Book Review: Southern Unionist Pamphlets and the Civil War (edited by Jon. L. Wakelyn): CWT | HistoryNet MENU

Book Review: Southern Unionist Pamphlets and the Civil War (edited by Jon. L. Wakelyn): CWT

8/12/2001 • Civil War Times, Reviews

Southern Unionist Pamphlets and the Civil War, edited by Jon. L. Wakelyn, University of Missouri Press, Columbia, 573-882-0180, 392 pages, $39.95.

For decades after the Civil War, Southerners who had remained loyal to the Union were shrouded in a fog of suspicion, misunderstanding, and ill-conceived stereotypes. Confederates scorned Southern loyalists as traitors, political profiteers, and ignorant vagabonds, while Northerners either forgot the contributions of their Southern allies or portrayed them simplistically as glorious patriots who fully shared the North’s war aims. Historians, likewise, tended either to ignore this segment of the wartime population or to repeat these caricatures.

Beginning in the 1970s, however, scholars such as Gordon B. McKinney, Durwood Dunn, Daniel Crofts, and Richard Nelson Current began to produce serious, critical studies of Southern dissenters, studies that made clear that Southern Unionists defied easy categorization and possessed diverse views on slavery, the conduct of the war, and the restoration of government in the South. These works demonstrated that, despite their differences, Southern Unionists played a critical role in the war and Reconstruction. They diverted troops from the front, hampered the South’s mobilization of manpower and resources, forced the Confederate government to initiate harsh internal security measures, and contributed to Southern demoralization.

Southern Unionist Pamphlets re-prints, almost in full, the text of 18 significant, representative Unionist pamphlets that circulated during the 1860s. It includes works by prominent and less known loyalists and ranges across the whole spectrum of Southern Unionism. Readers will find here the core beliefs that drove the loyalist resistance, and the ugly disputes that robbed it of unity and greater influence.

Perhaps the most important Unionist principle was the insistence that secession was not a popular revolution but a coup, conceived by the slaveholding elite in the 1830s and nursed in secret until Lincoln’s election provided a pretext for action. Unionists charged that this elite had refused to allow the Southern people a fair vote on secession and had intimidated anyone who opposed them. Loyalists further portrayed the Confederate government as an aristocracy, created to protect the interests of slaveholders and held in place by the blood and sweat of small farmers. By holding to these perceptions, Unionists sought to cast themselves as the rightful representatives of the Southern population.

Equally fundamental to the Unionist movement was the assertion that the Confederate government had failed to carry out its responsibilities to the Southern people. Confederate leaders had promised a peaceful separation from the Union, yet the immediate result of secession had been war. They had then guaranteed foreign aid and a quick victory, but instead the war had dragged on year after year, and not a single country had offered substantial help. Proponents of secession had held out the vision of freedom from Northern financial chains and the full development of the South’s economic potential, yet the Confederacy now found itself wracked by inflation, shortages, economic stagnation, and widespread destruction. Unionists further charged that the new government was riddled with corruption. They recited dozens of tales of unwarranted arrests, illegal executions, and widespread profiteering. They repeatedly asked why such a corrupt government should continue to exist, and called on Southerners to assert their rights and bring down the Confederate regime.

To the detriment of their cause, on many other issues loyalists sparred with each other as determinedly as they fought their Confederate enemies. One particularly contentious topic was slavery. Even to the end of the war, a number of loyalists clung stubbornly to the peculiar institution and were deeply embittered by emancipation. One of these was Bryan Tyson, a North Carolina loyalist who published a pamphlet in 1863 calling on the North to sever any connection between slavery and the war. Tyson insisted that most masters kindly provided for their slaves from birth to death, citing statistics showing that Southern slaves enjoyed a higher living standard than Northern free blacks. Tyson further pointed to the supposed chaos in Jamaica and Haiti after emancipation to show that blacks could not govern themselves or work productively on their own. Tyson insisted that slavery benefited blacks as well as whites, and appealed to the Lincoln administration to offer peace to the South with the institution intact.

On the other side of this issue was Andrew Johnson, the future U.S. president and Tennessee’s most prominent loyalist spokesman. Johnson agreed with Tyson that blacks were inherently inferior to whites, and expressed the hope that the entire population of freed slaves would leave the country. But Johnson also recognized the realities at work in both North and South. In an 1864 speech in Nashville, subsequently reprinted in pamphlet form, Johnson asserted that the slavery issue was past debate. The exigencies of war had already destroyed the institution, and any attempt to revive it would be both fruitless and unjust. Johnson further asserted that the South would thrive without slavery. Large landholdings could be broken up and distributed to landless whites, and these small farmers would exceed the production levels of the slaveholding South. Further, emancipation would break the power of the slaveholding elite and place small farmers and mechanics on an equal level with former slave owners.

Unionists also quarreled with each other, and with Northern officials, over the restoration of state governments in the South. Particularly unpleasant was the dispute between Francis H. Pierpont and Union Major General Benjamin Butler, a dispute that Pierpont aired in an 1864 pamphlet. Pierpont, a leader of the movement that made West Virginia a separate state from Virginia, had in 1863 become the war governor of the Union-occupied portions of Virginia. In 1864, he was angry that Butler had assumed a wide range of civil powers in eastern Virginia and entirely ignored his administration. Pierpont charged that Butler had set himself up as an economic czar, canceling all permits issued by his predecessors, levying a variety of taxes, and depositing the proceeds into a secret fund. Pierpont also accused Butler of granting profitable licenses to secessionists while denying them to loyalist and Northern firms, of allowing secessionists to avoid paying taxes or taking an oath of loyalty to Pierpont’s provisional state government, and of consulting with known secessionists while pointedly ignoring loyalists.

The pamphlets in this work provide a unique and fascinating look into the minds of Southern Unionists. Anyone concerned with the loyalist movement in the South, the nature of wartime dissent, and the politics of Reconstruction will find the view valuable. Readers not already considerably familiar with Southern Unionism, however, may find the pamphlets difficult reading. While editor Jon L. Wakelyn’s decision to avoid cluttering his work with the sort of minute, ostentatious references that appear in too many other edited works is admirable, many sections in these pamphlets do require explanation do not receive it. And while Wakelyn’s introductory essay makes a number of important observations, it simply does not cover enough territory to orient all readers to the topic. These observations are not intended to steer readers away from an excellent work, but only to suggest that they be prepared.

Noel C. Fisher
Columbus, Ohio


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