The Business of War

Deeply insightful words from commenter Doctor Jay:

The Confederacy has a reputation for bad-assedness, of people willing to do "whatever it takes". But that only applies, it seems, when "whatever it takes" means inflicting violence upon others. They couldn't do things like levy taxes to support their government, or set their women to doing things like nursing. 

This is what makes me a liberal, really. Bigotry and prejudice are not sources of power, they are displays of power. If you can keep your woman a delicate flower, who needs not sully her hands with manual labor, or the dirty inconveniences of life, that is a demonstration of your social power. And for the part of a woman, your demonstration of power was borrowed. Somehow you were powerful enough to be married to that man. 

Holding slaves is part of the equation. I'm sure that the number of slaves owned was one of those status measures, like the size of your paycheck. And they held on to these status tokens as hard as they could. Many plantations didn't make much money, or none at all. I think there's a case to be made that slavery, as an economic system, simply doesn't work. The only reason it worked at all was because of the abundant cheap land.

That line--Bigotry and prejudice are not sources of power, they are displays of power--will be quoted by me early and often. But there's a lot here that's right on. The more I study the war, the more I get the sense that the Confederacy was enamored with the idea of war, with great battles, with glorious death, with handkerchief-waving ladies, but cared very little for the actual business of war. 

Indeed, as Jay points out, the business of war was compromised by the very society that they sought to defend. If you're obsessed with keeping your lady in cage like a bird, then you're effectively removing support troops from the field. If you're obsessed with keeping your slaves to signify your status, you are leveraging an unwilling resource which, as soon as humanly possible, will turn on you and become a resource to your enemy. If you are obsessed with making sure that doesn't happen, and pass laws (as the Confederacy did) to allow patriarchs of the big plantations to stay home, then you have effectively demoralized your troops.

Here is Drew Gilpin Faust on the inability of the Confederacy to organize an effective postal service:

Confederate statesmen believed that any subsidization of the mail would represent an unwarranted support for the nation's commercial interests. Thus postal rates reflected actual costs, a policy that sent the price of stamps skyrocketing after secession...Despite its high cost, mail delivery was far from reliable and southerners reported instances where service was interrupted for months at a time. 

The impact of these failures was wide ranging. Perhaps the most distressing result was the perpetual inadequacy of information about military casualties. Women would sometimes not hear for weeks or even moths whether their loved ones had survived particular battles....The Post Office, on study of the Confederacy's mail service has justly observed, played a significant part "in demoralizing the homefront."

Now there isn't much glory in the postal service. But it's the kind of service that, as Faust points out, could energize the homefront. I don't want to be too harsh but reading this book, one word comes to mind--lazy. There's an utter aversion among the upper classes of the South toward hard manual labor, toward the kind of sacrifice that doesn't involve facing a bayonet charge. In this sense, among others, you have to believe the South deserved to lose.
Presented by

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Best 71-Second Animation You'll Watch Today

A rock monster tries to save a village from destruction.

Video

The Case for Napping at Work

Most Americans don't get enough sleep. More and more employers are trying to help address that.

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

Video

Stunning GoPro Footage of a Wildfire

In the field with America’s elite Native American firefighting crew

More in Entertainment

From This Author

Just In