David Williams: Historian suggests Southerners defeated Confederacy

Historians in the News

Generations of students have been taught that the South lost the Civil War because of the North's superior industry and population. A new book suggests another reason: Southerners were largely responsible for defeating the Confederacy.

In "Bitterly Divided: The South's Inner Civil War" (New Press, $27.95), historian David Williams of Valdosta State University lays out some tradition-upsetting arguments that might make the granite brow of Jefferson Davis crack on Stone Mountain....

Actually, historians have long fallen into two camps in explaining the Confederacy's demise — one stressing the Union's advantages, the other the South's divisions. Williams gives vivid expression to the latter view, drawing on state and local studies done primarily in the past two decades.

The 49-year-old South Georgia native discussed his interpretations in an interview from Valdosta.

Q: You write that most Southerners didn't even want to leave the Union.

A: That's right. In late 1860 and early 1861, there were a series of votes on the secession question in all the slave states, and the overwhelming majority voted against it. It was only in the Deep South, from South Carolina to Texas, that there was much support for secession, and even there it was deeply divided. In Georgia, a slight majority of voters were against secession.

Q: So why did Georgia secede?

A: The popular vote didn't decide the question. It chose delegates to a convention. That's the way slaveholders wanted it, because they didn't trust people to vote on the question directly. More than 30 delegates who had pledged to oppose secession changed their votes at the convention. Most historians think that was by design. The suspicion is that the secessionists ran two slates — one for and one supposedly against — and whichever was elected, they'd vote for secession.

Q: You say the war didn't start at Fort Sumter.

A: The shooting war over secession started in the South between Southerners. There were incidents in several states. Weeks before Fort Sumter, seven Unionists were lynched in Tallahatchie County, Miss....

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