The Confederacy Was Not a Con Job

Over the weekend the Richmond Times-Dispatch published an editorial on the current debate about Confederate iconography by Frank Hyman. It’s an interesting editorial in that it doesn’t fall into any of the popular categories on the subject. After establishing his bona fides as a white Southern male Hyman gets to his point. The problem with revering the Confederate flag and the Confederacy generally comes down to the following:

The Confederacy — and the slavery that spawned it — was also one big con job on the Southern white working class. A con job funded by some of the antebellum one-percenters, and one that continues today in a similar form…. With low wages and few schools, Southern whites suffered a much lower land ownership rate and a far lower literacy rate than Northern whites….

My ancestor, Canna Hyman, and his two sons did own land and fought under that flag. A note from our family history says: “Someone came for them while they were plowing one day. They put their horses up and all three went away to the War and only one son, William, came back.”

Like Canna, most Southerners didn’t own slaves. But they were persuaded to risk their lives and limbs for the right of a few to get rich as Croesus from slavery. For their sacrifices and their votes, they earned two things before and after the Civil War. First, a very skinny slice of the immense Southern pie. And second, the thing that made those slim rations palatable then and now: the shallow satisfaction of knowing blacks had no slice at all.

Certainly northern and even some southern observers before and after the Civil War offered their assessments about the extent to which the institution of slavery stymied economic opportunity for non-slaveholders, but we should be cautious about applying our own value judgments to the past.

First, the author seems to accept the assumption that the lack of slaveownership meant that they had no stake in the preservation of the institution. A non-slaveowner may have been part of an extended family that did own slaves. Non-slaveowners also had opportunities to lease slaves for various purposes. And, of course, it only took the purchase of one slave to move someone into that elite category. This is not to suggest that such a transition happened often or that from our perspective the distribution of wealth in the South was not unfair. We are free to draw our own conclusion.

But the idea that this arrangement was a “con job” dismisses the perspectives of ordinary people. It strips non-slaveholders and poor whites of any agency or ability to assess their world and take appropriate action. They are rendered simply as pawns in a larger game. It smacks too much of evil Wall Street bankers manipulating innocent 401-K investors and homeowners out of their mortgages. We can only imagine what con jobs future generations will claim were at work in 2015.

The author seems to admit given the evidence provided that we don’t know anything about how Canna Hyman or anyone else from the family who left home viewed the war. What we do know from an incredibly rich body of scholarship is that the Confederate government enjoyed support from slave and non-slaveowners alike well into the war. This is something that needs to be understood. We need to understand it on their own terms.

Our ongoing debate about Civil War memory, and Confederate iconography in particular, is about how our communities currently reflect and commemorate the past. It is about our values. We don’t need to make excuses about what our ancestors did or did not do. This is true regardless of whether that ancestor was the largest slaveowner or the poorest yeoman farmer.

45 comments… add one
  • Boyd Harris Aug 10, 2015

    I’ve encountered this argument before and it is an attempt to salvage the common soldier while also recognizing slavery as the cause of the war, what a previous post of yours called “threading the needle.” Not owning any slaves somehow gets those “lucky” ancestors off the hook, but as you correctly point out it only serves to strip those same ancestors of their agency. One can adopt this outlook, in some vain attempt to simultaneously honor the ancestor while ignoring the pervasive role of slavery, but one cannot then get angry at me for assuming your ancestor was either a dope or an idiot. Those are the two choices in my opinion: Either assume your ancestor was conscious of his role in preserving a slave society OR he was completely oblivious to the world around him through ineptitude or stupidity.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 10, 2015

      It’s interesting that we tend not to treat the slaves in the same way. We embrace stories of slaves asserting themselves to realize their hopes and dreams even under the most oppressive conditions. We assume an opposing perspective from the framework outlined in this editorial in reference to the common soldier. These men engaged in a wide range of actions that ought to be seen as political and that reflected their beliefs about what was going on around them.

  • Annette Jackson Aug 10, 2015

    Family lore can be a trap. Although I am a political and social liberal, I frequently find that I am the only descendant of slave holders…many, many slave holders…on any given CW Facebook page or other Internet discussion group. My southern families are very well documented, having been here since the 1600s. If they were not monied when they arrived, they soon became wealthy, and part of that wealth came in the form of enslaved peoples. But, for reasons that have not been well-documented, my direct ancestors broke with their birth families, left Virginia, and worked their respective ways to Missouri by the 1830’s. There is an undocumented story that many people in my family accept, which is that my 3rd GGF (who fought at Wilson’s Creek and Pea Ridge for the Union at age 60) freed all the enslaved people he inherited and gave them each a $5 gold piece. Nice story, but I am just not sure about the money or the timing. Another ancestor did manumit his enslaved people in a document. ..he said the experience of the Revolution made him believe all people wanted to be free.

