David Williams, Teresa Crisp Williams, David Carlson. Plain Folk in a Rich Man's War: Class and Dissent in Confederate Georgia. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002. xii + 263 pp. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8130-2570-4.
Reviewed by Edward Blum (Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Baylor University)
Published on H-South (June, 2004)
Rich Men and the Plain Folk Who Hate Them
Since the Confederacy collapsed in the spring of 1865, a substantial amount of ink has been spilled to explain why the South lost the Civil War. Priests of the Lost Cause claimed that God wanted to use the South's trials and tribulations to purge its people of evil and sin. Eschewing supernatural explanations, many historians have suggested that the North's overwhelming economic and industrial advantage assured a Yankee victory. Countless other writers have presented a variety of answers, contrasting the leadership styles of Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln or the military savvy of Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant. But recently, several southern historians have offered a new reason for the Confederacy's breakdown. Put quite simply, there never was a South. Southern whites lacked a collective, unified will to persevere throughout the long and gruesome war. In a study of Georgia during the Civil War, David Williams, Teresa Crisp Williams, and David Carlson offer substantial evidence for the claim that southern disunity lay at the heart of Confederate defeat. Although Plain Folk in a Rich Man's War seems far more concerned with rich men than plain folk, it ably shows that economic and material conditions were central to divisions within the Confederacy.
The main argument of Plain Folk in a Rich Man's War is that as the Civil War progressed, Georgia's tenant farmers, sharecroppers, day laborers, and yeomen developed a growing animosity toward slaveholders and planters. This class resentment dampened plain folks' enthusiasm for the war effort and ultimately undermined Confederate independence. The authors demonstrate how the blatant self-interest of elite white southerners engendered deep animosity among the plain folk. Planters refused to cease growing cotton, while speculators drove massive inflation. Military conscription and inequitable tax systems privileged the wealthy, while the courts generally protected planters. With fewer plain folk on the home front to cultivate essential crops, food became scarce. In response, Georgia's plain white folk began distrusting Confederate political leadership. They attacked Confederate symbols and denounced the planters. Plain folk deserted in unprecedented numbers from their regiments, and some even did the unthinkable: they aligned with African-American runaways in order to survive.
In situating southern disunity at the center of the defeat of the Confederacy, Plain Folk in a Rich Man's War fits in nicely with William W. Freehling's The South vs. The South: How Anti-Confederate Southerners Shaped the Course of the Civil War (New York, 2002) and Drew Gilpin Faust's Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War (New York, 1997). Freehling suggests that the opposition of border-state whites and southern blacks to the Confederacy mightily contributed to its crumbling, while Faust demonstrates that the rigors and deprivations of war led elite southern white women to oppose the conflict. Between the armed insurgency of southern blacks and the despondent letters of elite white women to their war-tired men, it is little wonder that Confederate morale plummeted. Williams, Williams, and Carlson differ from Faust and Freehling by focusing primarily on class dissent, but all of these scholars agree that internal divisions made Confederate victory seemingly impossible.
Although the authors maintain that Plain Folk in a Rich Man's War is principally about the rising dissent among Georgia's plain folk, the primary sources illuminate much more about how the planters and their desire to maintain economic power hurt the Confederate cause. The economic and political exploits of rich men constitute the central story of this book, not the attitudes and actions of plain folk. Elites act, plain folk react in this work. But as E. P. Thompson pointed out long ago, classes make themselves as much as they are made. Plain Folk in a Rich Man's War needs a heavy dose of Thompsonian analysis in order to understand why plain folk took the steps that they did. For instance, were the bread riots of starved women mere "rebellions of the belly," in which starving individuals seized whatever food they could, or were they moments when plain folk articulated their symbolic understandings of ethical commodity distribution? Were these women part of an unthinking "mob," or were they members of a coordinated "crowd"? To comprehend why plain folk behaved as they did, a top-down perspective will never work. While source material for a bottom-up analysis is difficult to find, one must nonetheless look beyond the printed images of barbaric, knife-wielding women destroying a market in order to view these women as enacting cultural values that stemmed from class or proto-class identities. Incidentally, more often than not these images were printed in northern periodicals and probably revealed more about northern impressions of the wartime South than actual events within the Confederacy.
The plain folk were not merely reacting to the planters. Cultural traditions permitted certain types of actions and not others. In order to understand the plain folks' forms of dissent, then, one must approach them from the standpoint of the plain folk themselves. This type of analysis would be nowhere more fruitful than in scrutinizing the relationships between plain folk and African Americans. According to Williams, Williams, and Carlson, the growing antagonism between planters and plain folk led some whites to cooperate with African Americans. But why did several align with African Americans while other whites refused? And what happened in the crucible of war and racial interaction? Were genuine friendships forged? Were souls saved? Were souls conceived? Seeking to answer these types of questions may not offer new reasons for why the Confederacy crumbled, but they may clarify why plain folk made certain choices and what mattered most to them.
These issues aside, Plain Folk in a Rich Man's War is an excellent book. With the exception of those who only enjoy works on battlefields and generals, most readers of southern and Civil War history will find this book fruitful and engaging. It is well written, and the quotations from diaries and letters are often pithy and eye opening. Plain Folk in a Rich Man's War is ideally suited for undergraduate courses in Georgia history and the Civil War, while graduate seminars on the South or the Civil War would find it beneficial. But do not be fooled: this text explains much of rich men in Civil War Georgia and less of plain folk.
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Edward Blum. Review of Williams, David; Williams, Teresa Crisp; Carlson, David, Plain Folk in a Rich Man's War: Class and Dissent in Confederate Georgia.
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