Monday, September 13, 2010

Smith: "MISSISSIPPI IN THE CIVIL WAR: The Home Front"

[Mississippi in the Civil War: The Home Front by Timothy B. Smith (University Press of Mississippi, 2010). Cloth, 2 maps, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:212/274.  ISBN:978-1-60473-429-4  $40]

Timothy Smith's Mississippi in the Civil War is not the first study of the state's home front experience, but it is the first to integrate the subject matter emphases of modern scholarship (e.g. southern unionism, the contributions of blacks and women, etc.) into the state's wartime economic, social, and political history. Masterfully, the author, a frequent contributor to western theater historical studies, is able to fit all of this material into a relatively brief study without sacrificing depth.

Appropriately enough, Smith begins Part One with a discussion of the Mississippi secession convention and the key figures involved in creating what was to them a newly independent country. The centrality of slavery's role in fostering secession is emphasized, as well as the significant unionist sentiment in the state. Another chapter contrasts the ineffective administration of Governor John Jones Pettus with that of former Confederate General Charles Clark, a much more practical and competent politician who arrived on the scene in November 1863, far too late to correct previous gubernatorial mistakes. The newly seceded state also had to quickly put itself on a war footing, and Smith provides readers with a brief rundown of the Military Board's efforts to raise volunteer and militia units to defend the state and the budding Confederacy. While good, one wished for a bit more detailed look at the Mississippi State Troops, appropriate to a home front study given that its units served within the Magnolia State's borders. The economic infrastructure (plantations, industry, railroads, shipyards, shipping, etc.) destroyed by the series of federal incursions from 1862 onward is covered in a subsequent chapter. Smith effectively demonstrates, how, by late in the war, the mass destruction of private property and the choking off of commerce led to widespread disaffection among the loyal population. A chapter on finance and taxation closes out Part One.

Part Two delves into areas of research comparatively neglected by previous generations of home front historians. Here, one finds some reinforcement of the "loss of will" argument for the collapse of the Confederacy. Union forces often raided with impunity, and Smith argues that the loss of the capital city of Jackson, located at the heart of the state and surrendered without a determined fight, should be viewed as a greater tipping point than the capture of Vicksburg. As mentioned before, unionist (perhaps better described in many cases as anti-Confederate) sentiment -- passive and active -- was strong in the state, and only increased as the war dragged on. While Jones County grabs most the headlines in other studies, here Smith tells the stories of many unionist and disillusioned Confederate individuals and families located throughout the state, one of the most prominent being James L. Alcorn. The contributions of black residents of the state to the Union effort is also outlined. While slaves disrupted the plantation system by escaping bondage or by slowing or stopping work, they, along with free blacks, also actively served as spies and guides. Significant numbers also enlisted in USCT formations, with Smith's research finding it likely that the official number (around 17,000) has been greatly underestimated. Another chapter highlights the contributions and sufferings of Mississippi women, many of whom were ardent supporters of the Confederate cause, losing hope only when Union soldiers arrived at their own doorsteps. Finally, the understudied subject of the cultural destruction wrought by the war is summarized. Many schools and churches throughout the state were either destroyed or forced to close. The activities of Mississippi newspapers, publishers, entertainers, and artists were also severely curtailed, denying an already stressed civilian population traditional outlets for information, intellectual stimulation, and leisure.

As one can see, Mississippi in the Civil War is about as comprehensive a home front treatment as one can expect. Fully documented and based on extensive manuscript research, it is also a product of dedicated and sound scholarship on the part of historian Timothy Smith. This book is highly recommended, both on its own and as an excellent companion to the many existing studies of military campaigns and battles fought in and around the state.

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