    Without direct evidence motivation can be difficult to prove. I can see in records that said 3rd GGF never owned a slave once he entered Missouri, was a Whig who became a Republican, supported Lincoln, and fought for the Union. What is unfortunately missing is a letter, a diary, an article he wrote for a local newspape where he explained himself. In his case, I guess actions speak louder than words. His experience is duplicated by three of my 2nd GGFs, but I present the facts as I know them and don’t speculate on their views.

    • kacinash Aug 12, 2015

      Thanks for sharing your family’s story. Sounds like a fascinating one! Missouri must have been an interesting place for your 3GGF– such a hotly contested state between Unionists and Confederate sympathizers.

  • John Tucker Aug 10, 2015

    The southern aristocrats also knew that they couldn’t win a war to keep their slaves if only those who owned slaves fought. There simply weren’t enough of them. Their solution to this problem was simple, and effective. They set about convincing their future cannon fodder that the war, when it came, would not be about slavery, but about state patriotism and race.

    Leading you to the Rich mans war poor mans fight under Conscription and Confiscation Confederate Congressional Acts and factors ike exemption if you owned 20 or more slaves

    To push the “patriotism to one’s state” canard, they cooked up “States’ Rights.” “States’ Rights” was a lie at the beginning, and lie neo-Confederates still push today. The next time somebody tells you that the Civil War was about “States’ Rights,” tell them to read the declarations of secession that each Confederate state issued. (They’re available online or I can provide them.) Those declarations make it explicitly clear that slavery was the only issue motivating them.

    Not all southerners went to war to defend slavery and scores of them were too poor to be in possession of, or own slaves. BUT yet fought under a Constitutional form of government both Federal and State, which beleaved in and allowed for slavery and the expansion thereof. Therefore they were the proxies of slavery whether intention on their behalf or not.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 10, 2015

      I think this oversimplifies what we know about why men volunteered in such large numbers at the beginning of the war and why many remained in the army long after the cause was lost. We also need to move away from the tired assumption that this was a Rich Man’s War, Poor Man’s Fight. This has been challenged by a number of historians, including Joseph Glatthaar in his books, General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse and Soldiering int the Army of Northern Virginia.

      • Jon Phillips Aug 10, 2015

        Slavery, and being lease bound, indentured, and subject to debtors’ prison were fairly confused by our society judging from the rhetorical arguments that raged at the time and were memorialized by articles. These arguments would make the point that “at least slaves are cared for by their Southern masters.” The sea change that Harriet Beecher Stowe helped bring about by thrusting a novelistic construct of what ‘negro slavery’ consisted of versus ‘indentured servitude’ when “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” swept America should not be unmentioned. There were many other similar popularly reported experiences and events that helped change the North’s framework of consideration. At the same time, the failure of nullification in the South, and the fact of a generally poor standard of living among its whites being blamed successfully on those policies lend support to the case that it is always easier finding the enemy without than within. That many be a general historical point that has validity, because it is free of the constraints placed upon temporal contextual historic conditions, yet as a pattern of societal behavior it can be seen to hold true in response to various economic crises through the centuries. Civil War history tends to be flawed in most of its focus by concentrating too much on the immediate war itself and too little on the long preamble, as much in the North as in the South.

      • Bill Nelson Aug 20, 2015

        I think it is a given that Evil Wall Sreet Bankers swindled innocent investors and homeowners during the 2008 economic crisis.

    • Jimmy Dick Aug 10, 2015

      State’s rights is a featureless blob. It sits there and sounds convenient, but when analyzed there is no substance to it. I have an open challenge on my blog regarding state’s rights during secession winter and no one has taken me up on it. Where are the primary sources showing those state’s rights during secession winter?

      I agree with Boyd. “Either assume your ancestor was conscious of his role in preserving a slave society OR he was completely oblivious to the world around him through ineptitude or stupidity.”

