restricted access Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South (review)
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Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South. Stephanie McCurry. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-6740-4589-7, 360 pp., cloth, $35.00.

The latest academic fashions hold no appeal to Stephanie McCurry, and thankfully so, as her Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South is a brilliant exploration into the bare-knuckled political battles between the disenfranchised and those deemed citizens by the state. Within the first few pages of her book, she scores a knockout blow against the trendy notion that the Confederacy died of an identity crisis. The relentless style of argumentation that follows buries the theory in the dustbin of interpretations about southern defeat. While most scholars have focused on the ironies of a Confederate nation that pursued centralized federal authority and debated limited emancipation, McCurry gets us into the pit of political contestation where politicians, generals, slaves, poor women, yeomen, Confederate soldiers, and Union armies repeatedly slammed into each other over the control of both natural and human resources. She does not frame these life-and-death political battles around questions of Confederate nationalism or why the South lost. Both issues, as McCurry correctly argues, were not connected to the ways that poor people and slaves perceived their daily struggles. Their points of orientation drew from their political exclusion by a nation that had insatiable wartime demands. Such needs pushed the state to violate the integrity of the household, undermining slaveholder power, upsetting gender and racial relations, and giving women and African Americans unparalleled authority that no Confederate could ignore.

Richmond's inability to provide and protect white women has long been identified as a source of civilian malaise and dissatisfaction. McCurry recognizes this, but she wisely breaks with her scholarly predecessors by subordinating issues of morale to pursue a different line of inquiry: How did poor women use their self-understanding as "soldiers' wives" to barge onto the political stage? The jarring gap between what the Confederate nation purported as the ideal of the loyal soldier wife and how poor women perceived reality from the ground exposed an incongruity that they quickly exploited. Shortly after their husbands left for the army, women inundated Confederate officials with petitions and pleas for relief, an act that took them out of the confines of the household and into the public sphere, where they demanded to be treated as a distinct and legitimate political constituency. This development baffled Confederate officials, who could not imagine or want women [End Page 274] as part of the body politic before 1861. As the hardships intensified into the winter of 1863, a series of explosive riots detonated across the South, first in Atlanta, then spreading to Virginia and North Carolina. All of the protests were initiated by women, and all were over bread-and-butter issues. The cry for social justice in Richmond has been studied the most, but almost always in isolation, preventing historians from fully accessing the political impact of these street battles until now. McCurry shows how each riot was not a spontaneous eruption of raw emotions but a well-orchestrated uprising that sufficiently frightened Confederate officials into reforming welfare policy to benefit the poor. She also insists that the protests in Georgia, Virginia, and North Carolina were related—since they all occurred within a two-month period—and that a degree of collaboration must have occurred among the self-identified soldier wives.

Whether a grapevine of communication spurred this class of women to collective action is difficult to say, but McCurry's bold assertion goes off like a stick of dynamite, blasting a passageway through an old historiographical mountain that has long stood on the bedrock of Confederate morale and nationalism. If scholars follow McCurry through the tunnel, they find a labyrinth of unchartered networks that facilitated a range of political action among poor whites and slaves. The author's claim, however, that historians have not fully assessed the political ramifications of lower-class protest is a curious one, as William Blair, Paul Escott, and Victoria Bynum, among others, have shown how ruling classes repeatedly revamped welfare and military policies to ease lower-class...