- Routes of War: The World of Movement in the Confederate South by Yael A. Sternhell
"The two constitutive elements of war-making remain the systematic employment of violence and the mass movement of people across space," Yael Sternhell tells readers in the first paragraph of Routes of War, and for the rest of the book, she makes an original and persuasive case for the centrality of the second element (1). More than anything else, according to Sternhell, mobility—the actual movement of human bodies from place to place—defined the Civil War South, because it was that movement that brought the Confederacy into being in the beginning, undid the Confederacy at the end, and determined almost everything that happened in between, including emancipation. To be more precise, the book is about bodies in motion over land in Virginia, not mobility throughout the Confederate South, which would have to include the dizzying movement of peoples up and down waterways like the Carolina coasts and especially the western rivers. Nonetheless, this creative look at four years of Confederate existence through the swirling prism of people walking to and through Virginia enters into important historiographical conversations about violence and suffering; state-building; race, class, and gender; and the relative importance of change and continuity in understanding the Civil War. Bypassing "who" and "why" questions, it focuses on "how" questions, which is to say, it does not try to explain why the war started, why the Confederacy [End Page 139] lost, or who freed slaves, but rather argues that the key to understanding how all of those things happened rests in tracking Confederates on the move, because that motion made and unmade both the Confederate States of America and the institution of slavery on which it was founded.
Many kinds of overland movement occurred throughout the war, and the book proceeds by detailing the various kinds. The first chapter focuses on the movement to Virginia of both the Confederate capital and the men who would make up the Confederate army, arguing that such motion reversed decades of migration out of Virginia and brought the Confederate state into being. A second chapter tracks the Army of Northern Virginia on the march. The third chapter charts the flight of white refugees away from the Union army and black refugees toward the occupying force. Finally, a fourth chapter describes the Confederacy falling apart as soldiers and eventually even the Confederate president took to the roads, before a final epilogue considers questions of memory.
Uniting all of these groups, individuals, and experiences was the physical suffering involved in wartime movement, and in that shared suffering resides one important theme: suffering as a leveling force. In Sternhell's telling, the motion of war overpowered distinctions of race, class, and gender. Rich and poor, white and black, men and women, powerful and powerless, all suffered as they ran to or from upheaval. Sternhell tries to stop short of claiming that mobility erased distinctions by calling black and white mobility "parallel yet inverted processes," but the book culminates with the image of a frightened Jefferson Davis, stripped of his slaves, stripped of his power, running through the woods until hunted down by dogs who might once have chased runaway slaves, which makes the point that however mightily white southerners strove to maintain the categories of race, class, and gender that ordered their world, startlingly similar experiences drew southerners together, like it or not (201). While in some ways the book calls to mind the emphasis Stephanie McCurry places on suffering in Confederate Reckoning (2010), the difference is that for McCurry, suffering itself made and unmade the Confederate state, while for Sternhell suffering was an important side effect of motion, but it was the motion that did the making and unmaking.
Sternhell enters the historiographical conversation about whether the Civil War resulted in more continuity or change with a strong vote for "enormous, breathtaking change," but highly contested change carefully posited rather than triumphal change boldly asserted (168). The biggest change...