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Southern Rights: Political Prisoners and the Myth of Confederate Constitutionalism Hardcover – October 29, 1999
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Mark Neely's Southern Rights is a work of major significance that revises many traditional views about civil liberties in the Confederacy. By carefully analyzing the previously ignored arrest records of more than 4,000 political prisoners in the Confederacy, Neely demonstrates that in crucial ways the regulation of dissent was simultaneously more sweeping and less controversial in the Confederacy than in the Union, and in theprocess effectively calls into question the standard paeans to Confederate constitutionalism. Neely's careful scholarship reveals how little we knew previously about the formulation of Confederate policy on this issue or how Confederate laws and policies were actually enforced at the local level. This is a stimulating and provocative work that asks new questions, challenges many reigning beliefs about southern society and values, and points Confederate scholarship in new directions. With implications far beyond its particular subject, Southern Rights is one of the most original and important books on the Confederacy ever published.(William E. Gienapp, Harvard University)
About the Author
Mark E. Neely Jr., McCabe-Greer Professor of Civil War History at the Pennsylvania State University, won a Pulitzer Prize in history for his book The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties. He is also author of The Last Best Hope of Earth: Abraham Lincoln and the Promise of America.
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Whole chapters are devoted to the special cases of Arkansas and East Tennessee, with another chapter lumping together western Virginia and North Carolina. I especially appreciated the chapter on East Tennessee as the only one of my ancestors whom I can prove served in the Civil War, James H. Galbraith, was from there. He joined a Union mounted infantry unit at the very end of the war. I have long been curious what he did between the start of the war and then. If Neely is to be believed, he either fled North at the outset or (more likely, given that he did not sign up immediately) was held as a prisoner by the Confederates for his Unionism until all of Tennessee was overrun. Most of those in their twenties and thirties who did flee north joined the Union Army almost immediately; Neely argues that in this region, non-participation in the war was not a viable option.
Chapter 8 deals among other things with historic peace churches in the Confederacy and their efforts to avoid conscription of their adherents. Such movements were typically also antislavery and thus suspect to Confederate authorities. Chapter 8 also provides most of the more colorful incidents described in the book, such as a runaway slave being hanged by Union troops (!) for providing false information and British permanent residents realizing their choices (and especially their ability to avoid conscription) were very limited after British consuls were expelled (!!) from Southern cities in late 1863.
Chapter 9 personalizes the war by showing what Jefferson Davis did about civil liberties and is therefore the most readable chapter. It makes the very important point that success or failure in the war hinged on control of the Border South which, after Fort Sumter and the call for volunteers, was evenly divided between the Confederacy and the Union. Even more important, however, is the simple fact that Jefferson Davis was constrained by circumstances just as Lincoln was. The following long quote closes out the chapter:
"Historians could not help but notice the differences in Confederate and Union ideologies and policies -- the Union restricting liberty from the earliest moment to the very end of the war, while the Confederacy made a great point of its maintenance of civilian rights in the midst of war almost to the very end. Dwelling more on what the presidents said than what they did, historians assumed that Confederates valued white civil liberties more than Northerners did and that Confederate leaders had more reverence for the constitution. Such a conclusion ignores behavior and the realities of power. Actually, Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln acted alike as commanders in chief when it came to the rights of the civilian populace. Both showed little sincere interest in constitutional restrictions on government authority in wartime. Both were obsessed with winning the war. Both ultimately obeyed their great national mandates to hold on to the territory they had."
This false assumption about more reverence being placed on white civil liberties by the Confederacy is an all-too-common mistake in studying the Civil War and made this book necessary. I will concede that the Confederacy was the last attempt to erect an actual government on Jeffersonian principles but the exigencies of war permitted very little difference between Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians in relationships with actual citizens, especially those who were not entirely behind their respective sides. Four stars.