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With Malice Toward Some: Treason and Loyalty in the Civil War Era

By William A. Blair., University North Carolina Press, 2014, $40

It’s difficult not to be impressed with how generous the United States was toward those who committed acts  that could be justly labeled “treason”  during the Civil War and its aftermath.  After their armies surrendered, Confederate soldiers were for the most  part allowed to return to their homes,  and federal authorities fairly quickly  eschewed any notion of executing their  leaders or making them stand trial  for their actions. Perhaps the greatest  evidence of the magnanimity of Union  authorities was that fewer than 20  years after the war began the South  was firmly under the control of men  who, with considerable success, sought  to limit the impact of emancipation and  the federal government’s involvement  in the region’s internal affairs. In this  they were helped by the many in the  North and border states who, while  loyal to the Union, nonetheless shared  their views on government and were a  thorn in the side of Abraham Lincoln  and the Republican Party as they pursued “a more perfect Union.”

In this wide-ranging book, William  A. Blair offers a compelling consideration of the ways Northern political,  military and legal authorities dealt  with the question of treason. While the  framers of the Constitution had made  a determined effort to define treason  clearly—and loyal Americans had little  doubt that the conduct of Confederates made the appellation of “traitor”  proper, Blair demonstrates that dealing  with treasonable behavior was not easy.  On the surface, dealing with Copperheads and devotees of the Confederacy  seemed simple enough, but an array  of factors complicated the task of handling both groups. Would, for instance,  tough treatment of traitors be ultimately counterproductive to the effort  to restore the Union?

Moreover, the Lincoln administration’s ability to exert its will was handicapped by the limited reach of the  federal government and the immaturity of the bureaucratic state in the  mid-19th century. Blair shows that  while historians have appropriately  paid a great deal of attention to Lincoln’s intentions and actions, those of  state and local officials and a host of  other actors both in and out of military  uniform were also important. Indeed, it  is one of Blair’s great accomplishments  that he can effectively consider the  issue on so many levels, making this  both a sophisticated and fascinating  study of the effort to define and stamp  out disloyalty in the Civil War era.


Originally published in the November 2014 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.