      I run into far too many people who say their ancestors did not fight for slavery because they didn’t own slaves. I ask for the proof and it is family legend. Some will cite a letter or the family Bible. When questioned as to when that information was written down, the silence becomes deafening. There is a huge gulf between was written down from 1860-62 and 1865-later.

      I point out Glatthaar’s research and McPherson’s research. I find it incredulous how people will dismiss their work because it is not what they want to hear.

    • London John Aug 11, 2015

      You mention the declarations of secession. I believe you could mention even stronger evidence against the SR claim. As I understand it, the Confederate Constitution did not allow any confederate state to abolish slavery even if they had wanted to. If that’s correct, I don’t understand why that alone hasn’t been enough to knock the SR nonsense on the head.

  • cagraham Aug 10, 2015

    Landlessness among poor whites was, indeed, increasing in the 1850s, but that’s beside the point.

    Hyman’s reasoning is one consequence of reducing explanations for Confederate motivation to slavery and hatred pure and simple (and condemning anything else as avoidance.) It allows folks to then equate slaveholding and non-slaveholding with sanction and non-sanction of slavery and the Confederacy, and leads to the contortions that Hyman, and a commenter above, perform—its all a conspiracy theory, they’re all dupes, they couldn’t have been pro slavery if they didn’t own slaves. We who insist that the sole reason for the Confederacy was what Alex Stephens or the Mississippi secession convention said are partially complicit in this reduction. We leave out a larger worldview—one based entirely on slavery to be sure—but one that allowed for elaboration into other parts of life. It is a worldview that can have slavery at its center, but can offer sound, satisfactory, historical reasons for why a variety of people would support the Confederacy…and support slavery. Those people, in Ed Ayers’ words, thought “of themselves as members of a new nation with a destiny all their own,” an aspirational determinism based on defending slavery, but that embraced social, cultural, economic, political and religious visions that didn’t require slaveowning to believe in.

    Here I’ll turn it entirely over to Ed Ayersentirely over to Ed Ayers [.pdf]:

    “What caused the Civil War? If you have to offer a one-word answer, go ahead and just say slavery. But you should know what you mean by that answer. The Civil War did not come from the sheer intolerable existence of slavery in a nation build on the ideals of freedom, or from the past and future caught in a death struggle, or from a familiar sequence of political events that crashed into one another in a chain reaction like so many billiard balls. Rather, you mean slavery as the key catalytic agent in a volatile new mix of democratic politics and accelerated communication, a process chemical in its complexity and subtlety. You mean, in short, history, the living connection among fundamental structures, unfolding processes, and unpredictable events.”

    In this “volatile new mix,” it simply doesn’t matter, and doesn’t offer any meaningful historical explanation, if a man owned a slave or not.

  • Eric A. Jacobson Aug 10, 2015

    Kevin, my cursory research indicates that Glatthaar’s book oversimplifies the Confederate soldier overall. If I recall, the slave owning percentage in Lee’s army was substantially higher than the population percentage as a whole, and that is largely because his troops came from areas (especially VA and SC) that had much higher percentages of slave ownership. I have found the Army of Tennessee to be a different kind of army on a multitude of levels (and their opponents as well).

    Anyway, I have definitely seen the “con job” attitude, or something similar to it, on display in how AoT soldiers viewed the war as it dragged on. They began to question what they were even fighting for, and why they were dying for the aristocracy, i.e. slave and land owners. Many felt they had indeed been sold a bill of bad goods. In fact, some wrote about how they had been sold propaganda – such as black Republicanism, intermarriage, and that Yankees would not or could not fight. Even some who owned a small number of slaves began to see that their struggle was one that was not the same as the super wealthy.

    Don’t get me wrong – for example, 26% of families in TN owned slaves. Most knew full well what they were fighting to defend, if not explicitly fighting for. But a substantial segment did not own slaves, and they were dying in droves. Those men, along with some of those who owned slaves, began to see that, if they had not been conned, they had been terribly misled.

    For full disclosure, I know a lot of conservatives who feel/felt quite misled by George W. Bush. I bring that up not to be snarky, but to show that emotion and “patriotism: can often deeply mask objectivity.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 10, 2015

      Hi Eric,

      Kevin, my cursory research indicates that Glatthaar’s book oversimplifies the Confederate soldier overall.

      Not sure what you mean. The book is not about all Confederate armies, just about the ANV.

      They began to question what they were even fighting for, and why they were dying for the aristocracy, i.e. slave and land owners. Many felt they had indeed been sold a bill of bad goods.

