The Journal of the Unitarian Universalist Association

Rich Man's War:
Class, Caste, and Confederate Defeat in the Lower Chattahoochee Valley
By David Williams
Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1998. $34.95

Reviewed by Thandeka

Book Review November/December 1999

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The importance of David Williams’s new book, Rich Man’s War: Class, Caste, and Confederate Defeat in the Lower Chattahoochee Valley, cannot be overestimated.  Without setting out to do so, it gives us the historical background we need to understand why white hate groups in America today are filled with people who see themselves as race victims of their government’s social policies.

Williams accomplishes this stunning feat by studying the socioeconomic factors in the South that led first to the Civil War and then to the defeat of the Confederacy, focusing primarily on the thriving industrial center of Columbus, Georgia, and its surrounding area, which by 1860 was producing almost a quarter million cotton bales annually.  During the war, this area became a center for war-related industries because it was deep in the southern heartland, far from major theaters of combat; had rail connections to every major city in the South; and was at the head of navigation on the Chattahoochee River.  Williams, who grew up in the area, uses photographs and family history in the book, as well as archival material.  The result is a vivid depiction of the life and times of a people who called the Civil War “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.”

Williams begins by retelling how the southern planter class created the white race for purposes of class exploitation.  Until then in Colonial America, people’s race was defined by their class, and there was no distinction in law or custom between European and African servants, all of whom were known as “slaves.”  Not surprisingly, these bondservants lived, loved, worked, and rebelled against their upper-class oppressors together.

But under the planters’ new race laws, race was defined by genealogy.  Masters and servants who could claim that all their ancestors came from Europe became members of the white race.  In truth, of course, the “poor whites” continued to be viewed as an alien race by the elite.  As one Georgia planter wrote a friend, “Not one in ten [poor whites] is. . . . a whit superior to a negro.”  Privately called “white trash” by the elite, the poor whites were publicly embraced as racial kin by the planters, 3.7 percent of the population who owned 58 percent of the region’s slaves and were dead set on keeping their exploited workers divided by racial contempt.  Because the antebellum South’s pervasive class exploitation depended on fabricated white racial pride, any challenge to racial solidarity among whites threatened to reveal the hidden class system.  Here lay the path to revolution.

Thus it’s not surprising that writer Hinton Rowan Helper’s 1857 book The Impending Crisis of the South, which exposed the race-class link, was publicly burned; a Methodist minister spent a year in jail for simply owning it; and three Southerners were hanged for reading it.  Here is some of what Helper said: “The lords of the lash are not only absolute masters of the blacks. . . . but they are also the oracles and arbiters of all nonslaveholding whites, whose freedom is merely nominal, and whose unparalleled illiteracy and degradation is purposely and fiendishly perpetuated.”  According to Williams, this work sold more copies than any other nonfiction book of the era and was called by one historian “the most important single book, in terms of its political impact, that has ever been published in the United States.”

Having set the scene, Williams gives his account of how most poorer southern whites dealt with the “rich man’s war.”  He begins this section of the book by reminding us that Georgia’s very decision to secede from the Union was never put to a popular vote.  Rather, it was made by secession delegates, 87 percent of them slaveholders in a state where only 37 percent of the electorate owned slaves.  These delegates knew better than to heed antisecessionist delegates’ plea to submit the decision to the electorate for final determination.  After all, more than half the South’s white population, three-quarters of whom owned no slaves, opposed secession.

Next Williams details the Confed-eracy’s corrupt impressment system.  Georgia was one of the first Confederate states to legislate the right to confiscate, or impress, private property for the war.  Not surprisingly, corruption ran rampant among impressment officers, of whom one Georgian said, “They devastate the country as much as the enemy.”  Another Georgian predicted that the widespread corruption would “ultimately alienate the affections of the people from the government.”  It did.

To add insult to injury, planters continued growing cotton (rather than food) and traded with the North as poorer whites and the army faced starvation.  Williams also tells us that all too often, funds that should have been distributed to indigent families wound up in the pockets of corrupt officials.  Not surprisingly, by 1863, food riots were breaking out all over the South, led by the starving wives left behind as their starving husbands, sons, and fathers died for the rich men and their slaves.

And always, the racial degradation of the poor white continued. As Williams reminds us, most of the South’s higher-ranking officers came from the slaveholding class and treated those under their command like slaves.  One soldier thus complained in a letter home, “A soldier is worse than any negro on [the] Chattahoochee river.  He has no privileges whatever.  He is under worse task-masters than any negro.”  Soldiers were also punished like slaves, says Williams: “whipped, tied up by the thumbs, bucked and gagged, branded, or even shot.”

Thus did the desertions begin.  By September 1864, two thirds of Confederate soldiers were absent without leave.  One hundred thousand went over to serve in the Union armies.  Thousands more formed anti-Confederate guerrilla bands, of which one historian wrote that they were “no longer committed to the Confederacy, not quite committed to the Union that supplied them arms and supplies, but fully committed to survival.”  These bands, Williams tells us, “raided plantations, attacked army supply depots, and drove off impressment and conscription officers. . . . One Confederate loyalist, a veteran of the Virginia campaigns, said he felt more uneasy at home than he ever did when he followed Stonewall Jackson against the Yankees.”

Meanwhile, Williams writes, “One prominent antiwar resident of Barbour County held a dinner honoring fifty-seven local deserters.  Though a subpoena was issued against the host, the sheriff refused to deliver it.”  The draft was by now difficult to enforce, nor did disgrace attach to either desertion or evasion.  Indeed, Williams concludes that the Confederacy would have collapsed from within if there hadn’t been a Union victory.

Today’s militarized, white hate groups, with their pervasive sense of being threatened, are spiritual descendants of the bands of poorer Southern whites who organized against the Confederacy and who indeed were abused and exploited by their overlords, first as wage-slaves and then as canon fodder.  Sadly, these Confederate deserters never understood that not even the one thing they held onto as their own—their self-image as whites—actually belonged to them.  Rather it was one among many means used by rich men to exploit them.

Today’s white supremacists find themselves in a similar predicament.  They sense that something is radically wrong with a governance system that allows almost half the nation’s financial wealth to be owned by one percent of the people.  Given the alternatives, as they understand them, they act in self-defense as best they can.  Thus can we better understand the proclamation by Benjamin Smith, the white supremacist who gunned down Asian, Jewish, and African Americans over the Fourth of July holiday in Illinois and Indiana.  “We see all white people as being raped,” he declared before his shooting spree, adding that the government was turning on white people.  Little did he know that his race pride was part of a legacy of legally sanctioned, racial abuse of so-called whites for purposes of economic exploitation—that his white pride was actually his shame.

The Rev. Thandeka is associate professor of theology and culture at Meadville/Lombard Theological School. Her new book, Learning to Be White (Continuum, 1999), is available from the UUA Bookstore at (800) 215-9076.

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