Governor Phil Bryant caused something of a stir in February when he signed a proclamation declaring April to be “Confederate Heritage Month” in Mississippi.
Georgia’s Governor Nathan Deal made no such proclamation, but he didn’t need to. The Georgia General Assembly already took care of this back in 2009, when it legislated that “the month of April of each year is hereby designated as Confederate History and Heritage Month and shall be set aside to honor, observe, and celebrate the Confederate States of America, its history, those who served in its armed forces and government, and all those millions of its citizens of various races and ethnic groups and religions who contributed in sundry and myriad ways to the cause which they held so dear.”
“The cause which they held so dear” had as its cornerstone the institution of slavery. This is according to Alexander Stephens, a Georgian and vice-president of the Confederate States of America, who said exactly that in a speech in Savannah in March 1861.
But forget for a while that the resolution calls on Georgians to honor and celebrate a nation built on slavery. As a historian, I have another problem with it: “All those millions of its citizens of various races and ethnic groups and religions who contributed in sundry and myriad ways to the cause which they held so dear.”
Georgia’s resolution assumes a unity of support for the Confederacy and the war effort that simply did not exist. African slaves had little enthusiasm for the Confederate cause, of course, but here’s something we seem to have forgotten, or perhaps never knew: A lot of white Georgians did not support the war.
On January 2, 1860, when Georgia’s (white male) voters went to the polls to elect delegates for a statewide convention to decide on the secession question, the secessionists won—by a vote of 42,744 to 41,717. Hardly overwhelming support! Once the convention voted for secession, and especially after the shooting started, white support shifted a bit, but there was always a tremendous amount of white disaffection.
We have forgotten that a lot of white folks thought of the war as “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” White disaffection was not confined to the lower class, but it was strong there.
Sometimes it seemed that the Confederacy’s one percent went out of its way to estrange common folk. Robert Toombs, one of Georgia’s leading secessionists, continued to plant hundreds of acres of cotton during the war, even after Governor Joe Brown urged planters to grow more food for hungry Georgians and less cotton for their own profit. (Cotton prices tripled and more in the New York markets by 1862.) Toombs labeled those who criticized his actions “cowardly miscreants.” (Where was Bernie Sanders when we needed him?)
Disaffection was perhaps especially strong among lower-class white women who, with their husbands gone to war and their children hungry, decided to take matters into their own hands. Students in my Georgia history class read “‘The Women Rising’: Cotton, Class, and Confederate Georgia’s Rioting Women,” a wonderful article by Teresa Crisp Williams and David Williams that describes dozens of examples of Georgia women going into stores brandishing knives and pistols and stealing food.
These women opposed the Confederacy, the war effort, and what it all meant for their families’ chance for survival. Students are surprised to hear this—white folks who opposed the war and didn’t love the Confederacy?—even though a lot of those students come from counties and towns mentioned in the article.
Another historian wrote about the memory of antebellum and Civil War-era Georgia:
“It is unfortunate that that period has been so overcast with sentimentality. We are apt to look back upon it with that exaggerated romanticism which has so distorted the viewpoints of many writers who have told of times before the war. It has all become a somewhat confused medley of enormous white columned houses (for Doric or Corinthian columns are now thought to have been as much a sign of respectability as a well authenticated family tree) washed with sunlight by day and moonlight by night, endless boxwood hedges, flowers always blooming, beautiful and charming women composed almost entirely of curls and ruffles, gallant men, mahogany furniture, and numberless slaves. It has become legendary. . . . Southerners forgot that by no means all of the South was in sympathy with secession.”
This historian was Sarah Gober Temple, in her history of Cobb County, Georgia, in 1935 (The First Hundred Years: A Short History of Cobb County, in Georgia [p. 209-210]). Eighty years later, our memories haven’t gotten much better.
So this April, let’s remember our Confederate past, a time when the rich once again conned the rest of us into working — and, in hundreds of thousands of cases, dying—to protect their wealth.