William Barney is Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This interview is based on his new book, Rebels in the Making: The Secession Crisis and the Birth of the Confederacy (Oxford University Press, 2020).
JF: What led you to write Rebels in the Making?
WB: A life-long interest in the Civil War era, probably spurred on by reading Bruce Catton’s books back in high school, led me into teaching and writing U.S. history as a career. During my graduate years at Columbia my interest in the Civil War focused on trying to understand the motives behind Southern secession, the underlying theme running through Rebels in the Making.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Rebels in the Making?
WB: In Rebels in the Making I argue that secession was not a mass democratic movement, but one led from above by a strategically placed minority of slaveholders. What drove secession was the need to protect slavery from the perceived threat posed by the coming to power of the antislavery Republican Party.
JF: Why do we need to read Rebels in the Making?
WB: Rebels in the Making is the first comprehensive, one-volume study of secession in all fifteen slave states, and it places secession in the economic, cultural, and social context of a maturing slave society in which, by the 1850s, opportunities for upward mobility were shrinking for non-slaveholders at the very time that the antislavery, free labor movement in the North was threatening to close off federal territories to the spread of slavery. Secession was designed to resolve this dual crisis while simultaneously demonstrating to the world the moral justice and superiority of slavery as a social system.
JF: Tell us a little bit about the source material you worked with in the writing and researching of Rebels in the Making.
WB: I cast a broad net in searching for source materials–personal letters, diaries, and journals; slave narratives; legislative and judicial records; religious sermons; and newspapers. As much as possible, the voices of non-traditional political actors such as women, African Americans, and common whites are included.
JF: What is your next project?
WB: Currently, I’m researching how and why the near unity behind the Confederacy achieved in the spring of 1861 unraveled as the war proceeded. Among the issues I’m exploring are the depth of Confederate nationalism; the role of class in Confederate dissent; the Confederate army as a nationalizing agent; and the factors behind the soldier-civilian divide which widened as the war dragged on.
JF: Thanks, William!