“…branding on my forehead: SLAVE”

I’ve finished reading the book Bruce Levine’s book “The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South”. It’s excellent. I find it especially curious how the plantation-slaveowner elite reacted to the war. It was a war waged on their behalf, a war waged so that they could continue owning slaves. But after the first few months to a year, they could not be bothered to do much to support the war effort, something that some Confederates themselves found rather odd.

They exempted their sons from the military draft with the “Twenty Negro Law”, they were not willing to grow much grain or sell it at low prices, and they were not very willing to hire out their slaves for tasks like building fortifications. The poorer Confederate citizens ended up grumbling that they were fighting for people who were clearly not doing as much as they could. “A rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” That sentiment was especially strong in parts of the South with relatively few slaves. Western Virginians succeeded in seceding from their state, but eastern Tennesseeans’ attempt to do so was crushed by the Confederate Army.

Consider the case of South Carolina plantation owner, politician, and slavery defender James Henry Hammond. He argued that the slaves were very suited for doing the work that they were made to do, that they were better off enslaved than free, and that higher civilization rests on the labors of an underclass of people that never get much for their labor — the “mudsill theory” of society. But when a Confederate army officer stopped by to requisition some grain, he tore up the requisition order, tossed it out a window, and wrote about it that it compensated him too little, and that it was like

branding on my forehead


He was far from alone, it seems. He and some others refused to let the Confederate authorities requisition their slaves to build fortifications and other such tasks. He himself called a requisition of 16 slaves “wrong every way and odious,” and some of his fellow slaveowners stated that “my property, so long as I shall live, shall never be subject to the orders” of such “miscreants”, and also that a requisition of 500 slaves was “oppressive.”

There also were rumors that some planters would let some crops rot rather than be requisitioned, something that seems out of some farmers’ protests of ca. 1930 Soviet collectivization of agriculture: killing livestock and burning crops. Also, when the Confederacy suffered a lot of shortages, some people claimed that it was because planters were offended by requisitions, and if the government would stop coercing them, then they would produce.

Returning to the military draft, none less than Vice President Alexander Stephens claimed that it was involuntary servitude. This is the same Alexander Stephens who delivered his “Cornerstone Speech”, where he stated about the Confederacy that

…its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

Finally, nearly a century earlier, famous writer Samuel Johnson criticized the disgruntled North American colonists who had complained about “taxation without representation” by saying that they could move back to Britain if they wanted representation in Parliament. In his 1775 pamphlet “Taxation no Tyranny”, he noted that “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”.

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