      Don’t we find these viewed expressed by soldiers in every American war? My overall problem with the editorial is the way in which the author approaches history. We have a responsibility to treat historical actors as engaged in their worlds in the same way that we are engaged in our own. Uncertainty clouds everything and we do the best we can making sense of things. I am troubled by an approach that reduces people to pawns in a larger game.

      • Eric A. Jacobson Aug 10, 2015

        “Not sure what you mean. The book is not about all Confederate armies, just about the ANV.”

        What I mean is that the rich man’s war, poor man’s fight is not necessarily a tired assumption because Glatthaar’s book only studies one block of Confederate soldiers, and to be honest, the minority. The men in the AoT and the Trans-Mississippi far outnumbered Lee’s men, and they were simply a different breed altogether. In what was the West, it was far more often than not, the poor who indeed went off to die for the rich.

        • Kevin Levin Aug 10, 2015

          Thanks for the follow up. I defer to you on these matters, Eric. That said, I suspect that you work to understand the broad range of motivating factors that propelled these men into battle and sustained many of them well into the war.

          • Jon Phillips Aug 10, 2015

            Kevin- “I suspect that you work to understand the broad range of motivating factors that propelled these men into battle and sustained many of them well into the war.” . . . not getting shot for desertion. Not getting cited for dereliction of duty by your commander. Not being considered a slacker.

            And I also am sure you’re well aware that during the Revolutionary War – not having men return to the farm to harvest was a tough one for the commanding officers. The Confederacy had at the top of its military as close to a professional class of professional gentleman officers as existed. That was their strong point. Slavery helped make the South a more effective militarized state, and they mythologized it.

      • Rusty Russell Aug 11, 2015

        We are always at an distinct disadvantage when we discuss anything of history that happen over 150 years ago. I liked what you said about “We have a responsibility to treat historical actors as engaged in their worlds in the same way that we are engaged in our own”. It is important that we have knowledge of what took place in our past history. But it is difficult to not place our own value judgments and world views when we are trying to make sense out of events that caused a great deal of pain then and maybe to some extent today. I have a Masters of Divinity from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. When an individual is grappling with scripture some of the same principals apply.

  • Eric A. Jacobson Aug 10, 2015

    “Either assume your ancestor was conscious of his role in preserving a slave society OR he was completely oblivious to the world around him through ineptitude or stupidity.”

    I think it was certainly the former in almost all cases, but let’s not simply assume if it was not then that someone is inept or stupid. Here’s the brass tax: if you lived in some rural area of Mississippi and were born around 1840, whether you owned slaves or not, you likely did not travel more than 30-40 miles from your home. Ever. If you were semi-literate, or largely illiterate, you sphere of influence was your family, your friends, and your church. That was it. So the war came, and you fought because you were pulled into it along with other in your small sphere.

    Listen, a ton of guys who grew up in rural areas served in WW II who had no idea about European policies or practices or anti-Semitism (or Japanese and Chinese brutalities) and ending up fighting a war and we largely consider them heroes. Twenty years later rural guys who did not know the first thing about Communism, Indo-China, or what the hell Ho Chi Minh even really wanted got shipped to a foreign and died fighting, as Springsteen said, “the yellow man.” We spit on many of those men when they came back.

    Young men who become soldiers get placed into positions that most of us keyboard tappers cannot even imagine. I’d prefer not to call them inept or stupid, no matter what war we are talking about, or for that matter, which side we are talking about.

    • Annette Jackson Aug 10, 2015

      The arch of 19th century history was all about slavery, even if it was sometimes hidden in other issues such as westward expansion. I think someone would have to have been pretty isolated not to know what was going on since the drafting of the Constitution and up to the election of Lincoln. Even if someone were unable to read that was not a major handicap in many ways..there were people who ran successful businesses who could read or write, including rural cousins who owned a tavern.

      • Annette Jackson Aug 10, 2015

        Ah! Could not read or write!

    • Pat Young Aug 10, 2015

      I have worked with veterans from many civil wars and the farmers who were incorporated into armies often lacked much understanding of the wars they fought.

