Marching Masters: Response to the Illinois State Historical Society Journal

marching masters cover

To the Book Review Editor of the Illinois State Historical Society Journal:

Allow me to respond to Robert T. McKenzie’s review of , published in the Spring 2015 issue of your journal. Dr. McKenzie’s superficial reading of contains distortions and lapses in logic that I feel need addressing as a means of evaluating the merits of his review and my book. I would also like to use his review as an opportunity to address larger issues concerning the war and the methodology of scholars who write about it.

Allow me to respond to Robert T. McKenzie’s review of Marching Masters, published in the Spring 2015 issue of your journal. Dr. McKenzie’s superficial reading of Marching Masters contains distortions and lapses in logic that I feel need addressing as a means of evaluating the merits of his review and my book. I would also like to use his review as an opportunity to address larger issues concerning the war and the methodology of scholars who write about it.

Confederates as “Slaves”

McKenzie’s review is accurate until the last line of the second paragraph. After discussing why Confederate troops joined the military, he states, “Above all, [Confederate soldiers] feared becoming slaves themselves.” The “above all” comment is McKenzie’s, not mine. A portion of the second chapter of my book examines Confederates’ fears of becoming “slaves” to the Yankees were the Union to triumph. But I do not think a widespread fear of whites becoming “slaves” was a reason “above all” for why men fought. It certainly was an important reason. Slavery for southern whites was not an abstraction. Whites knew slavery firsthand, and because of that, they never went into much detail concerning what “slavery for southern whites” might mean in practice. And yet, worries about becoming “slaves” was not as strong as fears of emancipation, which southern whites believed would cause black men to run wild, committing atrocities. And decades after the war, Confederates continued to decry emancipation.

Class Warriors?

More seriously, McKenzie errs when he states, “Woodward absolutely rejects the position held by some historians that poorer Confederates sometimes resented being enlisted in a rich man’s war on behalf of the master class.” I don’t reject (“absolutely” or otherwise) that Confederate troops “sometimes” complained that it was a “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight.” To reject that southerners did so would ignore the documentary record. I do in fact discuss complaints about the “rich man’s war” in my book. What I reject is the notion that class trumped race in the Confederacy, generally, or in the army in particular.

McKenzie apparently believes serious class antagonism existed in the army. Class played a role in the army, to be sure. But was it fatal to the Confederate war effort? I don’t think so. I won’t get into how class issues often blended into racial ones and vice versa (and have continued to do so). But I will say that more Confederates had stronger views on black people than they did Karl Marx. Southern whites lost far more sleep over what slaves might be planning in the cabins than what planters were doing at the State House.


Marx proved too liberal to work as an editorial writer for the New York Tribune. Needless to say, he was not popular among Confederate soldiers.

Besides, “poorer Confederates” is a loaded term. Unless he is Bill Gates, everyone is poorer than someone else. That doesn’t make him poor or a class warrior. Soldiers complain, that’s their right. In the context of the southern army, poverty doesn’t necessarily make him a deserter or anti-Confederate. McKenzie might believe that Confederates “resented being enlisted in a rich man’s war on behalf of the master class,” but I don’t, for several reasons. I don’t see Confederate soldiers as dupes of the master class. Most Rebel soldiers, being the good Jacksonians that they were, enlisted of their own free will. They didn’t always like army policy, but they put up with a lot of hardship and injustice.

The Master Class

It was my intention in Marching Masters to redefine—or at least suggest—what the “master class” truly was. Defined narrowly, it means slaveholders. More broadly, I see it as including slaveholders and non-slaveholders alike who had white skin. Southern wealth was built on slavery, and non-slaveholders knew getting rich in the South meant owning many slaves. Even those who wanted no part of owning humans wanted to make sure that blacks were kept subservient. Whenever a white man called a black man “boy,” he was employing a weapon of the master class.

