The Confederacy, Southern Unionists, and Civil Liberties

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This video is part of the Virginia Historical Society’s traveling exhibit, “An American Turning Point.”  It tackles the complex subject of southern unionists and the protection of civil liberties during wartime.  Questions surrounding civil liberties often come up in reference to the steps Lincoln took at various points during the war, but rarely comes up in the context of the Confederacy.  It’s nice to see the VHS tackling these subjects and for a short clip I think it does so effectively.  What do you think?

The best book on the subject is Mark Neely’s, Southern Rights: Political Prisoners and the Myth of Confederate Constitutionalism (University of Virginia Press, 1999).

15 comments… add one

  • Emmanuel Dabney Nov 29, 2011

    My favorite part of this is that this pushes understanding of Southern women beyond just waiting patiently at home for Southern men or that they had no politics merely because women could not vote or hold public office.

    I just always crave representing the breadth of Southern women (rich/middle class/poor; slaveholding/non-slaveholding; enslaved and free; black/white/Indian/mixed) beyond the stereotypes so engrained with the movie Gone With the Wind.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 29, 2011

      You are absolutely right, Emmanuel. I meant to comment on that so thanks for pointing it out. The VHS rocks!

  • Ray O'Hara Nov 29, 2011

    in the Buster Keaton movie ‘ The General’ the protagonist is shunned by the women because he isn’t in the Army, The pressure Southern Women put on men to serve early in the war has been documented in books and movies.
    Everybody on both sides initially expected a short war. the female attitudes reflected that.
    It wasn’t until the men started coming home shattered hulks or not coming home and there was no one to harvest the crops and run the farm at all that the attitude changed.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 29, 2011

      Certainly many people expected a short war, but not everyone. W.T. Sherman certainly did not. I think you will find that the support of white southern women to the cause fluctuated throughout the war and based on a host of factors, including the hardships experienced without their husbands and loved ones.

      What I like about this short presentation is that we have an example of a woman whose support of the Confederacy is not influenced by any consideration of the opposite sex. It’s refreshing.

  • Rob Baker Nov 29, 2011

    What a refreshing presentation. Certain Heritage advocates are all too happy to point out the flaws and infringement of rights of Abraham Lincoln. But none of them seem to recall that though Jefferson Davis initially opposed such measures, he soon adopted the same thing.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 29, 2011

      This tendency to pin the evolution of centralized government on the Lincoln administration alone makes little sense not simply when you look at the Confederacy, but on the international scene as a whole.

      • Rob Baker Nov 29, 2011

        Agreed, the macro to micro concept of outlook. They are displaying American Exceptionalism within Confederate Heritage ;-)

      • Ray O'Hara Nov 29, 2011

        The Lincoln the tyrant meme is pushed by the Libertarian crowd like Dilorenzo and the Kennedy twins. Their interest in the ACW is strictly based on a modern anti-government philosophy and not by any dedication to the CSA.
        That the CSA lost and ceased to exist eliminates any criticism of the way Davis governed. It’s not what the CSA was fighting for that interests them, they probably see it as irrelevant., it’s what they imagine the CSA was fighting against that concerns them. Of course what they imagine the CSA was doing was resisting the tyrant Lincoln who was but a pawn of the bankers and Northern industrialists putting paid to the dearly held States Rights they again imagine the CONUS enshrined.

      • Margaret D. Blough Nov 30, 2011

        I agree, Kevin. The fact is that, when a nation is engaged in a war, particularly the kind of total war that developed in the 19th and 20th centuries, there is an inevitable need for a degree of centralization and coordination that is driven by the demands of the war effort, regardless of ideology. As you noted, even the Confederacy had to move in that direction, although the resistance to it from states impeded the Confederate war effort. Even the strictest literalist on Constitutional interpretation should be willing to concede that providing for the common defense is a power clearly given to the federal government just as the President, under the Constitution, is the commander-in-chief of all armed forces, including state militias called into federal service in time of war. The inability of the national government under the Articles of Confederation to effectively defend the country, particularly in terms of revenue, was a significant motivating factor in the move to replace it with what became the Constitution.

