A revisionist Civil War history, this book is very well-researched and its basic argument is well-presented. It was actually a surprisingly quick read, considering its subject, because of the organizational strategy Williams used (to be discussed later).
His basic thesis is the following: the Confederacy was defeated not only by the Union's superior numbers (which were bolstered by Southerners, by the way), but by the fundamental lack of support for the Confederate government in the South itself.
Each chapter in Willimas' book deals with one factor in the general disunion in the South during the Civil War.
First, he sets the scene by describing the economic and social situation in the South just before the war began. He notes (not explicitly, however, which would have helped his overall argument) that the institution of slavery and the phenomenon of racism were two separate things in the South in the mid-nineteenth century.
Because their lot in life was nearly as bad as the slaves' (though without the humiliation of being considered property), by and large, poor whites did not support the secession of the southern states. Early on, many poor whites recognized that secession and the creation of the Confederate States was primarily by and for the rich plantation owners, and by war's end, most had reached that conclusion.
Williams shows how the majority of people who lived in the South (Native Americans, African Americans, poor whites, and women) had myriad reasons not to support the Confederacy. The ultimate profits of the war would only serve to prop up a lifestyle to which none of those groups had access. And, after the first year of the war, when more and more soldiers were actively deserting the Confederate army, there were more immediate reasons for disunion.
As desertion and avoiding the draft became more common, the Confederacy resorted to violent and aggressive means to enforce military service. Not surprisingly, this resulted in even fewer men willing to enlist or serve. Williams devotes a chapter to the phenomenon of desertion and draft dodging.
As the war dragged on, supplies (primarily food and clothes) became more and more scarce--both on the home front and on the front lines--due to a combination of inflation, resistance of rich planters to growing food crops instead of profitable cotton, and rampant corruption at the government level. Soldiers and their families were starving; women resorted to rioting for food, breaking into supply houses and stealing what they needed, and soldiers plundered the countryside for whatever they could find to eat.
Williams also devotes a full chapter each to the ways in which the two primary minority groups in the South were instrumental in undermining the Confederacy. African Americans, though still enslaved throughout the war, played key roles as spies and saboteurs, and provided safehouses for refugees, draft dodgers, and deserters.
The chapter on the position of Native Americans during the Civil War was especially interesting to me, since I grew up in Oklahoma and have learned this stuff at some point. Williams focuses on the Cherokees in Indian Territory, since they were one of the largest and best organized nations, though he gives attention to several others. The Cherokees were also bitterly divided; having been subjected to the Trail of Tears only a few years earlier in 1831.
Some Cherokees threw their weight behind the Confederacy, hoping that they'd receive better treatment from the new government than they had from the old one. Other Cherokees wanted to show the Federal government their loyalty to their treaty, and remained faithful to the Union. This division led to a civil war within Indian Territory and the surrounding areas.
Overall this book was very informative. I found it to read fairly quickly, though, due to Williams' system of organization. He has only a few clear points, and he illustrates them with example after example from primary sources. Once I'd absorbed his point, I could then choose to keep reading diary extracts and newspaper articles, or I could skim on to the next main topic. In this way, I read the early chapters on desertion and Confederate mismanagement of supplies fairly quickly, but I spent a lot of time reading the chapters on African Americans and Native Americans.
I recommend this book to anyone who would like a quick revisionist history of the Civil War. It can be repetitive, though, once you've absorbed the main arguments.