Another inaccuracy is McKenzie’s statement that “Woodward finds little evidence that the rebels’ commitment to slavery never wavered.” In fact, my book contains many examples of Confederates confronting the reality of blacks running away, rebelling against masters, and joining the ranks of the Union army. Chapter Five opens with a South Carolina (yes, even South Carolina) slaveholder becoming fatalistic about the survival of slavery amid the destruction emancipation wrought on his plantation.

August 2014 324

The “Emancipation” Debate

In early 1865, a significant number of Confederates (no one knows how many) supported the enlistment of slaves so that they might fight in the Rebel army. The debate over black enlistment in the last few weeks of the Confederacy was only significant in Lee’s army. And the final, weak bill that passed in mid-March 1865 would not have happened without Lee’s and Davis’s strong support. The enlistment debate clearly showed that many Confederates’ commitment to slavery had wavered. But the debate issue was an instance of—as Lincoln might have put it—how to “cut off a limb to save the body.” For most Confederates, even if their commitment to slavery as they wanted it wavered, their commitment to slavery writ large did not break. Confederates thought African Americans were best kept enslaved. The war dictated otherwise, but events showed that Confederates viciously resisted moves toward emancipation.

Proslavery Politics

Southern whites were very adaptable in manipulating free and enslaved African Americans to maintain slavery. They had 300 years of practice in doing so. The so-called emancipation debate of early 1865 (it was not a debate about seriously considering freeing most or all the slaves) showed that much had changed in the South. Obviously by then, many Confederates had altered their views on what slavery must mean in practice were the Confederacy to survive. But they their proslavery principles had not wavered.

McKenzie says, “Woodward’s observations about the connection of slavery to the Confederate war effort are well supported but largely commonplace. His assertions about how a commitment to slavery figured in the Confederate mindset will be more controversial.” I may be misreading this passage, but at best, it contains a distinction without a difference. At worst, it contradicts itself. Perhaps McKenzie believes that slaveholding politicians started a war for slavery that had little support among the general populace.

The point of my book, however, is to show the ideological link between the army’s high command, its lower officers, common soldiers, and Confederate civilians. Democratic armies are supported by the general populace. Sherman understood this, as did many others during the Civil War. The Confederacy consisted entirely of slaveholding states, and therefore, I read the Rebel war effort as an attempt to defend the proslavery interests of those states and their democratic population through force of arms.

Despite the obvious proslavery nature of the rebellion, McKenzie stresses the class based elements of the Confederate war effort, noting my “insistence that class-based resentment of slaveholders was almost non-existent and that proslavery ideology never wavered throughout four long years of war.” To say that I believe class resentment was “almost non-existent” during the war’s four years (whether long or short) is again a distortion. I’m not sure what “almost non-existent” means, but if McKenzie wants to push the idea that class divisions were rife in the Confederate ranks then, I must disagree. And the reason why the war lasted four years (long or short) was because of the strong support politicians had for fighting it, inside and outside the army.


How exactly does class factor into a discussion of this image from the early 1970s, courtesy of the late George Wallace?

How to Lie with Statistics

McKenzie’s next issue with my book concerns methodology. He writes, “Rarely does an academic historian writing for a university press reveal so little about his approach to the evidence.” This is an absurd statement. First of all, I am not an academic (no offense meant to academics), but an archivist who works at a university. To say that I “reveal so little” is disingenuous. Marching Masters is copiously footnoted. All sources cited in the text are included in the bibliography and endnotes. I am not hiding anything. The documentation for the book rested on hundreds of primary and secondary, published and unpublished, sources, many of them familiar to military scholars. I would hope that at this point in his career, Dr. McKenzie understands how historians operate: they read books, they go to archives, they write things down, make an argument, and footnote what they found. This practice has changed little in the last hundred years or so.