      • Annette Jackson Aug 10, 2015

        I think you are underestimating the interest that 19th century people had in what today we would call current events. Out of curiosity I went to a website that chronicles the number of newspapers from 1690 to the present. Even in Greene County Missouri, which was newly settled in the mid 1830s, there were 9 newspapers in the city of Springfield from the early 1840s to about 1860, including a Whig paper that was only published for two years. There were large attendance figures at the Lincoln-Douglas debates, at cultural events, people named their children after historical or literary figures …..granted this was more common in the north than the south…but I would bet that many even in the south were more knowledgeable than many are today.

  • Jon Phillips Aug 10, 2015

    I agree that it’s important to see the conflict AND events that led up to it, within its own context, and NOT impose values in a historically distorting way.

    That false academic piety aside, let’s examine the position of Free Soilers from the North. And, let’s also consider the perspective provided by the Anti-Renters who were rising at the same time as the Workingmans Movement was forming in adjunct to its British forerunner. In this context the feelings hurtling back and forth both in regard to slavery and with respect to the race issue were fairly complex, but not all that sophisticated.

    The continuity provided the Hudson Valley by the Revolutionary recognition of the Patroon land leases in return for their opposition to the British created the tenant farmer land leases that defined the agrarian environment going into the 1830s when Jacksonian Populist politics took hold. The death of Stephen Van Rensselaer in 1839 came on the heels of the Great Fire and Recession of 1835, the abolition of the Federal Bank by Jackson of 1836, the boom, followed by inflation, land speculation and bust of 1837 when a worldwide economic recession ripped into the U.S. And the coincident mini ice age bad winters and disastrous crops of 1836-7, leading up to the Grain Riots of 1837 (which were also exacerbated by a bumper crop in Southern Italy wreaking havoc with the grain merchant margins, which precipitated hording). Van Rensselaer Sr. had forgiven and pushed forward decades of tenant farmer debt. His alienated NY banking offspring held no similar patience or tolerance of agrarian honor, and the rent wars were a partial result of this. The Northern workingman perception and rhetoric held that the Negro and the Slave had free room and board while they had drudgery and debt. The freed slaves upstate had similarly uneasy relations with their neighbors.

    The point of all of the above is that the Genovese revisionist school of post-Marxist Civil War theory has plowed this territory for some decades now without achieving any new clarity. The Abolitionist Movement was fairly unpopular up North and coincident with anti-saloon sentiments that were similarly unpopular with pub culture, Tammany ethos, and workingman’s movements. Sam Patch never dove off a waterfall sober.

    So the great understanding one must come to is that the fever and passion of war, and the passions of rhetoric mixed with canon fire at Sumter, took on a life of their own.

    This should not seem so mysterious. A very similar phenomenon took hold almost overnight with the advent of the Great War, when anti-Kaiser passions seemingly erupted from thin air aided by the rhetoric and advertising flourish of George Creel under the former advocate of neutrality, President Wilson. Lawyers who previously considered themselves good citizens were suddenly being charged with aiding and abetting draft avoiders and even being sent up on Federal charges for representing such clients.

    The fog of war extends to more that being sure who you’re firing at in the heat of battle.

  • Sandi Saunders Aug 10, 2015

    I understand his motivation and it is shared by many, but the facts of the times belies any attempt to call it a “con job”. White supremacy was the way of the world, N-S-E-W and all over the known world. Slavery was centuries old. I, as much as anyone, like to separate the soldiers from the Confederacy which I always say was hot heads writing checks that farm boy soldiers had to cash, but I refuse to absolve them of the times they lived in as you say. They did support the Confederacy and they did fight (well not all of them, but many). They knew they were fighting their own nation and they knew what they were fighting to keep. Too many families had folks on both sides of the war for it to be as cut and dried as some claim, but a “con job”? No. Not at all.

  • Andy Hall Aug 10, 2015

    But the idea that this arrangement was a “con job” dismisses the perspectives of ordinary people. It strips non-slaveholders and poor whites of any agency or ability to assess their world and take appropriate action.

    _

    Hyman’s argument seems too similar to the claim that devious ol’ Abraham Lincoln “tricked” or “forced” the Confederates to fire on Fort Sumter — it ignores the agency of Confederate leaders and presents an idea of them as unwitting, gullible dupes, easily manipulated into doing something against their will. Sorry, no.

