standard, Stephanie McCurry's Confederate Reckoning surely achieves excellence...McCurry offers a carefully researched and well-grounded frontal assault, examining secession's causes and actualities. She quickly disposes of the claims that the war was really about anything other than slavery, demonstrating that fanciful patinas such as "states rights" merely meant linguistic obfuscation of that brutal reality...As modern citizens decry government actions and hearken back to an ideal that never was, so too did the South assert a wish to return to a fictional revolutionary era utopia. This desire allowed them to not only ignore the long odds against their success, just as Tea Partiers fail to consider their program's (such as it is) absurd contradictions...McCurry shines a light on the South's brutal reality and thus encourages us to cast a cold analytical eye on our own. (Jordan Magill San Francisco Book Review 2010-06-22)
The sesquicentennial of the Civil War now looms on the horizon, promising its own deluge of books of every size, shape and description. We will be fortunate indeed if in sheer originality and insight they measure up to Confederate Reckoning...McCurry challenges us to expand our definition of politics to encompass not simply government but the entire public sphere. The struggle for Southern independence, she shows, opened the door for the mobilization of two groups previously outside the political nation--white women of the nonslaveholding class and slaves...Confederate Reckoning offers a powerful new paradigm for understanding events on the Confederate home front. (Eric Foner The Nation 2010-07-14)
Building upon her work over almost two decades, McCurry presents a new history of the South's experience during the war. It is an account that foregrounds social history as contrasted with military history, and in this respect it is of a piece with much of the pathbreaking new scholarship on the war. It moves political history from the study of elected politicians and government institutions to an exploration of power in all its dimensions...Perhaps the highest praise one can offer McCurry's work is to say that once we look through her eyes, it will become almost impossible to believe that we ever saw or thought otherwise...Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South is a book about politics that stretches far beyond the ballot and the statehouse, all the way into plantations and farms and families and communities across the South...McCurry has helped to transform our understanding of the Confederacy--and of its impossibility...At the outset of the book, McCurry insists that she is not going to ask or answer the timeworn question of why the South lost the Civil War. Yet in her vivid and richly textured portrait of what she calls the Confederacy's "undoing," she has in fact accomplished exactly that. And in doing so McCurry has written also a paean to social justice and to democracy, commitments and aspirations we would be well-served to make the heart of our Sesquicentennial commemorations. (Drew Gilpin Faust New Republic 2010-10-28)
About the Author
Stephanie McCurry is Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania.
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McCurry’s argument is that the role of women in the Confederacy has virtually been ignored by historians. Women at the outset the new slave Republic had few political rights and very little sway in the Confederate States. Women were seen as dependent beings that needed to be protected from violent slaves, abolitionists and/or Yankee hirelings. McCurry states that Southern men were motivated by atrocity propaganda not unlike the propaganda the British used against the Germans in World War I. As the war progressed and the sacrifices demanded on southern women increased so did their impact on the Confederate government. Additionally, McCurry seems to separate southern women into two groups, the ladies or planter class and poor rural white women. Both groups made demands on the Confederate government. Both groups used their status as wives or widows of soldiers to demand protection and concern from the Confederate government. The ladies demanded protection of their person and property while the poor demanded food. These cries for help took the form of letters to politicians and sometimes even armed revolt in the form of food riots. McCurry sites not just the well-known 1863 Richmond food riots, but numerous smaller women’s riots as well. McCurry believes that Southern women were “largely successful in transforming themselves from a disenfranchised group in civil society to mobilized political communities able to influence government policy in their favor.” McCurry’s narrative cannot help but make one wonder if the South had not been defeated, it may have become a leader in the women’s rights movement.
In the second half of McCurry’s book she delves into what she calls an unrecognized massive slave rebellion taking place in the South. McCurry says initially, Southerners believed the slaves in their Republic were a great benefit. However, as the war progressed McCurry implies there was a Civil War within a Civil War taking place in the South. In McCurry’s view, slaves begin at the very outset war to exercise political power and even armed rebellion within the Confederate states. As the war progressed slave rebellion, located both near and far from the battlefront, was a growing malignancy on the Confederacy. To make a point Prof. McCurry chooses selected plantations in South Carolina, Louisiana and Mississippi. She details numerous occasions of runaway, belligerent and armed slaves. In this chaotic environment the Professor explains that Confederate troops guarded both arteries of union invasion and slave escape pathways. Ironically, while slaves were uncooperative with their masters, slave masters failed to cooperate with the Confederate government and military in lending their property to support the war.
