Dominic Alexander reviews David Williams’ Bitterly Divided which details the astonishing scale of internal division in the southern states from the beginning to the end of the American Civil War.

Bitterly Divided cover

David Williams, Bitterly Divided: The South’s Inner Civil War (The New Press, paperback 2010), 310pp.

‘ “This says I am Miss Caroline Fisher. I am from North Alabama, from Winston County.” The class murmured apprehensively, should she prove to harbour her share of the peculiarities indigenous to that region. (When Alabama seceded from the Union on 11 January, 1861, Winston County seceded from Alabama, and every child in Maycomb County knew it.) North Alabama was full of Liquor Interests, Big Mules, steel companies, Republicans, professors, and other persons of no background.’
Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird (1960)

Winston County was by no means the only part of the south to have broken from the Confederacy during the Civil War. By the end of the war localities across the deep south were, like Irwin county in Georgia, chasing Confederate officials out of their area and declaring for the Union and Lincoln (p.238). David Williams’ Bitterly Divided details the astonishing scale of internal division in the southern states from the beginning to the end of the war.

Over and again the contemporary sources record complaints from ordinary white southerners that the conflict was a ‘rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight’. Those whites who did not own slaves were likely to be at least sceptical of the whole business, as another telling quotation had it that ‘this fuss was all for the benefit of the wealthy’. Williams’ robust array of evidence shows a society riven with class conflicts, to the point where the ruling planter class came close to losing its grip entirely.

Although slavery was in the end abolished, as Williams shows as much by the actions of the slaves themselves as anyone else, the planters were ultimately able to re-establish themselves. The post war betrayal of southern blacks, and the creation of segregation, is not part of Williams’ brief in this book. However, the fact of it explains the creation of all those reactionary and racist apologetics for the south that Bitterly Divided so expertly explodes.

Opposition to the confederacy unquestionably grew in the course of the war, but it was substantial enough right from the start to require force, threats and fraud to secure the election of pro-secessionists across much of the south in the first place. Suspected ‘unionists’ were often threatened or actually attacked for attempting to vote. Many others voted for delegates who posed as pro-union, only for them to turn secessionist once elected. Williams estimates that at least a clear majority of southern voters were opposed to the very creation of the Confederacy.

Of course, planter rule and the Confederate cause depended upon widespread ingrained racism among poor, non-slave-owning whites. The surprise is how much evidence there is of dissent from the ruling racist ideology. Certainly wealthy planters even before the war were worried about how to stop ‘low down poor whites’ from organising to abolish slavery and redistribute the land, of which the planters held all the best. Conspiracies uniting poor whites and blacks in attempted uprisings against slavery and the planters had been by no means limited to the famous Harper’s Ferry insurrection of John Brown (p.30).

Once the war began, a conscription law blatantly favoured the richer slave owners, putting the burden of fighting squarely on poorer whites. Existing class tensions among southern whites became much more serious. One woman complained that ‘the brunt is thrown upon the working classes while the rich live at home in ease and pleasure’ (p.60). Some resisted the draft by fleeing to Mexico, in the danger of being caught by rebel troops and killed on the spot. Williams tells a host of stories of violent resistance to the draft. In some areas it became actively dangerous to be a Confederate soldier, while as one southern officer wrote in disgust it was ‘no longer a reproach to be known as a deserter’ across whole stretches of the country (p.123).

Opposition to the war reached new heights as it went on. One factor in this were the food shortages. Williams points out that while the industrial strength of the north is usually held to be at the root of its victory, in fact the south organised such a successful munitions programme that its soldiers never lacked equipment or ammunition. The south’s problem was that the rich planters reneged on their promise to provide food for soldiers and their families, and instead sold their crops to speculators, or invested in profitable cotton and tobacco crops.

Fully half the Confederate army had deserted by 1863. The Union suffered desertions too, but it could rely upon southerners, white as well as black coming north. Nearly half a million southerners fought on the Union side. A new underground railroad even came into existence in the course of the war in order to help ‘union men’ in the south escape through to federal forces.

Williams’ evidence is overwhelming that support for either Union or Confederacy was determined by class. Nearly all armed resistance to the Confederate draft came from small farmers, artisans and labourers. The often murderous Confederate armed gangs that attempted to enforce the draft tended to own three times as much land and twice as much personal property. Williams quotes the observation of one historian that ‘by engineering disunion, slaveowners fostered the growth of the kind of organisations they had long feared: class-based groups that pitted nonslaveholders against the interests of slaveowners’ (p.162).

It was however the slaves themselves who arguably determined the course of the war. Northern politicians like Lincoln tried to avoid making slavery the key issue of the war, but the slaves’ actions ensured it was. From the start, black southerners were effectively in a state of revolt: a south Carolina woman observed in 1863 that ‘if this war lasts two year longer, African Slavery will have ceased in these states’ (p.174). Perhaps the ultimate proof that the slaves had forced the direction of the war was the Confederacy’s desperate decision in March 1865 to attempt to recruit slaves into the Confederate army under conditions that effectively freed them. One southern newspaper commented that blacks had become ‘a sort of balance power in this contest, and that the side which succeeds in enlisting the feelings and in securing the active operation and services of the four millions of blacks, must ultimately triumph’. Needless to say, the Confederacy was never able to obtain black support. It was not northern troops which freed the slaves: as a Union general put it ‘it is not done by the army, but they are freeing themselves’ (p.173).

The American Civil War was not a ‘war between the states’ as some would now have it, but a genuine civil war in the south itself. For a time it looked as if that racial hierarchy, on which class in America is so dependent, would break down under the pressures of war. That the opportunity was missed and the planter class was able to re-impose white supremacy is one of the greatest tragedies of modern history.

Williams’ historical methodology is that of the classic ‘history from below’ school. His arrangement of his vast material makes the book vivid and alive with the sufferings, fears and thoughts of so many ordinary black and white southerners. The conclusions rest upon decades of thorough and careful scholarship, as can be seen in the detailed end references. However, for those to whom Williams’ arguments are unwelcome, it is possible to charge that the evidence is ‘anecdotal’, that quotations are unrepresentative, or that statements are unsupported by references and so on. None of these objections, such as can be found through a quick internet search, are remotely plausible to anyone who has read the book honestly.

Those who wish to cling to reactionary, and racist, versions of history will do so however powerful the historical evidence and arguments presented. However it is to be hoped that this very fine work of history, serious without being an exclusive academic text, will be read as widely as it deserves to be. Williams shows the reader the vulnerability of southern class society, founded upon the supposed eternality of racial division. He shows how contingent that racial order was, how hard the ruling class had to work to maintain it, and how close it came to coming apart in its entirety. The fact that such an order remains in (much modified) existence, and not just in the United States, is the reason why this book is so important.

Dominic Alexander

Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire books, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018) and Trotsky in the Bronze Age (2020).