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31 • 2 • Planters and Yeomen, Officers and Privates Race, Class, and Confederate Soldiers Proslavery thinking did not always assure harmony among white Southerners . As the Civil War ground on and took increasingly more lives, the struggle to create a white man’s government led many Confederates to question whether protecting slavery was helping or hurting their cause, and whether planters had an unfair advantage in affecting government policy. Confederate troops sometimes complained they felt like “slaves” to the government, and that it was a “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight.” But throughout the war, there remained solidarity between planters and yeomen.1 Confederate soldiers had many reasons for objecting to their politicians ’ conduct of the war effort; and thousands, whether because of class resentment, the need to care for families back home, or a simple belief in the inevitability of defeat, deserted their posts in wartime and never returned. Nevertheless, for most of the war, before defeatism and battlefield losses wrecked the South’s ability to wage war, Confederate troops fought hard against Federal forces. Despite the internal problems that slavery and conscription caused, Rebels believed being subjugated by a “Yankee-Negro” alliance would prove far worse than the injustices and mismanagement within the Confederacy itself. Some troops harbored resentments toward the master class, but they understood the important role planters had in the army and the government. Yeomen and planters worked together in their efforts to maintain slavery and win the war. Eric Foner has written, “The Confederate government molded its policies to protect the interests of the planter class.”2 If he is correct, why would soldiers, most of whom did not own slaves, support a war in which planters had the most to gain? The previous chapter has addressed that question in its analysis of Confederate ideology. The answer also lays in the economic, political, and social nature of the Old South—a paradox- marching masters 32 ical world in which universal manhood suffrage and egalitarian Jacksonian notions existed alongside the horrible, thoroughly undemocratic institution of slavery. Southerners lived in an antebellum world in which planters had a disproportionate share of the wealth, which translated into disproportionately greater political influence. Yet Southern yeomen supported the planters politically because of a shared belief in the need for racial control. The antebellum bonds between yeomen and planters, slaveholders and non-slaveholders, continued during the Confederacy. Privates relied on their officers in the same way that yeomen depended on antebellum planters. As contradictory as it seems for Confederates to have believed in democracy and slaveholding simultaneously, white Southerners did not see the two institutions as incompatible. Most Confederate soldiers had come of age in the wake of the Jacksonian Era, a period in which the South’s political structure became more democratic for adult white males, even as slavery became more entrenched. To a present-day observer, the Old South looks oppressive—suffrage and other rights were based on traditional notions of the “proper” (read, subservient) place of women, blacks, and Native Americans. But to a foreign observer of the mid-nineteenth century, the South could seem a very democratic place. In contrast to England and other European countries, the Southern states had no aristocracy. And unlike England before its Great Reform Act of 1832, the South did not suffer from an unjust, rotten borough system. In the late 1820s, most adult white Southern males could vote, and they helped elect, and then reelect, the leader of the “common man,” Andrew Jackson. Jackson, a planter, general, duelist, and president, was anything but a “common man.” But his presidency and the entire Jacksonian Era—and, more specifically, Indian Removal, the acquisition and settling of western territories, and advances in markets, transportation, and technology—gave white Southerners new opportunities. Along with them came the expansion of slavery, which made white men feel more secure in their economic and political liberties. With the firing on Fort Sumter in 1861, the South was trying to protect the gains it had made in the previous generation. As one historian has said, the Civil War was the playing out of a “Jacksonian drama.”3 The planters, who owned most of the South’s slaves, competed with the far more numerous yeoman farmers, who owned a much smaller proportion of the slave population, for greater wealth and political power. But despite the economic disparities that existed in the South by 1860, planters and yeomen found unity through slavery, which assured, at least in theory, that...


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