Interview: A Rich Man's War, A Poor Man's FightHistorians in the News
tags: civil rights, interviews, Southern history, labor history, working class history
This interview with Keri Leigh Merritt, the author of Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South and a historian tackling issues of inequality and poverty in America, was conducted and condensed by franknews and Payday Report.
frank X Payday | One thing that I think is written out of the way we look at the South is that there's a long history of resistance of white southerners.
Right. Whether it is Appalachian foothills or parts of the deep South, many whites were either pro-union or were anti-Confederates. There's always been a lot of class conflict that has driven this divide.
One book that has been instructive for me is the People's History of the Civil War. Matt Cunningham says, what W.E.B. Du Bois says, which is that the largest labor strike in US history was when people walked off the plantation, and the second largest was when the Confederate army deserted.
Yeah — DuBois was completely right, and in our new Civil War documentary, we are centering our story around that thesis. In Masterless Men, I argue that the poor whites and a lot of lower-middling class whites did not join the Confederacy at all in the first few years. They were very much anti-Confederates. They did not want to fight for what they knew was a war to protect the property of really rich people — people who hated them.
Who hated them and also didn't have to fight, right?
Yes, exactly. So they passed The Conscription Act of 1862. Literally within months of that, they passed what was called the 20 Negro Law, which exempts the large slaveholders from fighting the war. They were literally conscripting all the poor whites to go fight.
Then, within one year of conscription, you had such massive waves of poor whites going back home that by 1864, there were less than half, probably closer to about one-third, of the Confederate Army left — because everybody has just gone back home. They end up fighting turf wars in their own home spaces; it's kind of like just open guerrilla warfare throughout a lot of the deep South.
And one thing I always try to get people to understand about the South, is that when you think about the birth of the police in the South, it occurs just a few years after slavery ends.
That's why immediately you have police instead of the old slave patrols. Entire departments of paid uniformed officers were financed to go around policing the labor contracts that newly emancipated men were often forced into signing. And these contracts basically put them into what some historians refer to as another, lesser form of slavery. I mean, they're basically unfree laborers.
It is important to know that violence and murder and the carceral state have been the keyway that elite white Southerners have kept the South as the poorest region and the deep South as the poorest region within that region.