MASTERS WITHOUT SLAVES: Southern Planters in the Civil War and Reconstruction by James J. Roark

MASTERS WITHOUT SLAVES: Southern Planters in the Civil War and Reconstruction

By
Email this review

KIRKUS REVIEW

Examining the letters and diaries of 160 slave-owning families, Professor Roark extracts their response to a crisis that spelled literal bankruptcy for many: Civil War devastation and the loss of chattel labor. Rather than merely compiling their lamentations about blacks, scalawags, debts, and weevils, he surveys their views of secession, the Confederate government, and federal Reconstruction. What emerges is the hopelessness of these planters despite their ability to mobilize themselves and fight under extreme conditions. A small percentage knew from the start that the rebellion would fail, but joined ranks when Fort Sumter sealed the issue. Roark describes extensive passive resistance to the Richmond government, mostly in the form of economic sabotage, especially cotton smuggling. At war's end the planters considered themselves enslaved as they tried to resume production after half the South's wealth had been destroyed; the ugly sharecropping system was quickly imposed on blacks, while a few planters moved their families to Latin America to enjoy slave-holding privileges, and many planters' children turned to business. Roark's group is a select one, owning over 20 slaves apiece though the Southern average was lower. Yet its members did not act as a unified oligarchy determining policy; even before Reconstruction, many felt caught in a political and economic vortex they could scarcely control and had little curiosity about. While resourceful about their personal lives, they had no notion of nation-building under the Confederacy. Roark does not seek to vindicate the planters, but uses a special kind of archival empathy in showing how they failed to meet the challenge of historical upheaval.

Pub Date: March 28th, 1977
Publisher: Norton