        I see nothing in Lincoln’s history that indicates that he had any interest in strengthening the federal government in peace time. Of course, since he never had the opportunity to be anything but a War President, we’ll never know. True, as a Whig, he favored federal support for and funding of internal improvements, but even that wasn’t limited to Whigs. Westerners, who needed assistance to open up new areas for settlement and development, tended to favor federal funding for internal improvements. The dispute over whether the Constitution permitted this went back to the earliest days of the Constitution & was not created by or dependent on Lincoln’s position. However, all that required for internal improvements was federal money. Federal control was generally considered to be neither needed nor wanted. If anything, it was pro-slavery forces that demanded direct and forceful action by the federal government against the opposition or resistance of (1) free state governments to returning fugitive slaves and (2) resistance of Free Soilers and abolitionists (quite often very distinct and sometimes contentious groups) to the expansion of slavery to the territories.

  • Robert Moore Nov 29, 2011

    Well… it’s ok. I get the drift of what it’s saying, but I’m not feeling entirely comfortable with the presentation. For one, Virginia Unionism is portrayed here as critical of Virginia slaveholders and their efforts to secede. Sure, the case for some, but certainly not the model example of Virginia Unionism (even in eastern West Virginia… Greenbrier County being the example). As for pro-Confederates ratting-out someone on sedition, that’s refreshing to see… but speaking openly on Unionism, especially in public venues, was clearly not in the best interests of Unionists, and they knew that all too well after the Va Convention, and prior to the referendum. I like what they did, but I’m not entirely sure I like the manner in which this plays out. Seems more atypical on the whole.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 30, 2011

      I was hoping you would comment. You make a good point, but I wonder if they decided that this particular scene would be the most effective in raising the broader issue even if it is atypical.

      • Robert Moore Nov 30, 2011

        I can certainly see that there is a need to strike rather quickly in a two-minute animation, but, I’m wondering if it could have been more effective, and historically truer to form, with some tweaking. For one, (and as Patrick appears to agree) it might have been better to take it out of the West Virginia sphere. Secondly, I believe that the manner in which the sedition was being presented in the animation could have been modeled after that which was more typical, historically. Post Virginia Convention Unionists found it necessary to became much more discrete. Even so, for many, the cat was already out of the bag, resulting in a range of threats made against those who were suspected.

        I do agree with Emmanuel, that it’s good to see the example of the power that a woman could bring to bear in those days… something that isn’t fully appreciated, I think.

    • Patrick Lewis Nov 30, 2011

      I’m with you, Robert, on the strange absence of a proslavery unionism here. If we cast unionist opposition to the Confederacy as opposition to slavery, there is a tendency to tacitly absolve Unionists and Union states from the sins of slavery and racism. Moreover, locating that sentiment only in what would become West Virginia is problematic, too (recognizing the difficulties imposed in a 2 minute video) because it makes Unionism seem to be the great Appalachian “other,” that is of questionable “southernness” by the standard cultural definitions. Of course, Virginia is not alone in struggling to understand and interpret proslavery Unionism, my work on Kentucky is trying to hash through precisely this in the Bluegrass.

      Let Dan Crofts be our guide, here, as well as Neely!

  • Dudley Bokoski Nov 30, 2011

    What is the target audience for this exhibit? It seems an odd way to make a point when there are contemporary accounts that could be featured which would have the advantage of describing actual, verifiable events. It reminds me of the New York Times writer who made a valid story out of composite characters. The truth of what is presented here is undercut by making the characters stereotypically mean spirited and weak. The reality is the really ugly acts in history are often committed by people who are basically decent except for rationalizing away from some hard moral choice. History is context and this format does less to provide it than actual period accounts would have. This is history in the way Newt Gingrichs book is. Once you take on the role of creator it may be interesting or illustrative but it is not history. But I am 55 and dont consider Lady Gaga music or thr DH baseball so mayne I am being too harsh.

  • London John Dec 1, 2011

    What do you think of Cold Mountain novel/film as a realistic picture of the confederate home front? My impression is it was pretty much a reign of terror against suspected Unionists. A Texan friend gave me a novel called A Bright Tragic Thing about the Great Hanging at Gainesville. And that’s quite apart from the frequent murder of white southern unionist POWs. SFAIK, the only confederate war criminal to be punished was Captain Wirtz, the commandant of Andersonville. Why?

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