Bitter Fruits of Bondage: The Demise of Slavery and the Collapse of the Confederacy, 1861-1865.
Toward the end of November 1863, four months after the twin disasters of Vicks-burg and Gettysburg, Confederate forces led by General Braxton Bragg followed up a bloody victory at Chickamauga by laying siege to William Rosecran's Army of the Cumberland in Chattanooga. Ulysses S. Grant rode to the rescue. He removed Rosecrans and rallied troops for an offensive to uncork the bottle. The Chattanooga campaign turned in the center of Bragg's stretched lines with a daring thrust that surpassed in effectiveness even Grant's own sizeable expectations. Missionary Ridge extends for several miles south of the Tennessee River, overlooking Chattanooga at more than 500 feet. Union soldiers seized the Confederate rifle pits at the base of the ridge with relative ease and to the amazement of Grant and his staff, the bluecoats scrambled up the rugged escarpment in a mad dash to the summit. The entrenched defenders at various levels, instead of mowing down the opposition like ducks in a barrel, broke rank and fled, leaving weapons and comrades behind. Bragg suffered an ignominious defeat, and with it, the gateway to Atlanta swung wide open for William Tecumseh Sherman.
Bragg reported on the debacle by labeling the Confederate performance at Missionary Ridge a disgrace, "a panic which I had never before witnessed seemed to have seized upon officers and men, and each seemed to be struggling for his personal safety, regardless of his duty or his character" (p. 268). When subsequently told that Confederate officers had thought their position on Missionary Ridge was impregnable, Grant himself retorted, "Well, it was impregnable." (1) To the mystery of Confederate incapacity at Missionary Ridge, Armstead Robinson offers a compelling explanation, which, in effect, forms the denouement to his engrossing analysis of why the Confederacy lost the War between the States. Robinson identified many of the soldiers who occupied fortified positions up and down the ridge as disgruntled yeomen and parolees from the Vicksburg campaign, pressed into service before an official exchange had occurred. Thus, if captured again by Billy Yank, they faced the death penalty. Indeed, General Patton Anderson, commander of the division that collapsed under pressure, bitterly acknowledged in retrospect the existence of serious discord within his ranks. For Robinson, the long festering problems that surfaced in this emblematic battle necessitate a rewriting of the Confederacy's epitaph. In the final analysis, instead of" 'Died of States Rights,' or 'Died of a Theory,' or 'Died of Democracy,' or 'Died of an Imbalance of Resources,'" the Confederacy "'Died of Class Conflict'" (p. 283).
Robinson began this study as a dissertation under the auspices of Eugene Genovese more than a quarter century ago. Hired by the University of Virginia, Robinson founded the Carter G. Woodson Institute for Afro-American and African Studies and directed it until 1995, when a fatal brain aneurysm cut short a promising career. His widely-read dissertation, extended by essays and lectures, had whetted the appetite of more than a professional audience for the book, and speculation about its appearance became something of a phenomenon at gatherings of American historians. Robinson's widow turned over her husband's archive, which included a 1200-page manuscript, to the University of Virginia Press. With the help of Robinson's friends in the academy, Jeannette Hopkins, an editorial wizard and former director of Wesleyan University Press, transformed Robinson's unfinished product into a polished monograph of ten chapters that stands as a most significant and original contribution to the voluminous literature about the seminal event in the making of this nation.
Bitter Fruits of Bondage focuses attention westward, away from Robert E. Lee and the Virginia theater, to the conduct of the war during its first three years in the Confederate states connected by the Mississippi River Valley. For Robinson, the master-slave relation served as the linchpin of antebellum southern society, the decisive force behind secessionism, and the conservative dynamic that powered an evolving southern nationalism. But the Confederacy's independence struggle--not a civil war, Robinson firmly maintained--unleashed class and racial tensions that decisively undermined the Confederacy's capacity to attain victory in a war of attrition over a more richly endowed adversary. The slaveholders' revolutionary impulse, as Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens had foreseen, set in motion a titanic death struggle between distinctive peoples. The military exigencies of modernizing warfare led a centralizing state to persistent violations of the antebellum canons on which rested an uneasy consensus among southern whites, the overwhelming majority of whom were non-slaveholders. By the end of the war, desperate Confederate officials began preparing slave soldiers to earn their freedom in battle. As they drilled, Georgia's Howell Cobb, among other slaveholding officers, recognized that the slaveholder's revolution had already been lost.
