THIS YEAR’S journalistic fascination with the white working class often intersects with debates about Confederate symbols, particularly when the focus is on the southern states. More than 150 years after the abolition of slavery, its malignant legacies reach into every aspect of American social, political, and economic life. But Americans still grapple with how to deal with the Confederacy that fought to defend it. Because stereotypical images of “poor white trash” generally include a Confederate flag somewhere in the frame, these disputes are often inseparable from discussions of the interests of working-class whites.

By highlighting the importance of white class divisions in southern history, Keri Leigh Merritt’s Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South helps us understand how we got here. Poor whites aren’t as well represented as the gentry in histories of the antebellum period. But at least a third of Deep South whites were landless, slaveless, and in possession of less than $100 in wealth, and ignoring this group provides a vastly simplified version of what the white South actually looked like.

Studying poor whites is difficult, though, because of the lack of primary source materials they left behind. An “overwhelming majority” were “grossly uneducated,” and “owing to their high rates of illiteracy, poor whites left virtually no written records.” To get around this methodological hurdle, Merritt makes creative use of a wide range of other sources, including county court cases, coroner’s reports, jail records, Civil War veterans’ questionnaires, slave narratives, and accounts written by travelers, abolitionists, and slaveholders.

One of the book’s many strengths is that Merritt tells the story of poor white southerners without downplaying the experiences of black southerners and the brutality of slavery. “Complete with large percentages of slaves and a sizable, disaffected poor white underclass, a constant state of anxiety engulfed much of the Deep South in the years preceding secession,” Merritt writes. An alliance between slaves and poor whites would have threatened “the fortunes, the power, and even the lives of the region’s masters.” Slaveholders would take nearly any step to prevent this interracial alliance from forming, and Merritt argues that the treatment of poor southern whites stemmed in part from the white elite’s efforts to preserve the institution of slavery.

Masterless Men shows that, rather than united by a shared commitment to slavery, the antebellum white South was deeply divided by class. Poor whites in this era “were directly prevented from enjoying many of the privileges of whiteness.” Most lived in shoddy housing, suffered from poor diets, and found work opportunities to be low-paying and unreliable. In addition to these everyday realities, the book is filled with striking examples of their mistreatment by the antebellum legal system, which she argues was “primarily structured around incarcerating poor whites.” At the extreme end, she provides vivid descriptions of poor whites sold into indentured servitude or subjected to harsh corporal punishment by both legal and extralegal forces.

Beyond physical deprivation and mistreatment, much of the region was “deliberately veiled in ignorance.” Elite animus toward universal public education is a recurring theme of southern history, and one that is particularly clear in the antebellum era. Southern school enrollment rates were less half those of the rest of the nation, and the majority of poor whites in the Deep South received “little or no education.”

Slaveholders, Merritt argues, “had rational economic reasons for never funding a system of universal education for whites,” chief among them the preservation of slavery. They would much rather have poor whites dependent on them for information than risk their exposure to abolitionist arguments, particularly those that portrayed poor whites as another of slavery’s victims. An 1849 abolitionist editorial, for instance, declared that “the free white people of these States have no interest in slave property, but on the contrary are directly interested against the continuance of the system.” The institution of slavery, the editorial continued, left poor whites’ labor “degraded in character generally and underpaid in price.” In case illiteracy proved insufficient to prevent poor whites from encountering such arguments, slaveholders also succeeded in establishing widespread censorship of abolitionist materials, the distribution of which was often punished with remarkable violence and sometimes even death.

Suppressing the minds and bodies of poor whites was integral to maintaining slavery because, in Merritt’s view, “poor whites would have made likely allies [to abolitionists] — had they been literate and educated.” The possibility of a multiracial poor people’s movement echoes contemporary discussions about the prospects of organizing the white working class into progressive politics today. The latest issue of Dissent, for example, takes on the subject of “organizing in red America.” In an overview of the issue, Michael Kazin describes the persisting racial divide among workers as a particularly challenging hurdle, lamenting that the endurance of “racial hierarchy” is a “key reason” why so many whites vote for right-wing candidates.

