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Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South.

Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South, by Stephanie McCurry. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 2010. 449 pp. $35.00 US (cloth).

The political, economic, social, and military challenges facing the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War have been well documented by generations of historians. However, the intrinsic and pivotal role of unemancipated slaves and women in the day-to-day life of Confederate politics has gone largely unexplored. Confederate Reckoning has clearly and effectively responded to this gap in the literature and provides scholars and those interested in the Civil War with many salient points of discussion and research. The narrative is cleverly crafted, meticulously researched, and well documented which is a credit to Stephanie McCurry's attention to detail and ability to integrate numerous examples into a coherent story.

Essentially, McCurry makes a convincing argument that both women and unemancipated slaves possessed significant power, political agency, and a capacity for promoting unrest, activism, and subterfuge. Both slaves and women were initially viewed as "property" of men in a masculine society and only grudgingly received prominence as war prospects deteriorated. Women effectively converted their status as soldiers' wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters into a juggernaut which forced Confederate leaders to acknowledge their complaints and grievances. Food riots, letter writing, and face-to-face encounters highlighted the injustices of speculation among unscrupulous merchants in the Confederacy, emphasized the paranoia that emerged in those areas of the South where many men were serving in the military, and revealed the absence of purpose and unity in some parts of the Confederacy. These concerns filtered into the ranks of the Confederate army leading to plunging morale, increasing desertion, and mounting frustration. The Confederacy was anchored, in part, by a social contract to protect the virtue of women and children and by the middle of the war they had failed in this objective. The collective and organized efforts of women revealed this fact and McCurry's narrative provides examples of how women's efforts carried this reality into the public sphere.

The idea of slaves exercising power and dominance struck at the heart of the Confederacy and challenged the primary objective of the war. Slaves were "property" and were assumed to be subordinate, passive, powerless, and obedient to the desires of their owners. Many slaves, including a large number of women, established covert networks of communication, assisted the Union Army in conquering Confederate territory, and supported strategic slave uprisings throughout the South. This betrayal forced high ranking officials to reconsider the condition of slaves and in the closing months of the war President Jefferson Davis reluctantly recognized the legal status of slaves and on March 8, 1865, an order was issued allowing slaves to serve in the Confederate army. This dramatic reversal in ideology is coherently analyzed and discussed in the text, and presents a unique perspective on the role of slaves in the Confederacy in the last two years of the Civil War.

Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South reveals the power and agency of women and slaves in the Confederacy in eight nuanced chapters that cover a wide array of ideas and events that have not received significant attention among Civil War historians. McCurry analyzes significant tensions that emerge as Confederate officials grapple with the role of slaves and women in a society facing a total war with a powerful opponent. In addition, she considers how unfolding events among women and slaves affected the military capacity of the army and compromised the integrity of political leaders. The "reckoning" of the Confederacy, according to McCurry, rested in the hands of slaves and women whose traditional lack of power was reversed on the anvil of a horrible civil war.

Stephanie McCurry is to be commended for her important contribution to Civil War literature. This text will be of great interest to feminist historians, Civil War scholars, political devotees, and those committed to reporting history from the "bottom up," in this case through the lens of women and slaves.

James T. Carroll

Iona College, New Rochelle, New York
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Author:Carroll, James T.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2011
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