I’ve been looking at stuff regarding the Civil War, the Confederacy, and Reconstruction the last couple of days. It’s striking to realize just how much the Confederate elites–the White, landed slavers who controlled political and economic life across the South–managed to preserve their power even after they lost a disastrous, bloody war.
Gary Brecher the War Nerd talks about this in a quite amusing and provocative manner; check out this half-hour podcast where he talks about the collapse of the Confederacy, and the insurgency that rolled back Reconstruction efforts. He has two great articles on the matter, as well: “Why Sherman was right to burn Atlanta“, and “The Confederates who should’ve been hanged.” The first article talks about the insanity of the Confederate elites in their pursuit of war, and the second article talks about what it would have taken to prevent post-Civil War insurgent groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the Red Shirts (who Brecher argues were probably the first fascist group to form in the United States) from violently rolling back the rights and freedoms that Black people had won.
It’s really quite sad to reflect on the fact that ultimately, the Confederates won, and maintained systems of slavery via the sharecropping system and Jim Crow. Federal/Union elites were simply too weak and too entrenched in White supremacist ideology themselves to want to really dismantle racial hierarchies, and expropriate the Confederate elite and redistribute their property to former slaves. There were some vibrant movements on the ground that fought for these ends, however; Jacobin has a great article on the Knights of Labor and their socialist, anti-racist organizing efforts that peaked in the 1870s, written by the author of From Slavery to the Cooperative Commonwealth: Labor and Republican Liberty in the Nineteenth Century (2014). I imagine this book would be well-suited to be read side-by-side with Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression (2015), considering that these two books cover two adjacent eras of intersecting movements of class struggle and Black liberation.
While reading some of these articles on the continuation of Confederate rule, another thought struck me: was there a relationship between the expansion of US imperialism (both into the western regions, as well as into Latin America and the Spanish colonies) and the class interests of the Confederate/Southern agrarian-based elites? This seems quite likely, especially considering the fact that the corporate expansions that underpinned imperial expansion were constructed to uphold segregation and racial hierarchies. And while the era of imperialism started in the late 1800s, even companies and expansions that came later–like the creation of the Arab-American Oil Company (ARAMCO)–were precisely and consciously constructed to echo the hierarchies and power dynamics of the old South. Indeed, the book America’s Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier (2006) does a marvelous job of tying the nature of oil companies in the Third World with to the nature of frontier mines in the West, in terms of both racial hierarchies and the ties between foreign investment capital and domestic class elites.
And with resurgent labor struggles in the mainland US around that time, there is little doubt that planter elites were looking for investments that could be easier defended from militant workers.