A reconsideration of the Civil War that addresses its impact on ordinary people.
Williams (History/Valdosta State Univ.; Plain Folk in a Rich Man’s War, 2002, etc.) argues that the war was created by monied elites in the North and South looking to maximize profits. Working men and women widely opposed the war from its inception. Williams offers evidence of strong opposition to secession among poor Southerners, who owned few slaves and stood to gain little from independence. Nor did Northern workers support a war to free the slaves, whom they saw as competition for their jobs; Lincoln's delay in endorsing emancipation was primarily intended to defuse opposition to the war among his own citizens. War fervor declined rapidly after the initial battles, and both sides were forced to institute conscription—with ample loopholes for the wealthy. That led to the popular byword, “rich man's war, poor man's fight,” which becomes Williams's mantra. It also led to draft riots and armed rebellion on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. Desertion was also a problem—Robert E. Lee blamed his loss at Antietam primarily on defection from the ranks of his army. By war's end, over half the Confederate army was AWOL. Many had gone home to families whose inability to feed themselves was largely caused by the rich planters' decision to raise lucrative cotton and tobacco instead of food crops. Women often took matters into their own hands, launching raids on food depots and funneling aid to deserters and draft dodgers. Meanwhile, slave revolts and Indian wars on the western frontiers divided the attention of both sides. At times, it seems a wonder either side managed to win—and at war's end, the same old monied elites remained in control in the North and the South.
A useful, if sometimes depressing, counter to the sanitized picture many historians paint of our nation's greatest struggle.