Sunday, January 29, 2012

Review: Confederate Reckoning

By Stephanie McCurry

The Confederate States of America is dead; its lifeless corpse lay sprawled out on a stainless steel table in the morgue of American History.  Stephanie McCurry, a professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, having shed the vestments of academia, stands beside the table, wearing coroner’s scrubs, latex gloves and goggles.  Nearly one hundred and fifty years have passed since the Confederacy took its last dying breaths, and Ms. McCurry stands beside the exhumed cadaver with a scalpel in hand, poised to dissect it and determine the cause of its death.

Professor McCurry begins be pealing back the skin of the Confederacy to reveal the secession muscle.  She reveals that secession was not a foregone conclusion in the winter of 1860-1861, and points to the political muscle of the fire-eating secessionists, a small but vocal minority, who by tirelessly pulling the levers and turning the gears of the secession machine, overcame by shear strength and pure force of will the wishes of a large majority of their constituents, and one by one took eleven states out of the union.

Cutting through the muscle she enters the abdominal cavity and reveals the inner workings of the Confederacy.  She points to two large masses which caused the death of the Confederacy, both large disenfranchised segments of the Southern population.  The first, a benign growth, is the women of the South.  Though politically invisible during the antebellum years, once the deprivations of war were felt on the home front, Professor McCurry, demonstrates how the frustration of Southern women, with their men gone and bearing the ever increasing burden of the war, escalated into several riots that stretched across the Confederacy, with women in the streets shouting “Bread or Blood!” forcing the Confederate government to recognize the women as a political body that must be appeased, and creating the first large scale welfare program in American history.

The second mass in the abdomen of the Confederacy is a malignant and far more dangerous tumor, the Negroes.  Slavery was supporting structure, the skeleton, of the Confederacy.  But from the very beginning of the new republic there were problems.  Formed by those who were opposed to a strong central government, the Confederacy established its own Constitution, largely based on that of the United States, with one major difference, the institution of slavery was directly written into it, and tenets of the Confederate Constitution made it nearly impossible to abolish it.  Secondly, the Confederacy was founded firmly on belief in State’s rights, and property rights were sacrosanct.  Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, quickly found that he could not requisition slave labor without the express permission of the state, and owners of the slaves.  Slave owners, fearing the loss of their Negro property, especially after the issuance of Lincoln’s Emancipation proclamation, were reluctant to let their slaves be requisitioned even for the greater national good, and sited the slaves’ unwillingness to go.  In the final weeks of the war, Confederate the military situation had grown so desperate the Confederate Congress, debated and passed a law, signed by Jefferson Davis, allowing Blacks to serve in the ranks of the Confederate army.  Thus by allowing the Negroes to join the army, they must be recognized as a part of the body politic, and if a Black man should willing fight for the Confederacy, he must win his emancipation, and possibly that of his wife and children.  Therefore sustaining slavery, the supporting structure of the Confederacy, would have been impossible.

Professor McCurry’s autopsy of the Confederacy is not a thorough one.  She does not examine the military arm of the Confederacy, nor its political brain (with the exception of the secession winter).   The report of her findings therefore is somewhat flawed, though not altogether wrong.  I believe she knew what she wanted to find as the cause of the death of the Confederacy, and limited her probe to prove her pre-formulated conclusion.

ISBN 978-0674045897, Harvard University Press, © 2010, Hardcover, 456 pages, End Notes & Index. $35.00

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