    • M.D. Blough Aug 10, 2015

      As I’ve said before, Ira Berlin’s distinction between a society with slaves and a slave society is an important one. The states that joined the rebellion were very much part of a slave society, one in which slavery informed every societal relationship, and a threat to the institution of slavery was seen as also being an attack on other critical social relationships. In the decades immediately before the Civil War, the future rebel states had increasingly become a closed society in which opinions that did anything but praise slavery as the best possible relationship for both races were silenced through social pressure, exile, or even death by vigilance committees. A series of events whose importance I think is frequently overlooked is the schism among major Protestant denominations expressly over the issue of slavery, including the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1844 (http://www.umc.org/who-we-are/the-slavery-question-and-civil-war). Augustus Baldwin Longstreet was a leading defender of the Methodist Bishop whose ownership of slaves precipitated the split.

      Any young man of military age during the Civil War who lived in the rebel states would have heard every single authority figure he’d been raised to respect tell him his entire life that slavery was the best possible system for both races and that opposition to slavery was nothing more than a desire to incite servile insurrection and the death of Southern whites or, in their view, a fate worse than death for white Southern women.

  • Gregg Kimball Aug 10, 2015

    I’m not sure that using the example of Wall Street helps your case. There’s plenty of evidence that banks and the brokerage houses did indeed know how unstable some of the financial instruments they were selling were and really didn’t care. And they never really paid for their excesses. Some of these firms were essentially betting against their own positions in complicated debt swaps that no average person even knew about or would understand. Yes, it was a con. That doesn’t mean that the average mortgage holder was stupid. And how can you have agency over something that you don’t control or even know about? Likewise, I’m not as dismissive as you of Hyman’s argument. White Southerners were fed a steady diet of pro-slavery ideology–in newspapers, in stump speeches, and even in churches. Who was going to tell them different? Do you recall the suppression of Hinton Rowan Helper’s work? The banning of certain literature in the public mails? The lack of educational opportunity? I’m not surprised that poor and middling whites bought the party line. Many of those who didn’t conform to the orthodoxy left the South. They certainly left in large numbers from Virginia.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 11, 2015

      Hi Gregg,

      Nice to hear from you and thanks for the comment.

      White Southerners were fed a steady diet of pro-slavery ideology–in newspapers, in stump speeches, and even in churches. Who was going to tell them different?

      Even given HRH’s story and a more general ban on certain writings in various places I worry about depicting white Southerners as simple pawns. Seems to me we could apply such a narrative to any period in American history, but in doing so I don’t believe we would learn much about how they negotiated their environments in all of its complexity and uncertainty.

      • M.D. Blough Aug 11, 2015

        I don’t think it’s a matter of seeing them as simple pawns to understand the society in which they were born and raised. This was at all levels of white society, not just a matter of indoctrinating the poor. There were certainly dissenters and their reasons for dissenting varied. The poor would have access to fewer sources of information that questioned or rejected the prevailing ideology. I agree that there is much to be learned as to how individuals negotiated that environment, especially when the costs for questioning the prevailing ideology were so high. It’s certainly not the first instance of such an intensely ideological environment in US history. Both Massachusetts Bay in its early years and Plymouth were theologically driven societies with no room for dissent.

        • Kevin Levin Aug 11, 2015

          I don’t think it’s a matter of seeing them as simple pawns to understand the society in which they were born and raised.

          But that certainly seems to me to be what the author of the editorial is suggesting. This may work well for an editorial, but it doesn’t get us very far at all to understanding history.

          • Nora Carrington Aug 12, 2015

            I disagree with your assessment of what the author of the editorial is suggesting and I think the parallel with the Great Recession is on point. Put another way, I don’t think it’s a matter of either/or in this case; I think it’s both/and. In other words, I think it’s true both that (some/many/most?) non-slaveholding white southerners fought for slavery *and* that they were victimized by the economy that slaveholding created, especially when compared with the economic and educational status of similarly situated poor and working class whites living elsewhere. As Gregg Kimball pointed out with respect to the recent unpleasantness, it does appear in hindsight that there was deliberate wrongdoing, and that those with less were targeted specifically because they could be. I’m all about assuming agency (an overworked and ill defined term), but with respect to white southerners, especially poor white southerners, historians seem to be focused on their agency to the exclusion of any attention paid to their very real victimization. Their victimization does not and should not obliterate nor obfuscate their responsibility — their agency if you prefer — for fighting for the Confederacy. But by the same token, their decision to fight for slavery does not obliterate nor should it obfuscate the ways in which the Confederacy and the slaveholding economy that was it’ reason for being made economic and educational paupers of them.

