by Fran Gilmore
January 15, 2022
I never studied the Civil War, except briefly in an eighth grade US History class. Thus my knowledge was confined to the myths in American textbooks and what I imbibed from the culture in general, such as movies and other media. My conception was that southerners before and during the Civil War were solidly united in favor or slavery and the war to preserve it, and were solidly racist. Williams’ book shows that the latter notion was true–even those opposed to slavery were for the most part racist. But there were a few cases of whites opposed to both slavery and the war uniting with slaves to fight the confederacy, examples of the multiracial unity that remains so critical for the success of workers’ struggles today.
Williams explains that class inequalities that had always been present in the South grew enormously in the two decades preceding the Civil War. While the southern economy was dominated by slave production, just over three quarters of white southerners held no slaves, and many owned tiny parcels or no land at all. Virtually all the arable land was in the hands of only 385,000 planters, whose four million slaves–a third of the South’s population–labored to produce wealth for the planters. Until the late 1830s, it had been possible for whites to own some farm land and even a few slaves, but a depression in 1837 followed by some anti-small farmer federal laws ended that opportunity and caused many small farmers to lose everything except their debt and sink into tenancy or sharecropping. In total there were about 5 million poor whites without land and some farmers, known as yeomen farmers, who retained a few acres.
As inequality increased in the decades preceding the Civil War, growing numbers of poor white southerners, Williams shows, were deeply resentful of the wealth and power gap. Williams explains, “That gap continued to widen through the 1850s. Planters bought more and more land, forcing a rise in land prices and making it nearly impossible for smaller farmers to increase their holdings or for tenant farmers to buy any land at all. Wealth in terms of slave holding was also becoming concentrated in fewer hands. By 1860, at least 25 percent of southern farmers were tenants, and more were joining their landless ranks every day.” Many poor farmers were clear that slavery only benefited the rich planters. They understood that slavery drove them down, as they could not compete with unpaid labor.
Some had no loyalty to the South, but rather to the Union, especially those who had grandparents who had fought in the Revolutionary War. They opposed secession, but as slaveholders consolidated not only their wealth, but their political power, the poor were underrepresented in state government. In many cases they could not vote due to property requirements or poll taxes. “Had their voices been fairly represented at the state conventions [on secession],” Williams says, “there would have been no secession and no war.”
When war actually came, angry voices across the South declared the war was a rich man’s war. Even though poor whites resented slavery, they sometimes expressed their attitude in highly racist terms. At a meeting at the Texas state capitol, Williams relates, an angry speaker said “What the hell’s it all about anyway?” An answer came back, “The nigger! I ain’t got no nigger. I ain’t fightin’ for the rich man’s nigger.”
Such deeply imbibed racism was no accident. Williams explains that “colonial elites, fearing rebellion from below, took steps to divide poor whites and blacks both socially and economically.” Following Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676, the planter class became more fearful of rebellion, especially of united blacks and whites and took steps to build racism. Williams quotes historian Edmund Morgan: “Resentment of an alien race might be more powerful than resentment of an upper class.” While there were many rebellions by poor whites and also by slaves in the 18th century, “never again did poor whites unite with blacks against their common oppressor to the extent they had in 1676 in Virginia.”
As the war got underway, poor whites, already opposed to secession and war, were reluctant to leave their families in the winter of 1861-62. Many who did go soon deserted, and the Confederate response was to institute the draft in 1862. The conscription law allowed the wealthy to avoid service by paying a fee or hiring a substitute, and even exempted completely planters who owned 20 or more slaves. In addition, as the war dragged on, the Confederacy instituted a “tax in kind” system that allowed officials to raid people’s homesteads and take whatever they wanted in the name of the war effort. They took crops, horses and farm animals, often leaving the families starving. To make matters worse, the planters failed to fulfill their promise to grow food for the troops and their families. They were making such a fortune off of cotton and tobacco that they continued growing those crops while soldiers and their families went hungry. These events further enraged poor southern soldiers and led to more desertions, as soldiers went home to try to feed their families. In one instance a whole regiment deserted. Another regiment was sent to bring them back, but the second regiment deserted as well. By mid-1864, Jefferson Davis admitted, “two-thirds of Confederate soldiers were absent, most of them absent without leave.”
