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Actually Essential Reading About the Confederacy

Understanding the historical context of the massacre in Charleston and the debate about the Confederate battle flag

The massacre at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston and the subsequent debate about the Confederate battle flag have sent Americans scrambling for historical context. The shortlist of introductory readings on the Confederacy recommended by John Williams in the New York Times ArtsBeat, however, is an embarrassing catalog of dated scholarship that emphasizes the experiences and reflections of white elites. Histories of the lives of Confederate generals that date to the 1930s may have their virtues. The impact of the Civil War on the planter class is surely worth knowing. And no one ought to discount smart literary analyses of Harriet Beecher Stowe or Albion Tourgee. But scholarship that predates the Carter Administration and centers on a small segment of the slaveholding class hardly provides a starting point for understanding our current moment.

Any list of this kind of bound to attract criticism and prompt debate, of course. The shorter the list the more likely it will omit selections that some consider indispensible. Still, for those looking for essential readings about the Confederacy that more truly reflect the direction of contemporary scholarship and that pay more attention to the experiences of the wide range of people who actually lived in the Confederacy, try this compilation instead. That four-volume biography of Robert E. Lee from 1935 will still be waiting for you when you’re done.

Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (Basic Books, 2014):

Baptist’s work, which combines an enormous amount of original research with a deep and synthetic understanding of generations of previous scholarship, pinpoints just what white southerners held dear and why they were willing to take up arms to protect it. Tracing the development of the South’s cotton empire from its origins in the late eighteenth century to its expansion across the Mississippi River, Baptist demonstrates how, by the outbreak of the Civil War, white southerners had built a brutally efficient capitalistic regime on the backs of millions of tortured enslaved laborers. Weaving together the economic and political imperatives that propelled white southerners toward secession while illuminating the social and cultural mechanisms that enabled enslaved people to resist and survive unrelenting violence, The Half Has Never Been Told shows how secessionists could mistakenly believe themselves indispensible to the emerging global industrial economy and masters of all they surveyed.

Charles B. Dew, Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War (University Press of Virginia, 2001):

To understand exactly why white southerners left the Union, all you have to do is read their words. In this short book that is part interpretive essay and part compilation of primary source material, historian Charles Dew lets advocates of secession speak for themselves. In the aftermath of the election of Abraham Lincoln, secessionists in the lower South sent commissioners to those slaveholding states that remained uncertain about what course of action to take. The letters and speeches of these ardent secessionists, intended to rally their wavering southern brethren, demonstrate unmistakably that the new southern nation they hoped to create would be grounded solidly on white supremacy and the institution of slavery. Remaining in the Union, they claimed, would amount to submission to so-called Black Republicans, whose alleged plan to liberate African Americans could only end in a bloody race war. Dew’s powerful book leaves no room for any serious questions about the cause of the Confederacy.

W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction in America (Oxford University Press, 2014; originally published 1935):

If you want to read a work of history published before World War II, you may as well make it one that was decades ahead of its time. Black Reconstruction in America is that book. A groundbreaking work by the most accomplished and brilliant black intellectual of the first half of the twentieth century, it utterly rejects as propaganda the accepted scholarly wisdom of its age about the Civil War and Reconstruction. Forcefully refuting both the idea that the Civil War owed itself to anything other than sectional conflicts over slavery and that Reconstruction was a disastrous and corrupt experiment in giving power to ill-equipped freedmen, DuBois situates black people at the center of both the outbreak and the outcome of the Civil War. Black Reconstruction makes the case that during the Civil War, enslaved people effectively engaged in a general strike that helped bring down the Confederacy and that during Reconstruction, southern state governments accomplished a great deal before terrorism and the forces of capital restored white dominance. DuBois’ boldly Marxist reading would be challenged and modified in future generations, but the thrust ofBlack Reconstruction in America anticipated the best modern scholarship on the era, such as Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution.

Stephanie McCurry, Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South (Harvard University Press, 2010):

It is no secret white southerners were sometimes deeply divided about the wisdom of secession and frustrated about the course of the military effort during the Civil War. Stephanie McCurry shows that despite the bluster and assurance displayed by many southern politicians, generals, and soldiers at the outset of the war, the exigencies of actually fighting the war created homefront crises that undermined and ultimately doomed the Confederacy. Attributing many of the Confederacy’s failures to the political activities of women and enslaved people who made up most of the Confederacy’s population, McCurry argues that we must understand the Confederacy’s internal contradictions as much as its battlefield struggles — and indeed, the connections between the two — if we are to understand its demise.

James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford University Press, 1988):

For a one-volume history of the political crises of the late antebellum period, a compelling account of the secession movement, and a riveting telling of the battles of the Civil War, McPherson is the place to start. Widely acclaimed upon publication in 1988, Battle Cry of Freedom won the Pulitzer Prize for History and quickly became the standard in the field. It remains perhaps the most authoritative political and military account of the war.

Extra credit!

Susie King Taylor, Reminiscences of My Life in Camp (University of Georgia Press, 2006; originally published 1902):

Given the importance of primary sources and the voices of historical actors for gaining a feel for the subjective nature of the past, I would be remiss not to include at least one example from the innumerable Civil War diaries and memoirs that provide us with first-hand understandings. Those written by soldiers and plantation women tend to be the places most turn to first, but I would recommend Susie King Taylor’s Reminiscences of My Life in Camp instead. Born enslaved in Georgia, Taylor fled across Union lines during the war and went on to serve as both a teacher and a nurse with the First South Carolina Volunteers of African Descent, which later became the 33rd U.S. Colored Troops. Her memoir, first published in 1902, offers the rare document shedding light on the experience of enslaved people, women, and soldiers all at once.

The essays of Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic:

A great deal of fine historical scholarship can be found on the internet, as anyone who has read even a sampling of the explosion of essays that have appeared online after the events in Charleston can attest. Professional historians have their say here, but much of this work comes from journalists and others who do not necessarily have any postgraduate historical training. No one in that category does a better job than Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose essays online for The Atlantic over the last six or seven years often speak to the history of the Confederacy specifically and the legacy of slavery and the Civil War generally. They are impassioned, steeped in the best scholarship, and almost unfailingly stunning in their power.

Tony Horwitz, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War (Pantheon, 1998):

If we have learned anything in the last week and a half about our understanding of the Confederacy, it is that imagination and memory arguably play as great a role as historical realities. The work of historians such as David Blight, author of Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Belknap/Harvard, 2001), and Caroline Janney, author of Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation (University of North Carolina Press, 2013), is instructive here. But for a lighter and very accessible that is by turns very affecting, weird, and hilarious, Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic remains a marvelous book. It’s the one work on John Williams’ list that I would keep.

Ultimately, even the books and essays listed above ought to serve as only a starting point for acquiring historical understanding of slavery, the Confederacy, the Civil War, and their legacies. Those looking to go deeper still should turn to the extensive list of outstanding suggestions included on the Charleston Syllabus.

Joshua D. Rothman

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