            • Kevin Levin Aug 12, 2015

              I am not denying that poor white southerners and other yeoman farmers occupied a precarious position in the antebellum south. My issue with the editorial is that that author seems to reduce this to what I see as an absurd conclusion.

              Their victimization does not and should not obliterate nor obfuscate their responsibility — their agency if you prefer — for fighting for the Confederacy. But by the same token, their decision to fight for slavery does not obliterate nor should it obfuscate the ways in which the Confederacy and the slaveholding economy that was it’ reason for being made economic and educational paupers of them.

              I would not have had a problem if this is what the author had said.

  • London John Aug 11, 2015

    There must be some relevance to the motivation of white Southerners who fought for the Confederacy in the actions of those who didn’t. Every confederate state except SC contributed regiments of white volunteers to the union army. Draft evasion in the Confederate states and desertion also helped the Union, and I gather a non-negligible part of the South’s available manpower was always deployed against these people.

  • Allen Gathman Aug 11, 2015

    Early in the war DeBow’s review ran a lengthy editorial titled “THE NON-SLAVEHOLDERS OF THE SOUTH:
    THEIR INTEREST IN THE PRESENT SECTIONAL CONTROVERSY IDENTICAL, WITH THAT OF THE SLAVEHOLDERS.” [All-caps DeBow’s]. It sheds some light on this issue, I think; if it was a “con job”, it certainly was being promulgated quite openly. The arguments are made clearly — non-slaveholders can aspire to acquire slaves, their wages are higher because there’s no competition from a paid underclass, and slaves provide an underclass that guarantees that the social status of a poor white is higher than somebody’s.

    http://gathkinsons.net/sesqui/?p=1940

  • Jerry McKenzie Aug 11, 2015

    Let’s not forget that not all Southerners fought for the Confederacy: 250,000 white Southern men as United States soldiers. Then there are those that dodged the draft, openly revolted or moved North, and the mass of Confederate soldiers that deserted never to return.

  • Joe Aug 11, 2015

    When I read the argument about how the confederacy couldn’t be a con job, because by that logic, the economic devastation caused by Wall Street could be considered a con job, I had to wonder if the author really thought this through before publishing. It almost makes Mr. Hyman’s point better than he did.

  • Craig L. Aug 11, 2015

    I haven’t read all of Cold Mountain, but I did see the movie and it made a fairly convincing case to me that for many white southerners the war was in some respects a conflict between the Home Guard of the Confederacy and those whose first and in some cases last choice was to remain neutral.

    One of the points about the South emphasized in one of the three Civil War poems I translated, written in German by the German commander of the regiment in which my Civil War ancestor served and died, was the relative mildness of the climate, the suitability of the soil for subsistence farming, the abundance of huntable wildlife and the delight his men took in escaping from the harsh northern winter. The poem was about the ten days or so in February the unit spent in New Orleans in 1865 while preparing to move out and take Mobile. He and his men thought they’d died and gone to heaven. The place was a temple to the daughter of the sea by the father of waters and they had come to worship at her shrine. Then they got sent to Brazos Santiago in Texas at the mouth of the Rio Grande, and it was hell. Most of their war had been spent in the purgatory of Little Rock.

  • John Browner Aug 12, 2015

    “But the idea that this arrangement was a “con job” dismisses the perspectives of ordinary people. It strips non-slaveholders and poor whites of any agency or ability to assess their world and take appropriate action. They are rendered simply as pawns in a larger game. It smacks too much of evil Wall Street bankers manipulating innocent 401-K investors and homeowners out of their mortgages. We can only imagine what con jobs future generations will claim were at work in 2015.”

    If anything, whites from the lower economic classes in those times had LESS “agency or ability to asses their world and take appropriate action.” than the recent victims of Wall St. depredations. Starting with the foundational belief that slaves were more akin to animals than humans, the list of provably untrue things that, generally, poor southern whites fervently believed is as long, if not longer, than today’s list, which includes birthers, truthers, people who still think WMD’s were found in Iraq, who think that Obama wants to invade Texas, etc., etc., etc. They of course had “agency” in their own spheres, just as the people manipulated into taking out loans they couldn’t afford had “agency.” But in the larger economic sphere, they WERE pawns in a larger game, as Mr. Hyman ably shows. The question for Mr. Levin is, why is it so important to him to believe otherwise?

    • Kevin Levin Aug 12, 2015

      Hi John,

      Thanks for the comment.

      The question for Mr. Levin is, why is it so important to him to believe otherwise?

