Historian Stephanie McCurry Explores the Lasting Impact of the U.S. Civil War

Bridget O'Brian
October 09, 2018

Stephanie McCurry grew up in Belfast, surrounded by political violence. Her neighborhood was at the center of British occupation during “The Troubles,” the euphemism for sectarian strife between Northern Irish Catholics and Protestants that killed thousands in the 1970s and 80s. She recalls British troop carriers rolling through the streets on a daily basis.

Amidst the ongoing violence in 1972, her parents brought McCurry, then 13, and five siblings to live in Toronto. “That political childhood gave me deep convictions about what was politically legitimate and what was not, plus there was my bookishness,” she said. “I was waiting for a place for all that passion to go.”

She found it in an American history survey class in college, where she was shocked to learn that Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner.

“I think all the big ethical questions that preoccupied me were condensed in the issue of slavery and democracy in the United States,” she said. “It was just enough distance from the things that roiled me that I was able to be scholarly about it.”

McCurry’s book, Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history in 2011. (The winner that year was Columbia’s Eric Foner for The Fiery Trial, about Lincoln’s changing views on slavery.)

She joined Columbia’s History Department in 2015, to fill the void that would be left by Foner’s retirement the following year. Here, she talks about the Civil War’s lasting impact and its influence on current events.

Q. Many of your books and articles focus on aspects of the Civil War that are not always the conventional understanding of the period. How do you pick your subjects?

A. There are ways of seeing the world that are not much represented in the academy. Because of my background and way of thinking about how power works in the world, I began noticing things that were in plain sight. The first academic article I ever wrote, in 1992, was about what was called pro-slavery ideology, an antebellum defense of slavery that was largely advanced by evangelical ministers in their sermons and writings. One of their main arguments was that slavery was like marriage, it’s a hierarchical but benevolent relationship designed to protect the weak. They were trying to use the legitimacy of the family and marriage to justify slavery. Nobody had really noticed the marriage analogy although it was all over the sources. If you think marriage is a benevolent relationship you’re not going to see it as a relation of power, either now or then. It was a new interpretation of documents and a historical problem that people had been looking at for a long time.

Q. How did you come to that conclusion?

A. By the time I began teaching and writing in the 1980s, there was a new kind of women’s history, gender history, that was about the dynamics of power between men and women. It allowed me to grapple with other aspects of how slave societies worked, and how they could claim to be a democracy when they disenfranchised the vast majority of their population. Slaves, of course, had no rights and their fates were determined by their owners and not by any government. And while white women had formal standing as citizens, they were not citizens in the way their male relatives were. Men had property rights over their women and children. The exclusion of African Americans and women defined that society. They were linked and not separate aspects.

Q. What is your perspective when you write about the start of the Civil War?

A. There was a small group of slaveholders in the United States—one third of white household heads owned slaves, but most owned only two or three. Very few were what we would call planters with large numbers of slaves. So how did the pro-slavery politicians get states to secede from the Union in defense of an institution when most voters didn’t have a material stake in it? Those pro-slavery forces used the larger religious ideology of evangelism—and especially the idea of society as a family writ large—to make the case to white male voters: “We’re free men, and that means nobody tells you what to do with your dependents, whether they’re your slaves or your family.” That opened up a new way of looking at relatively traditional topics and seeing the connections between the private and the public, and also between race and gender in political history.

Q. Can you give an example of that?

A. My book Confederate Reckoning was an effort to take that history from military historians and say it isn’t all about military defeat, this is also about political failure. I wrote about relatively traditional topics, like why South Carolina seceded from the Union, how elite politicians pulled it off. Secession involved a level of political organization and manipulation that would be impressive even by contemporary standards. And by the end of the war, the South was something of an authoritarian state: more than three quarters of white men were forced to serve in the military, while slaveholders were exempted. Taxes rose and inflation caused food prices to skyrocket. The rural society was so profoundly disrupted that even poor white women, yeoman farmers’ wives, became public critics of military policy and demanded that the government protect them. Some of them led bread riots. It was another kind of politics that comes into view when you don’t think narrowly about a topic.

