Book of the Week


The Ordeal of the Reunion: A New History of Reconstruction
by Mark Wahlgren Summers

“Effectively captures the turmoil and frustrations of the era. . . . [and] shows how economic woes affected Reconstruction’s prospects.”
--Publishers Weekly
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Victoria Bynum: Reflections on the Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War

This essay is crossposted at Renegade South.

As a historian of the Southern Civil War home front, I am continually confronted by the destruction of communities, as well as the deaths on and off the battlefield, that the Civil War visited upon the United States.  As we commemorate such an important event on its 150th anniversary, it is important to remind ourselves that our system of government is capable of stunning failures of leadership as well as inspiring moments of greatness.

A popular sound bite among our politicians today—one repeated ad nauseam—is that Congress should no longer “kick the can down the road” in regard to this problem or that problem. Well, slavery was the “can” that our antebellum politicians kicked down the road. Slavery did not emerge suddenly as a problem during the sectional crisis of the 1850s, it was a problem–a contradiction of our Revolutionary principles–from the nation’s inception. Over time it became ever more thoroughly embedded in our national economy, so fundamental to the wealth of slaveholders and cotton merchants that they employed the most virulent racism to justify its continuance.

Yet despite the thousands of books written about the Civil War, one wonders if the lessons of this war will ever truly be understood or agreed upon. In today’s political discourse, we hear debate over whether or not the flying of the Confederate flag is inherently racist, or whether individual states might nullify an act of Congress. In fact, we even hear talk of secession movements in the name of protecting state sovereignty against the so-called tyranny of a federal government that just happens to be headed by the first African American president.

This return to Confederate principles is pushed by the new “tea party” wing of the Republican Party—the same party that symbolized Big Government in the 1850s; the same party that urged the federal government to use its power to limit slavery’s expansion into the western territories of the United States. While neither that Republican Party, nor its presidential nominee, Abraham Lincoln, advocated slavery’s abolition in 1860, the party’s belief in the superior power of the federal government, coupled with an aggressive abolitionist movement that urged party leaders to end slavery once and for all, finally convinced southern proslavery Democrats to secede.

Over 150 years ago, Northern warnings of a “slave power conspiracy” were met by Southern warnings about the North’s determination to dominate and transform cherished southern institutions. Southern concerns about the effects that a wage-based, industrial society would have on a rural society of independent farmers effectively masked slavery as the preeminent cause of war. And so, southern white soldiers, the majority of whom owned no slaves, fought for principles of liberty, honor, and a way of life that seemed threatened by a too-powerful federal government.

Still, southerners were never unified in their support for the Confederate cause. In regions throughout the South, Unionists, dissenters, and deserters—not just men, but neighborhoods of men, women, children, and slaves, engaged in inner civil wars against the Confederacy. Newt Knight, the leader of a band of deserters in piney woods Mississippi, is the most famous of these renegades. For well over a century, people have debated whether he was a traitor and an outlaw, or a Unionist and patriot.

I believe such debates miss a larger point: that Newt Knight was only one of a sizable minority of nonslaveholders throughout the South who concluded it was the Confederacy that threatened their way of life—in fact, their very lives. With crucial support from their families, many of these men organized and armed themselves to fight against the Confederacy.  Others joined the Union Army.

Unless we believe that the Confederate cause—and make no mistake, its ultimate cause was the preservation and expansion of slavery—was a just one that served the interests of the Southern people, most of whom either owned no slaves or were slaves, how can we help but be inspired by those who refused any longer to serve?

In commemorating the American Civil War, I hope that we will reflect on what lessons the Civil War teaches us about political motives, people’s economic interests, and the meaning of dissent—and that we apply those lessons to the similarly toxic and dangerous political environment that threatens us today.

Victoria Bynum is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of history at Texas State University, San Marcos. Her books include The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies, The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War, and Unruly Women: The Politics of Social and Sexual Control in the Old South. She blogs at Renegade South.

3 comments to Victoria Bynum: Reflections on the Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War

  • […] following essay is crossposted on the special Civil War Sesquicentennial website hosted by the University of North Carolina […]

  • Jody Beth Bynum Johnson

    Good afternoon. This is for Victoria Bynum. You and I might be related! Isn’t that neat? I do not live far from San Marcos, if you are still there. I am researching whehter or not I am a Daughter of the American Revolution. I am wondering if you could guide me or let me know through your research. I am interested in purchasing any of your books dealing with the genealogy of the Bynum family as well. My Dad’s name was Dr. Douglas Bynum, Jr. and he was raised in Tyler, Texas. Any advice or tips you have for me is greatly appreciated. Thank you.

  • Victoria Bynum

    Hello, Jody; thanks for your comment. I no longer live in Texas, but I believe the Texas Bynums, particularly those from the Tyler area, are likely kin to the Jones County, MS. Bynums. I am not a genealogist, (although I have conducted extensive research on kinship links among Jones County’s Civil War dissenters), and can’t speak to your particular line of Bynums. However, I’m sure there’s much you will find by visiting the internet’s “Genforum” sites, or by subscribing to Ancestry.com, if you haven’t already done so.

    Best of luck with your research!

    Vikki Bynum