Saturday, July 11, 2009

Sandow: "Deserter Country: Civil War Opposition in the Pennsylvania Appalachians"

[ Deserter Country: Civil War Opposition in the Pennsylvania Appalachians by Robert M. Sandow (Fordham University Press, 2009). Cloth, maps, figures, tables, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total: 157/246. ISBN: 9780823230518 $55]

During the past couple decades, numerous Civil War studies detailing active government resistance among residents of Appalachia and other isolated regions have been published. However, nearly all center their attention on the southern Confederacy and border states, making Robert Sandow's study Deserter Country: Civil War Opposition in the Pennsylvania Appalachians all the more original and valuable. The author's specific area of interest is the so-called "lumber region", a relatively isolated expanse of land comprised of roughly ten counties in the north-central part of the Keystone State.

Sandow's introduction surveys well the prior literature dealing with the subject of northern dissent. He admirably seeks to move his readers past the entrenched notion of the Democratic Party as a disloyal opposition to the Republican-led federal government. An early, and very important, chapter is devoted to the examination of various, and often competing, concepts of loyalty. Recruitment patterns in the lumber region are also discussed, and, like most contested areas, significant numbers did volunteer for service in the Union armies, men like those that filled the ranks of the famous "Bucktail Regiment".

The author examines the reasons behind the fervent war opposition in the Pennsylvania lumber region, what made it perhaps the only true "deserter country" in the North. He finds economic rights to be at the forefront of what is obviously a multifaceted set of causative issues (among them emancipation, conscription, class, ethnicity, and local identity) on local and national scales. A particularly curious one stems from the sometimes violent 1850s conflict between the small, independent "raftsmen" and the industrial logging operations. Republican support for the companies, real and imagined (it could often be a gray distinction), alienated the former, largely Democratic, individuals and groups.

The character of the resistance is treated at length, ranging from individual lying and concealment all the way to the robbery and assault of partisan political foes, provost marshal's office officials, and conscription officers. While most Civil War readers are familiar with the 1863 New York City draft riots, it is a good bet that even the best read students are unaware of the full fledged military operations conducted in the Pennsylvania lumber region. In the last chapter, Sandow recounts in some detail the 1864 efforts [the Fishing Creek (in nearby Columbia County) and Clearfield County expeditions] to enforce conscription and protect Republican supporters. The 16th Regiment of the Veteran Reserve Corps spearheaded the Clearfield County expedition, a rather arduous mission given the physical handicaps typical of many members of the formerly named Invalid Corps. The author recounts how many residents viewed the military effort as a partisan political move meant to suppress the Democratic vote in the upcoming presidential election, a notion supported by the presence of federal troops at the polls and the lack of evidence of organized resistance from bogeyman groups like the Knights of the Golden Circle and Democratic Castle.

Sandow notes that much of his findings must be inferred, due to a severe lack of personal primary source materials in the form of diaries, letters, memoirs, etc. from dissenters and active resisters of federal authority. What he did do was make the best of what is available, namely partisan newspapers, court documents, and other government files. For this reason, his conclusions probably cannot escape controversy. On the other hand, his arguments (supported by several dozen maps, tables, and figures in the appendix) are dispassionate and well reasoned.

Short in length but overflowing with fascinating information and analysis, Deserter Country greatly expands our knowledge of the extent, nature, and limits of Civil War dissent in the North, and rural Pennsylvania in particular. Sandow's study is essential reading, and his highly recommended for inclusion in personal and public libraries everywhere.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Other CWBA reviews of Fordham Univ. Press titles:
* Chancellorsville and the Germans: Nativism, Ethnicity, and Civil War Memory


  1. Looks very interesting, particularly since the "north-central" area of PA in question may overlap with David Wilmot's old district. Thanks!

  2. E,
    They don't overlap but are adjacent, or nearly so, to the west [I recall your posts from a while back about Wilmot's district, and how there's some confusion about which counties were included].

  3. Drew,

    Wow, you have a good memory. I never did resolve that discrepancy. Adjacent or overlapping, the book is on my list. Thanks again.

  4. Drew,

    Looks like a very interesting book. As a descendant of a Schuylkill County veteran who joined as a substitute in the closing months of the war, I had wondered why there was not more enthusiasm for the war in this area. I was aware of the strength of the anti-war Mollie McGuires in the region's coal mines, but from this study, it looks like there were deeper causes.



If you wish to comment, please sign your name. Otherwise, your submission may be rejected, at the moderator's discretion. Comments containing outside promotions and/or links will be deleted.