Anti-confederate sentiment was so strong in many southern states that some counties and regions threatened to secede from their states. Eastern Tennessee nearly left the state, and Winston County, Alabama, talked of breaking away. Williams describes a rowdy meeting in a tavern, where one man, on hearing the secession resolutions read, sarcastically yelled, “Ho! Ho! Winston secedes. The Free State of Winston!” Williams adds, “In fact, the county may as well have seceded from the state. A sizable majority of its people were Unionists, and they sent twice as many of their men to the Union as to the Confederate army. In any case, the phrase stuck, and the county from that time on was popularly called the Free State of Winston.” Similar events occurred in Jones County, Mississippi, recently inspiring a movie, The Free State of Jones.
Meanwhile, desperate families of soldiers engaged in direct action to obtain food and other necessities. In several places, soldiers’ wives marched into towns demanding cotton for clothes, shoes and food. In some cases, they came armed and seized what they wanted from stores and government depots. By the spring of 1863, Williams says, “Women’s riots were breaking out all over the Confederacy.”
As the war dragged on, so did the war within the South . Williams comments that some deserters “joined with draft dodgers and other anti-confederations to form…gangs. They attacked government supply trains, burned bridges, raided local plantations, and harassed impressment agents and conscript officers.” Sometimes escaped slaves and white deserters formed similar bands to raid plantations or otherwise disrupt the Confederacy. Three hundred thousand southern whites joined the Union army, as did tens of thousands of escaped slaves. Together they formed about a quarter of the Union forces.
There were scattered incidents of cooperation between blacks and whites. In Mississippi and Georgia, many slave uprisings occurred, all involving whites. By 1862, deserters and slaves were forming rebellious bands in Florida, Louisiana and North Carolina. In Randolph County, North Carolina, Williams reports, a woman wrote that “our negros are nearly all in league with the deserters.” Slaves often hid deserters and draft evaders and sometimes joined them in their fights against planters and the Confederacy. Some slaves gave information to union army units about confederate movements. “Despite the dangers,” Williams says, “many white southerners continued to help blacks when they could. A few did so for pity’s sake, others for profit, and still others because they would take any chance to undermine planter rule.” Some white farmers sheltered escaped slaves in exchange for farm work. Others paid them for stolen plantation supplies.
But Williams states that “Such cooperation…was by far the exception. Though most whites never wanted secession and eventually turned against the Confederacy, they remained committed to keeping the South a white man’s country and to keeping blacks ‘in their place.’ That some whites were willing to help blacks usually said more about how they felt about slaveholders than slaves.” In subsequent pages, Williams gives numerous examples of blacks aiding white deserters with food and shelter, and anti-Confederate prisoners with food and aid in escaping.
In this well researched book, Williams reveals a society deeply divided along class lines between the very rich and a much larger number of poor whites, many of whose status was only a stripe above that of slaves. The book is a valuable contribution to exploding the myth of the united South during the Civil War and in the decades preceding it, and sits on the shelf of people’s history in the tradition of Howard Zinn. It is a complement to the author that this book whet my appetite to learn more about the intertwined development of racism and class polarization in the South before the antebellum period.
The period is strikingly similar to our present time in its deep inequality and deeply embedded racism keeping people divided. One hopes that in the future, the oppressed of different races will recognize their common oppressor and fight together for a better society, as happened only sporadically in the South during the Civil War.
Fran Gilmore has an MA in Industrial Hygiene. Her goal in that field was to arm workers with health and safety knowledge so they could fight for their own protection. She is currently an activist and organizer focusing on mass incarceration and healthcare.