Justice Has Something to Do with It: Class Relations and the Confederate Army

By Sheehan-Dean, Aaron | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, October 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

Justice Has Something to Do with It: Class Relations and the Confederate Army


Sheehan-Dean, Aaron, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


Karl Marx covered the American Civil War as a correspondent for the Vew York Daily Tribune and the Presse of Vienna. In his view, the ecession crisis revealed the hidden dynamics of class relations in the antebellum South. Slaveholding "oligarchs" fought to protect slavery in the territories because their social and political dominance of the "poor whites," as Marx referred to other southerners, depended on making land and slave owning available to future generations. If new slave territory could be acquired, the slaveholding elite could "give their [poor whites'] turbulent longings for deeds a harmless direction and . . . tame them with the prospect of one day becoming slaveholders themselves."1

Most current scholars concur in Marx's analysis that slaveholding elites exploited their wealth and social position for advantage during the war, but few adopt his uncharitable assessment of the capacity of southern yeomen for independent thought. Instead, many historians identify middle- and lower-class whites as the central actors in this period and argue that class conflict hindered the Confederate ability to resist the Union in war.2 According to this interpretation, southern yeomen expressed discontent on the battle front and the home front. Confederate soldiers are presented as having aggressively defended their status as independent men-their tempers easily riled by purported slights from aristocratic officers-and they resisted the discipline and hierarchy imposed upon them by the military.3 Desertion is interpreted as soldiers' response to perceived injustice. The civilian equivalent of this behavior ranged from non-payment of taxes to active support of Union troops and southern peace parties to encouraging soldiers to abandon the armies. Scholars who focus on these activities see disaffection and military collapse as a result of non-slaveholders rejecting a war that they felt put an unfair burden on the middle and lower classes.

Proving this proposition requires that the historian ask three related questions. Was the cost of the war borne equally? Did poorer Confederates perceive a class bias on the part of the government? Did they act on this knowledge in ways that undermined the Confederacy? The verifiable or quantifiable presence of inequality does not prove the case alone. Generic suffering or unequal distribution of goods is not sufficient, because the argument about class dissent rests on civilians blaming the Confederacy for dire living conditions. Historians must also produce evidence that shows that Confederate citizens interpreted at least some of the policies of their government as unfair. Nonetheless, once historians can show that people perceived events through the lens of class, the reality of class difference loses its importance. The perception of bias can be a powerful motivator even if that bias is not rooted in fact. In order for the argument to work, one last evidentiary link needs to be made. Historians must also show that poorer Confederates acted on their perceptions of bias to inhibit the Confederate war effort. This last goal remains the most difficult to achieve.

One of the main hurdles to convincing analyses of this topic is the difficulty of defining class identity in a way that would have made sense to the participants in the war. Within the antebellum South, the necessity of racial solidarity muted but did not dissolve class distinctions. The broad population from which most enlisted men were drawn constituted a self-aware community distinct from white elites. Included in this group were small slaveholders, prosperous and self-sufficient non-slaveholding farmers and workers, as well as members of landless families.4 This class possessed economic and social interests sometimes distinct from those pursued by elites, as the vigorous antebellum debates about monetary policy, access to credit, lending terms, taxation, and apportionment in state legislatures revealed.5 Countervailing influences, such as the nearly uniform support for slavery and antipathy toward northern abolitionists, partially offset the antagonism generated by material inequalities.

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