Paul Blest addresses a similar theme in his recent article in The Nation. “In order for the left to win in the South,” he writes, “it must demonstrate an ability to create a strong and sustainable coalition in spite of the one of the main historical obstacles to progress in America: racism.” He talks to Robert Greene, a PhD student in history at the University of South Carolina, who notes that southern history indicates such efforts will require “at least some cross-racial collaboration.” The difficulty, Greene notes, is that “so many times in Southern history, racism has been used as a wedge between white and black Southerners who might otherwise have some common ground on key issues.”

Hence, a historical mystery that Merritt seeks to plumb: if poor whites were excluded from many of the privileges of whiteness in the antebellum era, why did so many fight for the Confederacy? Certainly some — although it is hard to be precise about exactly how many — would have preferred to remain in the union. Support for secession was lowest in mountainous regions where slavery was less prevalent, and in the Deep South, secession votes were much closer when voter turnout was higher. Once southern elites acted to secede, however, many poor whites simply had little choice but to fight for the Confederacy, whether they wanted to or not.

While about three-quarters of southern white men counted by the census served in the Confederate military, because “most poor whites opposed secession, few were volunteers.” Merritt cites research showing that almost half of enlistees “either lived with slaveholders or were slave owners themselves,” an argument that finds additional support in new research by political scientists.

Merritt’s account contrasts with conventional wisdom about poor white military service, which too often simply assumes that poor whites chose to fight for ideological reasons. Her account instead emphasizes their lack of alternatives. “Inhabiting a police state, with no economic standing and virtually no civil rights, they simply had no recourse for their many grievances,” she writes. “Short of an all-out rebellion, they had to either fight for the Confederacy or hide out from the military authorities for the duration of the war.” The slaveholding elite “had created a war to protect their own wealth and privilege” and they “expected non-slaveholders to carry the burden of the war, to give life, limb, and sanity to preserve an institution that only negatively impacted them.”

Considering that the battle flag of the slaveholders’ cause is now more often associated with poor whites than wealthy ones, Merritt’s description of the war’s burden on poor whites is rather striking. So why do some poor whites today fly a flag that meant so little to their ancestors? The cause of the flag’s newfound popularity was the rise of the Civil Rights movement in the middle of the 20th century, but after reading Masterless Men one can’t help but notice that it also took until the antebellum class divisions among whites had faded from memory.

The earliest traces of cross-class white solidarity, however, date back to the United States’s first experiment with biracial democracy. While her book is largely focused on the antebellum era, her discussion of Reconstruction and its aftermath is perhaps the most illuminating for contemporary politics. The irony of emancipation, she argues, is that “poor whites were finally granted at least enough of the privileges of whiteness to get them off the bottom rung of society, which would now be occupied by blacks.”

Efforts were finally made to include poor whites — and, in many cases, exclude free blacks — into the economic system. Postwar federal policies aimed at increasing land ownership are of particular interest here. The Homestead Acts, “the most extensive, radical, redistributive governmental policy in American history,” gave many poor whites the access to land that they lacked for generations, but benefited only a small number of black southerners. It is hardly surprising today, then, that there remains a vast disparity in average wealth along racial lines, a difference that persists even when controlling for income and other factors.

Poor whites, Merritt concludes, “began as pariahs,” but after the war they were “brought into the system of white privilege, albeit at the bottom.” While they were excluded based on wealth before the war, with time they “gained certain legal, political, and social advantages solely based upon race.” Repression of poor whites by the slaveholding elite is not part of the region’s collective memory, a hidden history that needs to be told. As poor whites began to enjoy more of the privileges of whiteness, symbols of the slaveholders’ crusade came to represent general whiteness. Yet as Merritt’s careful history of poor whites shows, this unity was neither ever-present nor inevitable, but a continuation of the long-standing interests and strategy of the southern ruling class.

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Steven White is an assistant professor of political science at Syracuse University.