“Passes! Passes For White Folks!”

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.

I was reminded of this as I read Yael Sternhell’s Disunion column on the Confederacy’s passport system. This essay, along with her excellent book, Routes of War: The World of Movement in the Confederate South (Harvard University Press, 2014) are shaped in profound ways by the violence and volatility in her own country of Israel.

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.

Most of you are probably unaware of this program. It certainly provides another window into the extent to which the Confederate government imposed itself on ordinary citizens. Head on over and read the full article and do yourself a favor and buy the book.

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10 comments… add one

  • Al Mackey Aug 9, 2014

    Emory Thomas mentioned the passport system in his book, The Confederacy as a Revolutionary Experience. He also talked about other measures the confederacy took, such as reporting on who rode the trains and who stayed in hotels, taking over manufacturing companies, etc. The confederacy was the most centralized government that existed on this continent up to that point and for a number of years afterward. Neoconfederates who decry socialism have no idea how much socialism was involved in the confederacy. The confederacy owned the means of production and conscripted workers into the Army so that if they walked off the job they were guilty of desertion.

  • Ken Noe Aug 9, 2014

    Al, Mark Neely also discusses the pass system in his book Southern Rights, as part of a larger argument that white Confederates really were more concerned with security than liberty The twin threats of slave uprisings and Union spies, he maintains, made them more willing to accept the sorts of curtailments on liberty that we usually associate with modern police states..

    • Kevin Levin Aug 9, 2014

      It would be interesting to know the extent to which citizens of the Confederacy tolerated this policy. Stephanie McCurry used slave impressment to illustrate internal dissent, but as you know, Jaime Martinez recently showed that at least in the Upper South there was a certain level of toleration for it.

      • Ken Noe Aug 9, 2014

        I don’t think we’ve studied it enough to know. That would be a useful project. Neely certainly thinks that most did accept it. It didn’t stir up the opposition that slave impressment brought forth, not in southwest Virginia anyway. But then you look at Georgia in 1863, where Joe Brown was re-elected governor, the peace candidate came in second, and the pro-Davis man finished last. Those results tell us something. Maybe the key is defining “toleration”; no one likes post-9/11 airport security but I suppose we’ve mostly tolerated that. The key point for me remains Al’s, the Davis government at least tried to be more centralized, nationalized, and in Thomas’s words socialist than many want to admit. The main point of the anti-Davis faction, after all, was that he was more of a centralizer than Lincoln. .

  • Jimmy Dick Aug 9, 2014

    Hmm, let’s see if there is a parallel in history for something similar to the Confederate system. Let’s see…wasn’t there a nation that in addition to subjugating part of their people based on race required identification papers for multiple purposes including travel? I seem to recall that nation also restricted travel and banned freedom of speech regarding the opposition of its political ideology. Wasn’t that in the second quarter of the 20th century over in Europe?

  • Bob Huddleston Aug 9, 2014

    I recall reading eons ago that the Vietnam anti-war movement led to studies of the Civil War Copperheads. I wonder if a professor at Tel Aviv University did not get interested because of the use of internal passports in her native country.

  • Connie Chastain Aug 9, 2014

    Hmmm… I wonder why.

    I wonder if it could have had something to do with the Confederacy being AT WAR, with the enemy WITHIN ITS BORDERS — a basically monolithic WHITE enemy, able to accommodate bringing WHITE spies into the country largely at will … something the North didn’t have to worry about.

    Nah… makes too much sense to consider.

    Besides, acknowledging the whiteness of the north, even mentioning it in passing, takes some of the fun out of mauling the white Confederate South….

    • Kevin Levin Aug 10, 2014

      Do yourself a favor and stick to designing covers for imaginary books.

      • Ken Noe Aug 10, 2014

        White Northerners absolutely believed that there was a dangerous internal fifth column operating in the Union, encompassing the Copperheads but especially shadowy secret societies groups like the Knights of the Golden Circle. The recent trend–I’m thinking of books by Jenny Weber and David Keehn here–has been to take those fears seriously..

        • Kevin Levin Aug 10, 2014

          Yeah, Weber does a pretty good on this issue, but I have not had a chance to read Keehn yet.

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