      I believe I have already answered that question in the post and in response to other comments.

    • M.D. Blough Aug 12, 2015

      They had far fewer sources of information to contradict the prevailing orthodoxy available to them. However, there were pockets of resistance from the beginning. For instance, members of the Anabaptist/Pietists denominations like the Brethren (Dunkers) and Mennonites officially rejected slavery well before the Civil War and determined, based on their theological views, that it was morally wrong to hold another human being in bondage. (http://www.cob-net.org/antietam/dunkers.htm#ankrum : section on slavery). The Anabaptist/Pietists primarily originated in western Pennsylvania and went southward but tended towards the western/northwestern sections of southern states (like the northwestern counties of Virginia which became the state of West Virginia).

  • Charles Dorsett Aug 20, 2015

    The “con job” that is still operational is the one that says “support the establishment and it will go better for you”. That’s Hyman’s point, which you apparently missed.

  • Beverly Meek Sep 20, 2015

    This discussion has a prevailing white male perspective that is appalling. Simply cast yourself, your wife, your husband, your babies, your son, your daughter, as one of these black bodies that had once been free, stolen and shipped a continent away, and respond to what really matters. Close your eyes and see your loved ones murdered, raped, maimed, sold, examined and fondled by fingers in their mouths and their bodies probed to determine its value. Discuss, not just the war, but the daily life of these people…and imagine them your family.

    This “white male high minded” discussion of how conned or un-conned white people were ignores the depravity of them all. Truly evil, vile, cruel, soulless people who fed the very lowest urges a body can hold…and rots it from the inside out.

    Discuss that, the living lie that it was political, or financial and not a desire to feed the very nature of the people themselves. All of them.

  • Eric Feb 3, 2016

    I think this editorial by DeBow adds a bit of context:

    http://www.ucs.louisiana.edu/~ras2777/amgov/debow.htm

  • j Mar 7, 2017

    I stumbled across this thread after ready Hymans gross misunderstanding and arrogant display of opinion. If that great conflict is viewed simplistically and solely about slavery it might be enlightening for those holding such a position that the south is evil and the north is good to please educate themselves on the compelled treatment of forced military service of immigrants by the North. Slavery as an institution or not is a bad thing. Lee proposed and recommended to the South’s president that they beat the North to the punch and announce an end to slavery but Jeff Davis was a puppet president bound to conflict. Additionally he did not have the conniving skills nor the intellectual savvy of Lincoln. Slavery was a pawn in the economic and power struggle of a fledgling country. It was the last straw and defining line but not necessarily the motivation of the individual who would pick up an arm against his brother. Some were manipulated, without a doubt, but not all motivations are equal or compelling. Slavery was a catalyst and a strike at the South by the North. Cut them off at the knees and cripple their economics. Make them yield in subservience. It was a highly deft maneuver for moral high ground successfully grabbed by the North. Such conflicts are highly complex and people are highly ignorant in the simplistic display of cause and effect. It is effectual in the effort of persuasion for the weak minded and thus widely deployed by those with an agenda. There were factions of the civil war that were plainly evil on both sides but to say that the entirety of everyone on the south was evil and that everyone on the side of the north was good is gross intellectual fraud. To lump everyone in a particular group is pretty dangerous as history shows. Anyone that takes pride in a family name who may have been lost in loyalty to their state does not make them a racist. It is a gross generalization no different than racism itself. Many of the posters on here may be academically studied but anyone that wants to condemn someone for flying a flag as a racist is frankly a hypocrite painting with a broad brush. A man becomes judge from within his own heart. You might well say a flag flyer is not a considerate person because of the feelings it may generate in some individuals (not just of color). The fact is also true, to judge without understanding is just the same.Generalizing complex people or situations is pretty simple minded almost without exception. People that troll these boards with great dedication and frequency need to get a life. People should spend more time yearning for understanding of why people need to have pride and be respectful of that fact without being so presumptive and opinionated about what something represents or does not represent. Things represent to you what you have in your heart but may not necessarily mean that in someone else’s heart. Casting your views on someone else isn’t necessarily accurate and saying something is a poke in the eye to blacks is little more than an ignorant generalizations yet AGAIN. Are all blacks the same? What an archaic mental approach however well meaning. Value, respect, appreciate and celebrate individuals and the color of our biological skin becomes of little consequence. In such, the brotherhood of man is a bond of true value.

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