A People’s History of the Civil War: Struggles for the Meaning of Freedom

by David Williams, The New Press, 594 pages, $29.95.

The American Civil War is often viewed through the lens of “great men and  great events”: the battlefield victories and defeats of Federal and Confederate generals; the declarations of socio-economic independence; the struggle to free an enslaved population. However, historians often overlook the voices of the nonplanter class—the frontline soldier, the factory worker, the dissenter, women—as they try to re-create the war and its many facets. David Williams attempts to give life and agency to these “smaller voices” that have been lost within a popular narrative typically aimed at supporting the lore of either the Lost Cause or the Great Emancipator. The framework of the text is built around the notion that the Confederacy was bound to fail in its objective of establishing an independent slaveocracy, because it was hindered by socio-economic infighting, a resistant slave populace and the Federal government’s attempts to maintain the Union. The author uses a cross-section of American voices drawn from newspapers, letters and diaries to show how the “plain folk” exerted their agency in shaping the war within that framework. By bringing together their stories in a layered manner, the author gives readers another, more powerful way to view the Civil War—as groups of people who shaped the course of the war not by moving forward at the bequest of its leaders, but by operating as integral parts in the socio-political processes at the local, state and national levels.

Following in the footsteps of historian Howard Zinn, who pioneered “people’s history,” Williams’ method of viewing the Civil War through the eyes of marginalized people goes a great distance in trying to tear down the notion of an emotionally and materially committed independent Confederacy, as well as the idea that a strong and popularly supported war effort to save the Union existed in the North.

For instance, a chapter on the role of women in the downfall of the Confederacy focuses on how lower class white women in the South exerted influence through political advocacy or direct physical intervention. One such example occurred early in the spring of 1863, when women rioted across the South, breaking into government storehouses and flaunting local enforcement in an effort to feed and clothe their families who were suffering at the hands of the planter class and government corruption. There was nothing localized about this incident. As a matter of fact, as the war dragged on, an increasing number of female-dominated households turned to larceny and burglary in an attempt to feed their families. A Confederate commissary official wrote in March 1865 that desperate poor women were breaking into his commissary and liberating his foodstuffs; unable to police the commissary, he simply stood by in the face of their desperation.

With the planter class using prime farmland for tobacco and cotton, the food supply dwindled, forcing wives and mothers to beg their husbands and sons to desert and tend to their starving families. The rash acts that women resorted to in order to secure subsistence provided a catalyst for men in the Confederate armies to abandon the cause and return home in ever-increasing numbers. Confederate muster roles and official correspondence support the impact that women had on the armies’ ability to operate effectively on the battlefield.

One of the drawbacks to Williams’ text is his use of language with regard to defining and generalizing groups of people. He uses the term “plain folk” or “common people” throughout his text to describe those not belonging to the planter class and possessing no slaves, and liberally applies this title to all other people who do not qualify as the landed elite. This becomes a point of contention because the distinction between individuals and communities is tremendous not only within each state but across the Confederacy. Each local community was a confluence of complex socio-economic forces that both shaped and were shaped by its citizenry. To lump all farmers, women, soldiers and the less politically influential into a monolithic category and argue that they felt slighted, empowered or apathetic is disingenuous when attempting to flesh out the “small voices.” The first footnote of the text tries to address this trouble spot; unfortunately, it only goes as far as to say that he recognizes the problem in grouping people, and cannot narrow the “common people” down into a manageable study. The author should have more clearly defined his terms, devoted more time to peeling back the layers within the various factions, and not fallen into the trap of painting whole communities with a singular brush.

Overall, Williams’ narrative is a well-written and well-documented journey through the marginalized groups that influenced the course of the Civil War. Broken down along the lines of race, class and gender, the various groups give the reader a much richer understanding of the makeup of a war’s life cycle. This book is a strong counterpoint to the traditional great-men and great-events narratives that are the foundation for so much of the work on this period. This particular investigation into the voices and actions of “plain folks” gives the reader a perspective that is seldom discussed and sorely lacking in most serious examinations of the American Civil War.


Originally published in the April 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here