- Rethinking the Confederate Home Front
This essay began with a conceptual problem I encountered while writing a book about the escape of several thousand Union prisoners of war from the Carolinas during the fall of 1864 and the new insights those escapes revealed about the collapse of the Confederacy. Fleeing prisoners navigated a landscape that historians have traditionally described as "the home front," yet as I followed their journeys, I realized that the conditions they encountered did not fit very well with my understanding of the concept, which assumes a separation between civilian populations and the military conflict. For example, according to the conventional home front / battlefront dichotomy, Spartanburg County was ensconced in the home front throughout the war. It was not in the path of Sherman's march through South Carolina, and it was not consumed with guerrilla violence. Its white population overwhelmingly supported the Confederacy, and it housed refugees seeking safety from the Union siege of Charleston. Yet Spartanburg was immersed in the military conflict. Slave resistance created an epidemic of theft that contemporaries described as the complete breakdown of law and order. Armed bands of deserters from the Confederate army, sustained and provisioned by a network of households, attacked conscript officers and a company of Confederate troops sent from Charleston. The county was thus a site of rebellion and insurrection. Households that supported the Confederacy had direct links to Confederate military forces during the siege of Charleston. Impressment agents from the army regularly stopped at farms to collect the agricultural and human resources needed for the city's defense. Because hundreds of families refused to turn over their slaves, the Confederate military in 1863 received only 750 of the 3,000 slaves needed in Charleston and was unable to complete the city's fortification. During active military operations, Confederate soldiers moved back and forth from Spartanburg to Charleston and to sites in North Carolina in order to get horses, clothing and provisions and to discipline slaves, temporarily contribute labor to the farm, and resolve household problems.1 [End Page 446]
Conditions in Spartanburg raised the question of whether there was in fact a "home front" in the American South during the Civil War. Answering that question may help us grasp what kind of war Americans fought and how households and communities experienced it. Combining insights from the subfields of military history, occupation studies, guerrilla studies, slavery, gender, and southern community studies, this essay calls on historians to abandon the binary division of the home front and battlefront and to consider instead how connections among households, communities, and military forces within the Confederacy produced varying dynamics of war across different locations. Recent literature suggests that historians need to view the relationships between armies and societies more as contemporary Americans themselves did, which would mean thinking outside the categories of "home front" and "civilian" and the artificial assumptions those terms have imposed. To describe the conjunction between the southern population and Confederate and Union military forces, historians must place the Civil War more accurately in time. The war occurred at a moment of convergence between four distinct trends in the history of warfare, two that erected barriers between populations and battlefields and two that tore such barriers down; understanding that moment will help us better understand the relationship between conventional military forces and the southern population and reveal patterns that do not fit neatly into a home front / battlefront dichotomy.
The concept of a "home front" emerged during the Great War of the early twentieth century. Historians who studied the American Civil War in the ensuing decades built a body of literature that presumed its existence in the American South, without always asking whether the term was appropriate for a conflict fought fifty years prior to World War I. Because they assumed that the meaning of "home front" was self-explanatory and widely understood, there is no clear definition in the literature. Instead, inconsistent usage indicates that scholars do not mean quite the same thing when they employ the term. To evaluate the literature that challenges the application of "home front" to the Civil War South, this essay will use the Oxford English Dictionary's definition...