Monday, August 6, 2012

Danielson: "WAR'S DESOLATING SCOURGE: The Union's Occupation of North Alabama"

[ War's Desolating Scourge: The Union's Occupation of North Alabama by Joseph W. Danielson (University Press of Kansas, 2012). Hardcover, 4 maps, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:183/231. ISBN:978-0-7006-1844-6 $34.95 ]

As with that of Civil War East Tennessee, most of the scholarship dealing with the home front in North Alabama centers on the region's Unionist population, the best single work being Margaret Storey's Loyalty and Loss: Alabama's Unionists in the Civil War and Reconstruction (LSU, 2004).  In 2006, George Dahlen and Richard Bradley's From Conciliation to Conquest (U of Ala) examined occupation policies and practices in North Alabama in several fascinating contexts, keying in on the person and the actions of John Basil Turchin of "Sack of Athens" infamy. Covering the entire war beginning with the first federal advance into the region, Joseph Danielson's War's Desolating Scourge takes a more expansive look at the Union army's invasion and occupation of North Alabama. Union initiatives having the goal of bringing the Confederate civilian population to heel comprise the primary focus of the book, but the changing circumstances of the most immediate beneficiaries of the presence of federal troops, the slave population, is also scrutinized in some detail.

As mentioned above, War's Desolating Scourge covers the entire war, but the lion's share of the text is devoted to the first Union command to enter the region, Ormsby Mitchel's division of Don Carlos Buell's Army of the Ohio, which set the tone for the rest of the conflict. Totally unsympathetic to the dictates of limited war advocate Buell, Mitchel and Turchin (one of Mitchel's brigade commanders) were hard war practitioners. In contravention of Buell's orders, but with the support of Washington, Mitchel set up his own punitive military, social, and economic policies for dealing with Confederate civilians. Danielson credits their material and psychological effectiveness with the gradual wearing down of Confederate morale and support for the war.

With the menfolk in the army, women were often at the forefront of home front resistance. In his examination of this aspect of the war, Danielson makes excellent use of first person accounts written by Confederate women, some of whom remained defiant until the end while others were either worn down or resigned to a practical accommodation with the enemy. The full range of active and passive reactions to the punitive measures of Union forces is presented.

It remains a fundamental truth that wherever the Union army marched, even within loyal slaveholding states, slavery was started on the path to extinction. This was certainly the case in North Alabama, a region with a large slave population. In addition to describing the army's role in emancipation, Danielson also focuses on black agency, whereby many slaves, even if they stayed on rather than fled, were able to take advantage of the absence of white male members of the household to negotiate or force favorable adjustments in the master-slave relationship.

The primary weakness of Danielson's analysis is its uncritical acceptance of the traditional narrative that a conciliation policy was implemented until the middle of 1862, when, due to continued civilian refusal to submit to federal authority, harsher measures were required and implemented. Beyond being a too simplistic cause-effect analysis, it ignores recent scholarship documenting the application of hard war from the very beginning in large areas of the western and Trans-Mississippi theaters1. That evidence exists documenting the success of the more conciliatory approach in specific locales (e.g. Nashville under Buell) is not considered. One might also rethink whether conciliation overall was ever really given a chance before being pronounced a failure. In North Alabama's case, Union forces did not even enter Tennessee in full force until February 1862 (Fort Donelson surrendering on the 16th of that month). Mitchel's division marched through southern Tennessee essentially unopposed before entering North Alabama in early April. At no time during this fast moving 6-8 week period were Union forces not on active campaign as opposed to occupation duty, and conciliation was already being proclaimed a failure! Obviously, forces beyond stubborn Confederate civilian resistance were hard at work advancing punitive action as the favored mode of warfare.

On the other hand, Confederate civilians practicing bushwhacking can unquestionably be held directly responsible for harsh retribution. Unfortunately, Danielson deals with this important facet of the war in North Alabama only in passing2.

Though Bradley and Dahlen's more narrowly focused regional study does offer superior analysis of some issues common to both works (while also rightly questioning whether mass volunteer armies were even capable of conciliation3), Danielson's book is the broader of the two. His work contributes much in the way of documenting white female resistance to Union military rule, as well as social change and the gradual destruction of slavery in North Alabama. Though flawed in some important ways, War's Desolating Scourge fulfills to a significant degree the need for a Confederate home front study within a regional scholarly literature more often concerned with the Unionist population.

1 - This is an important theme developed in recent books by Daniel Sutherland [A Savage Conflict (UNC, 2009)] and Clay Mountcastle [Punitive War (Kansas, 2009)].
2 - Danielson joins Sutherland and Mountcastle in the belief that bushwhacking and other forms of active irregular resistance did much to spark retribution, but the concept is not accepted by all historians. Earl Hess completely opposes this thesis in his recent book The Civil War in the West (UNC, 2012). While Hess has sifted through as much western theater manuscript material as any historian, I do find the work of Sutherland and Mountcastle more persuasive on this point. Nevertheless, the controversy over the issue is a healthy one that deserves more investigation.
3 - For a contrary view, see Mark Grimsley's profoundly influential The Hard Hand of War. Grimsley credits the average Union Civil War volunteer with an innate sense of limited war, a real desire to fairly discriminate between pro-Union and Confederate civilians. Which way the body of evidence leans is an arguable point comprising an interesting debate that even today, decades after the release of Grimsley's book, doesn't get enough attention.

More CWBA reviews of UPK titles:
* Corinth 1862: Siege, Battle, Occupation
* Lincoln and the Border States: Preserving the Union
* Punitive War: Confederate Guerrillas and Union Reprisals
* A Gallant Little Army: The Mexico City Campaign
* The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth
* Guide to the Atlanta Campaign: Rocky Face Ridge to Kennesaw Mountain
* Bloody Bill Anderson: The Short, Savage Life of a Civil War Guerrilla
* Civil War St. Louis
* The War Within the Union High Command: Politics and Generalship During the Civil War
* Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era

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