What I think Dr. McKenzie wanted me to do was discuss a “sample.” The inclusion of a “sample” has been popular among some Civil War scholars for the past twenty years. In 2010, Kenneth Noe published Reluctant Rebels, which contains a sample of 320 soldiers, with accompanying charts and percentages. Dr. McKenzie objects to my anecdotal approach to the sources, much as Dr. Noe criticized me in a review in the Civil War Monitor published in April 2014.

reluctant rebels

The notion of “sampling” has been popular since James McPherson proudly noted in 1997 in For Cause and Comrades that he “sampled” 1,071 Civil War soldiers, 429 of whom were Confederates. Scholars estimate that roughly three million men fought during the war. Assuming McPherson “sampled” 1,071 of three million troops, he sampled .000357% of all the soldiers who fought during the war. This is hardly a sample that would have great merit among a trained statistician. From a scientific standpoint, what Civil War scholars have been doing with their sampling is closer to the “surveys” one finds on The Family Feud.

I do not wish to diminish the achievements of Dr. McPherson or Dr. Noe, whose scholarship I admire. Instead, I want to suggest how Civil War historians are trying to hammer an anecdotal square peg into a scientific round hole. But to say more about my “approach to the evidence”: I did research for years at numerous archives and libraries. I used facts and opinions to construct a narrative and make an argument. What I thought was important and interesting became the subject of chapters. Much was left on the cutting room floor, and much of that for purely editorial reasons. UVA Press was not going to publish a 500 page book. Instead, I had to do the best I could in 206 pages of text. Endnotes, bibliography, and index took up another 90 pages.

Perhaps I tried to do too much. The task of writing about the Confederate army, rather than a single army or a single regiment or single soldier, was a daunting one. Dr. McKenzie clearly wanted me to make more conclusive statements about what all 800,000-1,000,000 Confederates thought at any given time, perhaps using percentages to do so—37% were virulently racist, 81% liked having body servants in camps, 49% disliked Davis’s views on black enlistment, 99% disliked hardtack, 88% sang “Maryland, My Maryland” during the invasion of September 1862, etc. It is one thing to state percentages about something concrete, such as how many men voted for Lincoln or how many Confederate troops were literate. It is much more difficult to make concrete claims about things as subjective as racism, patriotism, and how one generally feels about the war effort. Statistics are antithetical to nuance.

I don’t believe that scholars of the Confederate army should see historical actors as some kind of polling group or feel that they work for Gallup rather than the world of the humane letters. Military historians of the Confederacy are among a long line of scholars going back to Douglas Southall Freeman and Bell Wiley. Freeman’s and Wiley’s works hold up well (and are still in print), despite the absence of “samples.”

I’m willing to bear criticism for not following the lead of recent historians. But I’m not sure why those who examine the Civil War soldier are held to a standard different from other scholars. Should all studies of the past contain “samples” that come from a “representative” cross section of people? When writing about the civil rights movement, for example, must a scholar make sure that the views of people from all the 50 states be included? Should such a history contain appendices that break down all their sources by state and county, age, and property ownership? I would hope not. It is difficult to make precise statements about even a small group of people, let alone a group as varied as the Confederate army. If Marching Masters is to be criticized for saying “some,” “many,” or “most” at times—which McKenzie found “frustratingly imprecise”—a book critic should at least provide examples of when and why such statements were unhelpful. For surely, all historians make such claims.

To again bring up the late Bell Wiley, Dr. McKenzie seems to agree with the scholarship of The Life of Johnny Reb in its exclusion of politics from the Confederate war effort. Wiley, though, was writing in a Jim Crow South that didn’t think race and slavery were an important aspect of Civil War history. Historiography has shifted quite a bit, yet McKenzie finds odd my emphasis on politics. Despite what his review says, however, I don’t write about politics to the exclusion of personal issues for explaining why men fought. Indeed, it would be impossible to write a book about the Confederate army that ignores personal motivations.

