Sex and Why Ordinary White Southerners Fought for Slavery

Yesterday’s  Disunion in the New York Times, written by Nina Silber, asks a significant question. How can slavery be the cause of the Civil War, when in 1861 most southern households owned no slaves? It is a question that has vexed scholars for some time. After all, historians have long known only about one-fourth of white Southern families in 1860 owned slaves and the majority of those owned less than ten. So while it is clear that the slaveholding class was ready to secede in order to hold on to their human property, and said so quite clearly during the secession winter, why did non-slaveholding white Southerners join them and enlist in droves in the Confederate army?

Well, part of the answer was that some white Southerners did not. While Unionism in the South was not quite the phenomenon it the Civil War that Loyalism was in the American Revolution, it was still a potent force. All southern states contributed white regiments to the Union army, except South Carolina. Indeed, in some regions of the Confederacy, Unionists held sway or were at least a significant internal threat. Vikki Bynum writes a valuable blog on Southern Unionists over at Renegade South (check it out).

Of course, Unionists were a distinct minority in the Civil War South and the vast majority of non-slaveholding white Southerners initially supported a Confederate leadership dominated by slaveholders. The question is why?

For decades the explanation usually offered was that the antebellum South was an oligarchy in which slaveholders dominated and non-slaveholders did as they were told. That the planter class had their way using a combination of wealth, racist ideology, and a veneer of democracy to convince everyone else they were stakeholders in the system. Other historians eventually came along that contended the prewar South was not as oligarchic as it seemed and that the southern yeomanry was more restive and independent than initially proposed. Which raised anew the question of why non-slaveholding whites, for the most part, joined in a war to preserve the right of the top quarter of their society to own human property? Which brings us around again to Nina Silber.

In recent decades, gender has become a powerful tool of analysis in the historical profession, and Nina Silber has been one of its most prominent practitioners as far as the American Civil War is concerned. Historians like Silber believe that gender identity, what people believed about how being a man or a woman should prescribe their behavior, tells a lot about how people acted in a given time and society. Hence, Nina Silber asserts that gender identity is critical to understand the actions of non-slaveholders during the Civil War and why they were generally willing to support secession and fight  for the Confederacy. Silber writes:

Men go to war for all kinds of reasons — glory, money, peer pressure — and that was clearly true in the Civil War South. Yet the speeches, newspapers and writings from the time indicate that white masculine identity, particularly among those Southerners who had little else about them that guaranteed their social status. As long as slaves were legally below them, they were secure. The belief that Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party would end that distinction drove them to a near panic — a fear that secession leaders were all too happy to exploit.

In other words, the masculine identity of white men in antebellum South was tied up in notions of their racial supremacy, and while many of them would never own slaves, the slave system’s preservation was integral to their sense of self and worth defending. Nina Silber explains:

Thus the war fever among the South’s nonslaveholders was as much about masculinity as it was about class. In fact, the trope of masculinity became a convenient way for the slaveholding class to erase the tensions of economic difference; in this light, all Southern men, regardless of wealth or lack thereof, had to defend their region—and, by implication, the women and children who lived there with them.

There is definitely something to Silber’s analysis. In my research on black Civil War veterans, I found gender identity important to understanding the behavior of these men, particularly in pursuing suffrage. Their notions of equality were wrapped up in what they believed to be their rights as men, especially as they had honorably acquitted themselves in the most onerous duty of manhood–military service. Gender identity also helps explain why thousands of Confederate soldiers deserted in the latter stages of the war. They could justify this action not only because final defeat was looming but also because of countless pleas that they were needed at home by wives and children made hungry by the war. So in the end defending their racialized self identity was trumped by their responsibilities of being a male provider and protector of their families. So gender as a category of analysis is a powerful tool in understanding why white southern men went to war, even if they didn’t own slaves, and why many of them ultimately decided the Confederate cause was not worth fighting for.

Kudos to Nina Silber and the New York Times through Disunion for bringing the insights of an important branch of historical academia to the public.

About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at
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