Robinson, a prodigious researcher, marshaled impressive evidence from field reports on how as the war dragged on, desertion, disaffection, and defeatism plagued southern ranks. From the start, slaveholders' visions of a Union invasion of southern black belts excited insurrectionary anxieties that affected deployment of scarce resources in a way that confirmed for many yeomen the truthfulness of the adage, "Rich man's war; poor man's fight." At the time of his death, Robinson probably knew more about slave resistance during the war than any other historian. Although neither the war generally nor Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation specifically sparked a massive servile uprising, as a wide variety of observers had predicted, slave resistance short of open collective violence intensified with every Yankee success on Confederate soil. Plantation mistresses wrote frantic letters to their loved ones on the front about impudent Sukie, recalcitrant Big Sam, and missing Gabriel. The specter of hordes of masterless black men roving around free in the countryside and endangering white farmsteads inhabited only by women and children challenged the commitment of yeomen sons and fathers to serve out their terms in uniform. In response to feats about slave revolt, planters held back weapons from the Confederate government as did state governors, who, in part, were acting less than generously upon the anxieties of their elite brethren. At urgent points in the early stages of the war, unarmed enlistees who were being prepared for strategic deployment remained naked in gray.
The Confederacy's initial enlistment policy privileged those who could afford their own weapons with terms of service shorter than those who enlisted empty-handed. Wealthy slaveholders also proved unenthusiastic in volunteering their human property to relieve the common soldier from the fatiguing duty of digging trenches and building fortifications. Accusations of elite profiteering mounted. Hunger pangs prompted the yeoman soldier to question why wealthy planters were not sacrificing cash crops for food crops or whether they were holding back foodstuffs to attain a better price. The Confederate government paid for the disproportionate sacrifices of hungry common soldiers in inflated paper currency without the status of legal tender. The Confederacy preceded the Union by passing a conscription act in April 1862. The provisions for substitution and exemption fueled class antagonisms to the breaking point. Since those ineligible for the draft under the terms of the act commanded more than a thousand dollars in the marketplace to substitute for those who were eligible, only wealthy Southerners could buy their way out of soldiering. Furthermore, the infamous "Twenty-Nigger Law" exempted one white overseer on every plantation with twenty or more slaves. In total, these and other sources of class conflict sapped the will of many Johnny Rebs, especially those from upcountry and mountain regions, to endure for a cause that increasingly looked like a greater threat to their independent way of life than Old Abe Lincoln. One of Robinson's major achievements is to put Confederate armies under the microscope at telling moments and to show how class disaffection took its toll on troop strength before and during such specific battles as Fort Donelson, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga.
Robinson's disparagement of the wartime performance of elite slaveholders may go too far. After all, they disproportionately filled the Confederate officer corps, which suffered a higher casualty rate than its northern counterpart. A majority of Confederate generals died or were wounded in battle. Robinson admitted that patriotic, if not nationalistic, motives, the protection of hearth and home from Yankee invaders, explained many desertions. Gary Gallagher, one of the most gifted Civil War historians of his generation, differs from Robinson in his assessment of Confederate nationalism after assessing the performance of Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia well into 1864. Gallagher arrived at the University of Virginia shortly after Robinson's death. Had Robinson lived, I would have paid to witness the debate.
Robert L. Paquette
1. As quoted in James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York, 1988), p. 680.
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|Author:||Paquette, Robert L.|
|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2006|
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