The American Civil War casts a long shadow over America history. Anyone doubting its pernicious legacy need only note that all of the states of the former Confederacy except Virginia voted for Trump. However it would be a mistake to believe that the white population of this region have alway acted en bloc as rabid racists.
Recently released on DVD, Free State of Jones, starring Matthew McConaughy, tells us that even during the Civil War sections of the white population in the south sided with the Union. The film deals with what was essentially an insurrection against the Confederacy in Jones County, Mississippi, of poor white farmers and runaway slaves led by Newton Knight. It flies in the face of the “lost cause” myth that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery and that all southerners avidly supported secession.
The Mississippi Secession Convention made it quite clear in 1861 what it was fighting for. “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world.” Conventions such as this were decidedly controlled by the slave owning class, although 75% of the white population didn’t own any slaves. Pressure was put on the yeoman farmer class to join the Confederate army, but the “glory” of the cause was to wear thin as the war dragged on.
The Confederacy lost more soldiers through desertion than any other reason. One factor which accelerated this was the passing of what became known as the “Twenty Slave Law” which stated that men from estates with 20 or more slaves were excused military service. To poor white conscripts, it became clear that government represented slaveowner class. Amongst disaffected troops the phrase “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight” was popular.
Newton Knight was one of those who deserted in disgust at the Twenty Slave Law. He returned to his Mississippi neighbourhood to find it close to starvation as a consequence of the forced confiscation of their food and livestock by the Confederate government. Knight built a guerrilla army to combat this and developed common cause with runaway slaves hiding out in the local swampland.
The insurrectionists fought several skirmishes with confederate troops and at one stage succeeded in capturing the county town of Ellisville, where they hoisted the Union flag. Sad to say, this example of inter-racial solidarity did not last long once the war came to an end. Knight supported efforts to give civil rights to Afro-Americans and was appointed US Marshall to serve that end. However, the terrorist activities of the Ku Klux Klan overpowered such efforts and the Federal government gave up all pretence at supporting civil rights when its troops were withdrawn from the South in 1877 the better to meeting the rising threat of organised labour.
After a conflict between two different modes of production, in which Northern finance and industrial capital was triumphant,Washington was quite prepared to let white supremacists back into power in the South. The Trump victory has given a new lease of life to white supremacists as they seek to suppress the voting rights of blacks in states like Texas and Alabama. In Tennessee and North Carolina moves are afoot to effectively re-segregate schools. But socialists should not write off elements of the working class who were Trump voters.
The campaign by Bernie Sanders supporters and others in southern states in the last few weeks is a welcome effort at raising awareness of the dangers American workers and their families face and the necessity of workers’ unity.