Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War

By McKenzie, Robert Tracy | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Spring 2015 | Go to article overview

Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War


McKenzie, Robert Tracy, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War. By Colin Edward Woodward. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014. Pp. x, 283, notes, index. Cloth, $35.55.)

A generation after the Civil War, Southern whites began a widespread exercise in historical revisionism, insisting that the determination to preserve slavery had been more or less incidental to the mindset of Confederate soldiers and to the grand strategy of the Confederate government. Marching Masters mounts a fullon assault against this claim. Author Colin Woodward argues instead that proslavery convictions held strong throughout all ranks of Confederate soldiers and that "the Rebel army's reliance upon, and protection of, slavery had a profound effect on military strategy" (p. 2).

Woodward begins with a survey of how the slavery question informed Confederate soldiers' understanding of their cause. He finds that the two were inseparable. Whenever Confederates reflected on what was at stake in the war, their thoughts always came back to slavery. Rebels worried about the loss of economic opportunity if slavery was prohibited from further expansion. They claimed to be anxious for the purity of white womanhood if an inferior black race was set loose by abolitionist fanaticism, and they were troubled more generally by the loss of racial control that emancipation might bring about. Above all, they feared becoming slaves themselves.

As the author points out, slavery was never just an economic arrangement or an institution for racial control, although it was both those things. In the minds of white Southerners, it was also a powerful metaphor for dependence and degradation, and the black slaves who surrounded them became the embodiment of what would happen to whites if the Southern cause did not prevail. Woodward absolutely rejects the position held by some historians that poorer Confederates sometimes resented being enlisted in a rich mans war on behalf of the master class. "The proslavery ideology was entrenched in the minds of Southern whites of all classes," he contends, and expressions of class resentment were rare; "The struggle was about protecting slavery," Woodward sums up matter-of-factly, and all ranks "knew that going in" (p. 52).

Regarding the Confederate war strategy, Woodward surveys the range of ways that both a reliance on slavery and a determination to perpetuate the institution influenced the Confederate military effort. The Confederate government impressed slaves as military laborers by the tens of thousands. Thousands more accompanied their masters when they enlisted in the service, working in the camps as cooks, laundresses, and personal valets. …

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