The anatomy of the Confederacy defeat

The Confederate States of America (formed in 1861 when 11 Southern states voted to secede from the United States) fought an uphill battle in waging war against the more industrial and populous North. But they also had to combat a mutiny from within, with enslaved African Americans and white women raging against the Confederacy.

"Confederate Reckoning" book jacket

Stephanie McCurry says the Confederate loss in the Civil War was not just a military defeat; it was also a political failure.

In her book “Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South,” Stephanie McCurry, a professor of history in the School of Arts and Sciences, argues that it wasn’t solely the Union Army that brought about the end of the Confederacy, “but their own people, including the ones they didn’t even think of as human, like the slaves.” She says the Confederate loss was not just a military defeat; it was also a political failure.

A native of Northern Ireland, McCurry says she became captivated by the American Civil War after learning in college that Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and its “all men are created equal” phrase, was a slaveholder. 

“It was a very basic confrontation with the complexities of American history and the tragic drama or contradiction of American history, and I never lost interest in it,” she says. “Confederate Reckoning” was a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in History.

At the dawn of the Civil War, McCurry says the Confederacy set out to build an explicitly pro-slavery “white man’s republic” to extricate itself from the “old quarrels about the nature of the Constitution and Union” and the impermanence of slavery. The Confederates claimed slavery as the basis of their wealth and their Christian society, and were wedded to African enslavement materially, ideologically and politically, McCurry says.

To convince non-slaveholding whites—about two-thirds of the population—to support slavery, she says slaveholders and their supporters used “a very organic Christian defense of conservative society.” They argued that abolitionists wanted to destroy slavery and introduce communism. They also warned that the “free men” of the South were being threated by invasion from “black Republicans”—Northern whites whom they believed were too close to the black cause and black abolitionists.

Pro-slavery forces appealed to white privilege, too, to get non-slaveholders support, cautioning that if slavery ended, poor white men would be equal to poor black men, McCurry says. Under slavery, all white men, rich or poor, were the elite.

“The defense of slavery was largely Biblical and Christian,” says McCurry. “It wasn’t racist and scientific, so it worked for people who didn’t even own slaves.”

Four million slaves were held as property in the Confederacy, and McCurry says their collective plight directly influenced the Civil War struggle. Stories about the 150,000 former slaves who served in the Union Army are well-known. But she says she was interested in focusing her research on enslaved people who never made it to the Union lines, but nonetheless did not stand idly by, waiting for deliverance.

“Slave women didn’t sit on plantations waiting for somebody to solve their problems,” McCurry says, explaining that elderly black women often acted as coordinators, helping others make plans to escape or revolt against slave owners.

I see it as women breaking into the making of history."

White women also revolted against the Confederate government. Enraged that they had no men or slaves to help them tend the land, poor Southern women wrote to Confederate governors demanding that their husbands and sons be released from the army to help them at home. During a starvation crisis during the war, Confederate women participated in food riots, highjacked army convoys and insisted on government policy changes.

“I see it as women breaking into the making of history,” McCurry says. “They take political authority into their own hands. They stop being represented by men. They become a force to be reckoned with in the Confederacy.”

McCurry spent more than a decade researching and writing “Confederate Reckoning” and says the part of her research that stirred her most is the discovery of the sheer chaos that occurred at the end of the war. In May of 1865, former slaves, freed at the war’s end, were still being hunted by Confederate guerillas in the swamps of South Carolina, despite the fact that the war was officially over.

“Wars don’t end like that,” she says. “That’s what really stays with me, is the kind of down-the-rabbit-hole quality of life [that occurs in a] war zone before order is reestablished. I think I’m going to write about that now.”

Originally published on September 15, 2011