Eventually, the South realized the way to win the war with the slaves was win their loyalty and to convince them that the Confederacy was a country worth fighting for. The Confederate decision to enlist black troops and let them fight for their freedom within the South, was too little too late.
Prof. McCurry essentially accuses past historians of missing an essential component of the Civil War. A component which may explain Southern defeat more so than population or manufacturing disparities between the North and South. For this oversight she places the blame on the “Lost Cause Myth”. She contends that uncertain loyalty of women and the outright hostility from slaves helped doom the Confederacy. This was an embarrassing aspect of Confederate defeat that did not fit well with the myth.
Prof. McCurry’s book is a long read. She selects a lot of primary source material to hammer home her points. However, there does seem to be a lack of balance. The reader does not hear much from women who supported the Confederacy nor from slaves who served the Confederacy. McCurry sometimes makes sweeping statements that seem a little hard to accept like, “Confederate slaves were entirely alert to the meaning of national and international developments.” On page 228 she makes the case that they were massive slave networks in the South with places only known to slaves with secret maps places slaveholders couldn’t find. These were hideouts that according to the professor “All slaves seemed to know where such places are.” Mrs. McCurry has not spent much time in the South if she thinks there were places that southern backwoodsmen could not find but slaves could. Another area where McCurry seems to lose credibility when she uses modern terms like “social justice”. (One example, on page 135, she writes “As soldiers’ wives, Southern white women made unprecedented claims on the State and in the process turned themselves into a powerful voice for social justice in the C.S.A.” Another example is on page 96 where she writes “It was clear from the outset Virginia would play an outsized role in the war and, as state Unionists had insisted, that the Shenandoah that Kanawha Valleys would prove to be the Flanders fields of the war.” She provides almost no statistics to support her thesis. In the end, McCurry does shed new light on important but not well researched aspects of the Confederate war.
McCurry argues that though they have been largely left out of the conversation, women and slaves were influential in the political landscape of the Confederate South. She provides convincing evidence for this argument through a variety of primary sources including letters, political documents and first-person narratives. Unfortunately, her tendency to draw from historical and theoretical literature rooted in different time periods distracts the reader from her argument.
Lack of organization is also an issue in this book, which attempts to merge two stories—that of white women and slaves—into a single historical narrative. McCurry begins with the women’s story and then with no real warning moves on to that of the slaves, leaving the reader confused when approaching the epilogue as to which party she is referring. Her writing style is also problematic. It reads a bit like stream of consciousness, and is often repetitive and sometimes shallow. Many of her points lack development, even though they are reiterated on numerous occasions.
The thrust of this book is that the actions of these women and slaves expanded the realm of politics to those who did not have a vote, but could still affect the policies and outcome of the war. McCurry shows, through both a synthesis of previous secondary work as well as primary sources, that the war brought women into close contact with their state and federal governments. Further, she argues, this changed the shape of American politics forever. Women, both North and South, were not active participants the way that they became during the Civil War. McCurry feels that southern women, though, were more assertive in demanding assistance from the Confederate and state governments. The women came to believe that the governments owed it to them to offer support while their husbands were off fighting. McCurry shows that women were often successful in this, through rioting more than writing.
This is a well-written, readable account that does have some good information. That being said, the main issue with the book is less the evidence or conclusions McCurry has reached and more the way it is presented. From the introduction forward, McCurry writes as if what she is presenting is groundbreaking, earth-shattering stuff. In fact, as her endnotes indicate, much of what she writes has been written before, although perhaps not in the same terms or using the same framework she does. However, the ideas McCurry espouses were written, at minimum, over thirty years ago by Emory Thomas in The Confederacy as a Revolutionary Experience. Thomas argued, as McCurry does, that the Confederacy was a white man's revolution that quickly dismantled as the war started and wore on. This is a somewhat petty criticism and has more to do with McCurry's hubris than anything wrong with the book. She should be commended for synthesizing the secondary research since Thomas wrote and thus expanding upon his original work.
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