Honor Thy Mother and Thy Father

McKenzie apparently reviewed my book based on what he wanted to read rather than what he read. He wanted a book about “the more personal motives for fighting that many historians have found to be influential, such as personal honor, commitment to place, and loyalty to family.” Scholars can read about such important things in other books, but that was not what Marching Masters, with its supposedly “commonplace” assumptions, is about. Personally, I think the whole notion of “honor” driving southern history is nonsense if one ignores its racial foundation. Nor should we divorce proslavery thinking from the desire to defend home and family. Whether he knows it or not, McKenzie is restating what the Lost Cause said for decades: that the war was not about slavery, but about defending homes, firesides, and family. Defending them from what? The tariff? I think not. Confederates were prepared to shed blood and die to avoid the political advances of Lincoln and his “Negro/Negro-loving allies.”

Stranger vs. Stranger

Dr. McKenzie suggests that the Civil War was really just the old “brother versus brother” conflict as advertised on the Time-Life books TV commercials I used to watch as a kid. As Confederate apologists have noted, “How could it have been about slavery, since most southerners didn’t own slaves?” Well, for the same reasons the U.S. fought a war in Afghanistan and Iraq even those most Americans did not lose a loved one in the 9-11 attacks. Politics. Glory helped correct the notion that the Civil War was only a white man’s war. So did Ken Burn’s 1990 documentary. The war was not simply an exercise in defending personal honor or rival families settling old scores. Nor was it all about, as Shelby Foote summarized it, “I’m fightin’, ‘cause you’re down here.”

Modern wars are fought for political, not personal reasons. To stress the class based nature of the Confederate army contradicts Dr. McKenzie’s belief that the war was more personal than political. Some individuals are in a class of their own. But the whole notion of class is political in nature. Regardless, I don’t necessarily see a clear distinction between the personal and the political in much (most? I don’t know, and neither does Dr. McKenzie) of American history, whether those politics be local or national in scope. As any political observer today knows, people get very emotional, indeed can become hysterical, when it comes to politics. Many (sorry, I can’t be more precise than that) have taken politics very personally (“where’s my bailout?”) since the fall of 2008 and the election of our first African American president.

When it came to fighting, many Confederates surely had reasons more personal than political, communal rather than country-wide, for doing so. Yes, they had many, many reasons for fighting and dying and doing whatever they did. But my book is not about every reason they had for joining and staying in the military. In case the title of my book is unclear, I focused on slavery, which I feel important, indeed, necessary, in a discussion of the Civil War soldier. The Hatfields and McCoy’s? The fact that Jeb Stuart’s father-in-law opposed him during the Seven Days campaign? Not so much.

From the 2012 show “Hatfields & McCoys.”

Blood feuds are relatively small affairs, whereas the Civil War was a modern conflict, where men who did not know one another engaged in mass slaughter over political principles. As we all know, war is politics by other means. Men fought for many reasons, but McKenzie wants to take slavery out of the equation, or at the very least, subsume its importance beneath other motivations. In a way, then, he only shows how necessary a book like mine is, for even among historians, there is resistance to the idea that the Confederacy was fighting to preserve slavery.

McKenzie concludes that “careful readers will question whether the author has satisfactorily proven his sweeping counter-argument.” Readers have a right to question what I say, and I hope many do. But such a statement sounds like the complaint of neo-Confederates who claim that Marching Masters is “re-writing” history. There’s no point in writing history that will not at some level rewrite it. “Well-supported or not,” though, mine is not a scientific proof, but a monograph. I used books and papers, not a microscope and charts, to do my work. Better to write a “sweeping counter-argument” than leave dirt on the historical floor.

Despite taking fifteen years to complete, and using considerable documentary evidence, the central argument of Marching Masters did not convince Dr. McKenzie. That is unfortunate. It is one thing to receive a bad review. It is quite another, however, to have such a review misconstrue and distort your arguments. I hope next time. Dr. McKenzie will be more careful.

Colin Woodward is the author of Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War, published by University of Virginia Press in 2014. He is working on a second book on Johnny Cash.

About amerikanrambler

Amerikan Rambler is a Virginia-based blog and podcast hosted by Colin Woodward. Colin is a historian, author, and amateur musician, who works in the archives full-time. Author of Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War, he is now writing a book on the historical, family, and musical roots of Johnny Cash.
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