Q. What is your definition of politics?

A. Not everything that contests unequal power is political. To me, for a contest of power to be political, it has to have an impact on governmental policies—local, state, federal. So politics doesn’t necessarily involve voting or what happened at the ballot box, because most people were excluded from the vote in the 19th century. But if disenfranchised peoples’ engagement with a question of public significance ends up shaping a change in governmental policies at any level, as the food riots did, that would be my standard for calling it political.

Q. What are you working on now?

A. I am researching a book on the post-Civil War U.S. that will go roughly from 1865 to the end of the century. I just finished writing a book on women and the American Civil War, which has a chapter on an elite slaveholding woman who left a 40-year diary of her life. I’m trying to use this woman’s very thoughtful account of the end of slavery and the beginning of post-emancipation society in the American South to look at the scope of what was involved in reconstructing a life. One focus is on the highly intimate elements of defeat and emancipation in terms of their effect on her sense of herself as a woman, a mother, a wife. All wars have post-war periods that are perhaps more uncertain than the conflict itself. But this was far more than that. The term Reconstruction doesn’t begin to cover it.

Q. How do you describe the post-Civil War period?

A. At the end of the war, the federal government effectively liberated four million people, most of them in the South, who had no legal family structure, no legal marriage, no legal claim on their own children. The southern states had to write new constitutions because the old ones were slave constitutions. After the Civil War, African Americans had to start with nothing, there were no reparations or compensation. And yet very quickly a liberal ideology took hold that everybody had to look out for themselves, nobody could rely on the government, everyone was entitled only to what they earned. White supremacy was being reconfigured in front of their faces. It’s incomprehensible. You structurally disadvantage an entire people, and then you say that it’s their own fault. There is an unfortunate thematic connection between the late 1860s and 1870s and today. You recognize what African Americans were up against.

Q. And then what happened to Reconstruction?

A. I think we need to pause and understand how profound that transition was and how great the sense of possibility was. And actually for about 10 or 12 years, depending on where you were, even the federal government maintained enough of an investment that it was on the side of African Americans’ civil rights. It applied itself to suppressing the Klan, for example. It was always a brutal struggle, but African Americans were determined and empowered in that fight, and the fact that they ended up so horribly overpowered had a lot to do with the federal government basically giving up. The outcome of the election of 1876 was disputed, was handed over to a commission, and politicians threw the presidency to the Republican candidate on a deal of federal withdrawal of the troops and federal authorities from the South. Essentially, they stopped enforcing the 14th Amendment [which granted citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the U.S.—former slaves included—and guaranteed equal protection of the laws to all citizens]. That was a brutal endpoint, a really corrupt political deal, that has awful and shadowy connections to today.

Q. What are those connections?

A. It really matters whether the federal government uses its power to suppress or enable white supremacist elements in political life.

Q. Do you have an opinion about what to do with Confederate statues?

A. I don’t think you can think clearly about that issue without a grasp of the larger context and the larger stakes. How much longer are we going to continue to reproduce these structures of white supremacy in public life? So a lot of them need to come down or be moved out of public places. At the same time, I think the issue we should be talking about is the legacy of slavery and white supremacy, and we end up bogged down in minutiae about which monuments should come down and which should stay.

Q. Will the Civil War’s shadow always be upon us?

A. Yes, because there are so many aspects of it that keep erupting in our politics. There are obvious things, the Confederate statues and Confederate flag. But really the big issue is the lasting legacy of slavery and its traumatic effects on African Americans and American political life even today. I think we reached a moment not very long ago when I thought African Americans were finally able to press for a level of accountability for slavery, to make contemporary Americans understand how practices in the present, like criminal justice practices or police behavior, are themselves directly tied to the legacy of slavery. Putting police departments on notice or under federal direction, reforming the bail system. Addressing the level of economic inequality in this country, which is directly tied to race and the legacy of slavery. One thing I think a lot about now is the difference between what happens when federal power is used to promote equality and to protect the freedoms, the civil rights and the political rights and the economic rights of the weakest among us, and when it is not, like now.

Q. Are there any glimmers of hope?

A. They are always there. I profoundly believe two things about historical change. First, a lot of it comes out of necessity, it’s rarely just chosen. Second, historical change is always the product of great conflict and of struggle, so this is no different than any other time.