Thursday, June 22, 2006

Wetherington: "Plain Folk's Fight: The Civil War and Reconstruction in Piney Woods Georgia"

[Plain Folk's Fight: The Civil War and Reconstruction in Piney Woods Georgia by Mark V. Wetherington. (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press – Civil War America Series, 2005). Pp. 347, $39.95, Cloth, photos, 2 maps, illustrations, notes. ISBN 0-8078-2963-3)]

A number of fine regional histories have emerged in recent years. With Plain Folk’s Fight, Mark Wetherington’s contribution to this growing body of literature takes us to a five county region in south-central Georgia. This ‘piney woods’ or ‘wiregrass’ community of wealthy planters, small business owners, yeoman farmers, and slaves makes for a particularly enlightening socio-political and economic study.

The author joins Gary Gallagher and others in presenting a well argued and amply supported case that effectively refutes the notion that class conflict was the primary factor in wartime home front collapse. When it came to support for the war, interlocking familial, cultural, and religious ties combined with a common racial consciousness tended to trump both class differences and antebellum political conflicts between old line Whigs and Democrats. The ‘plain folk’ of the book’s title—those households owning fewer than 10 slaves and working less than 150 acres of land—supported secession and the war on a large scale. Plain Folk’s Fight also supports the recent generational gap findings of Peter Carmichael’s The Last Generation with the wiregrass region’s emerging young men (those in their 20s and 30s) enthusiastically embracing Southern Rights candidates and secession rather than the caution and compromise of their fathers.

Plain Folk’s Fight is a revealing study in many ways and one is led to speculate how its findings can be applied to other regions across the South. Many preconceived notions are challenged. In one wiregrass county, the author discovered that slaveholding families contributed a higher percentage of soldiers to the army than their representation in the population. Similar findings throughout the book go against the conventional wisdom of a more simplistic ‘rich man’s war, poor man’s fight’ interpretation. Additionally, Wetherington did not find a significant disruption in the social order of the home front due to the mass exodus of white males into the army. In one county, 70% of prewar heads of household remained in charge throughout. Disabled veterans, returnees, and draft exempted men filled many other places, leading the author to question the mythological Confederate home front populated chiefly by black laborers and white female heads of household.

These points are just a small sample of what you’ll find in this remarkably comprehensive regional history. The arguments therein are well-developed, supported heavily by statistical analysis and by good use of a wide array of primary source materials from manuscript and archival sources to government documents, newspapers, and periodicals. Plain Folk’s Fight is a study that general readers may find onerous in places but specialists will revel in the author’s penetrating insights and minute analyses.

(Review reprinted with the permission of North and South Magazine, it originally appeared in vol.9 #2, pg. 89, reviewed by Andrew Wagenhoffer)

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