It’s impossible to deny the influence that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have had on Civil War scholarship. The two most obvious places in which you can see this influence is in the number of new studies on Civil War veterans as well as medical treatment of soldiers. You can also see it in the fast-growing field of guerrilla war studies and the challenges of occupation.
But even as white Southerners grew used to applying for passports and presenting them when asked, the symbolic meaning of the domestic passport system was hard to ignore. Passes for travel had been an essential and unmistakable feature of Southern slavery since anyone could remember. All over the South, enslaved men and women were required to carry a written pass from their owners whenever they went outside the confines of their places of bondage. Those caught moving about without a travel document were brutally punished, either by their owner or by the South’s notorious slave patrols, armed units of white men who roamed the region’s roads, woods and swamps in search of itinerant slaves.
The problem with the wartime passport system was that it resembled the parallel method for governing slaves not only in theory, but also in practice. The documents required for white travel bore an uncanny similarity to those carried by blacks: Some merely noted the person’s name, destination and dates of permitted travel, but others also noted the height, hair color, eye color, complexion and scars of the traveler.
The situation was further complicated by the fact that the passport system for slaves remained active even as a passport system for whites grew. In fact, the two did not simply coexist, but overlapped and intertwined in ways that constantly challenged the South’s entrenched racial hierarchies. A slave owner seeking to travel with one of his slaves had to apply for passes for both himself and his chattel, and blacks and whites stood in line together in passport offices across the South. The internal passport system brought into sharp relief the uncomfortable fact that the war had cost Southern masters both their own freedom of movement and the freedom to control the movement of their human property.