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When people think of the Civil War, they tend to polarize it as the North versus the South, or as a fight between freedom and slavery. In reality, the Civil War was much more complex than simply two sides battling over a single cause. Historian’s study of social class sheds light on the fact that internal conflicts affected the outcome of the Civil War. I argue in this essay that the elite’s efforts to maintain their social class during the Civil War weakened support of the Confederacy among the non-elites and thus affected their willingness to secede.
The South had strong class divisions engrained in their society before the Civil War even began. As an agrarian society, the South’s economy was centered on the production and maintenance of farmland and crops. The Southern plantation system rewarded cash crops, such as tobacco or cotton, the most. These plantations were owned by white males who comprised the elite class and held the greatest social class status in the South. The elite class of the South was small, made up of less than 25% of the South’s total population. Despite this, the Southern plantation system concentrated all of the money, power, and privilege to these elite few, so there was a great divide between the wealthy elite and the rest of Southern society that made up the lower classes.
Still then, the South’s lower classes were tiered in terms of social status. The family or Yeoman farmer class was made up of whites who grew food for consumption and sale at the local markets so they could minimally support themselves. They were not valued much in Southern society because most food was grown in the North. Below them, in the lowest social class of Southern society was Black slaves. The elite class owned slaves as property and relied upon their labor to gain maximum profit on their plantations.
In the elites focus on maintaining the slave system for their personal gain, they neglected the basic needs of the poor majority and weakened their support in fighting for the Confederacy during the Civil War. When the southern elite established their cash crops, they did not leave enough land for food production. Because most of the food was grown in the North, the Civil War resulted in food shortages and consequently an inflation in food costs. Because men of the lower classes, such as the Yeomen farmers, were predominantly fighting for the Confederacy, they could not grow their own food. This resulted in the Confederate government forcibly taking what little of the food from crops there was in the south to feed their army. In response to the food shortages, there was several food riots in the major southern cities, often called bread riots.The relationship between the elite and the non-elite became greatly strained because the non-elite believed the elites had neglected their duty to provide for southern dependents such as women and children during the war, and that this neglect of duty was due to their own selfishness to gain profit from cash crops.
The non-elites support of the confederacy was further weakened because of government and plantation owner exemptions to military service that were designed to preserve the elites upper social class status. The Confederacy passed the first conscription legislation in April of 1862, which essentially was a compulsory draft for military service that called for all able-bodied white males between the ages of 18 and 35 to register. Not too long after in October of 1862, the Confederacy then passed the Twenty-Slave Law which allowed an exemption to military conscription for men who owned twenty or more slaves.These laws greatly upset the non-elite majority in the south because they felt it was unfair that they were forced to risk their lives to the benefit of the elite who were excused from fighting. Because the non-elite did not gain anything from fighting for the Confederacy, the term a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight” was appropriately coined, reiterating how social class divisions affected the non-elites disapproval of the Confederacy.
In addition to the above two reasons, the support of the non-elites for the Confederacy was ultimately weakened because slavery was beneficial only to the elite who relied upon it to sustain their upper social class standing in southern society. With only less than 25% of the south belonging to the elite class and owning slaves, the vast majority of southerners did not receive anything in return from slavery. The present slave system in the south essentially reinforced a status quo of money, power, and privilege belonging exclusively to the elite class of plantation owners. In recognizing this, the non-elite majority in the south had no motivation to fight, resulting in many deserting their military duties, participating in anti-Confederate acts such as mobs, or even aiding the Union army or escaped slaves. The severe divisions in social class between the elite and the non-elite in the south superseded racial divisions and often created a shared opposition between the non-elite white and Black slaves against the Confederacy.
The non-elites support for the Confederacy was greatly weakened because of the elite’s efforts to maintain their social class standing during the Civil War. Whether out of hunger, resentment, or disincentive, the non-elite majority of the south were aware of unfair social class divisions and unwilling to help the elite protect their status quo. Without unity and a shared objective, internal class conflicts interfered with the Confederates ability to effectively fight the Union. Coupled with many southerners anti-Confederate actions such as desertion of duties, aiding the Union, or helping escaped slaves, the Confederacy was more willing to secede. Though it is easy to view the Civil War through a polarized lens, the added complexity of understanding the internal social class conflicts of the Confederates provides a more comprehensive answer as to why the Confederates were ultimately willing to secede.
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