Thursday, February 28, 2013

Sauers & Tomasak: "THE FISHING CREEK CONFEDERACY: A Story of Civil War Draft Resistance"

[The Fishing Creek Confederacy: A Story of Civil War Draft Resistance by Richard A. Sauers and Peter Tomasak (University of Missouri Press, 2012). Hardcover, maps, photos, appendix, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:198/237. ISBN:978-0-8262-1988-6 $35]

Reliably Democratic in the antebellum period, east-central Pennsylvania's Columbia County went strongly for John C. Breckinridge during the 1860 presidential election. As the war dragged on into 1863 and beyond, manpower needs obtained through a series of drafts and the new war aim of emancipation led to rising civilian disaffection with the military and domestic policies of the Lincoln administration. By late summer 1864, panicked Republican citizens had sent word to authorities that hundreds of Columbia County "Copperheads" were organizing an armed resistance and had even constructed a fort in the rugged northern reach of the county. The spark that ignited military intervention was the nighttime shooting, and mortal wounding, of apparent provost marshal official James S. Robinson by alleged draft resistors. In August, a mixed force of infantry, cavalry, and artillery flooded the county, arresting several dozen civilians and incarcerating them in Fort Mifflin, to await military tribunal. They were charged with conspiracy to resist the draft, illegally shielding deserters, and secret society membership in the Knights of the Golden Circle.

The subject of Union and Confederate conscription, and the local resistance movements both engendered, is part of a rising tide of scholarship. Richard Sauers and Peter Tomasak's The Fishing Creek Confederacy: A Story of Civil War Draft Resistance is a landmark contribution to this literature, and a wonderful Pennsylvania companion to Robert Sandow's equally groundbreaking Deserter Country: Civil War Opposition in the Pennsylvania Appalachians (Fordham, 2009).

The authors begin their relatively brief, but information packed, study with a nice overview of Columbia County political society, with a spotlight on the event shaping impact of partisan newspapers. A short general history of the Civil War draft in the North is presented, before concentrating specifically on the county citizenry's reaction to the demands made upon them. Next, Sauers and Tomasak do their level best to wade through the evidence (much of it tainted by hearsay, partisan politics, personal animosity, and contradictory testimony) pertaining to the Robinson shooting. The organization and conduct of the army's intervention, or 'invasion' as the Democrats preferred, is then detailed.  After covering the arrests and imprisonment of the presumed conspirators, each military trial is discussed [14 in all, 8 found guilty, 6 acquitted]. The government failed to prove that secret societies like the Knights of the Golden Circle had any role in the Columbia County draft opposition.

The authors make a convincing argument that partisan newspapers were the most consequential forces behind both the military expedition and the post-war struggle to win the historical interpretation battle. The Republican press vastly exaggerated the activity, violence, and scale of resistance, prompting the disproportionate military response.  After the war, the Democratic press claimed the legal and moral high ground. While the military trial convictions, often based on questionable testimony, centered on charges of resisting the execution of the draft in word and deed, there was clearly no organized "Fishing Creek Conspiracy" and, beyond the Robinson shooting, little in the way of armed opposition was encountered. However, their claims of no opposition were clearly disingenuous. Nevertheless, Democratic partisans felt vindicated by the 1866 U.S. Supreme Court decision that unanimously struck down the use of military courts in friendly territory with civil courts in session.

Much of the strength of the book lies in its coverage of Fishing Creek and the post-war period. For decades, competing remembrances, truthful and invented, were employed as political weapons. Democratic participants and their supporters penned voluminous polemics for publication in newspapers and county histories. Even throughout much of the 20th century, much of the material was being perpetuation in print with little in the way of critical reevaluation. What resistance to the draft there was, was often struck from the record. On other other side, Republicans were able to 'wave the bloody shirt' at election time with some degree of success, associating their current opponents (regardless of evidence, or in spite of evidence to the contrary) with wartime Copperhead causes and conspiracies.

In addition to the above mentioned historiography chapter, the concluding section attempts a final sifting through of the evidence pertaining to the main controversies. The exact circumstances surrounding the shooting of Robinson remain mysterious, but the authors made the rather startling discovery that Robinson actually was not employed by the provost marshal service (the very connection central to the justification of military force). According to the authors, no evidence of the man being anything more than a private citizen at the time of the incident exists. Why Robinson was there is open to speculation. As to the accuracy of Democratic claims that the intervention was politically motivated, Sauers and Tomasak remain unsympathetic. While the army could have preempted such claims by leaving quickly and not interfering with the October and November elections, the co-authors don't believe the source material available to today's researchers supports the contention that the operation was conducted with partisan political purposes in mind. Even so, it was interesting to learn that the congressional district containing Columbia County was not even in the state's top six in terms of percentage of draft evaders. In the matter of the alleged fort, none has ever been found, although Tomasak and his grandson mounted their own expedition that discovered traces of some kind of structure in the general area.

The acceptable boundaries of government opposition in speech and action (and who sets those limits) has been an ever present bone of contention within democracies at war. A brilliantly executed microhistory, The Fishing Creek Confederacy comprises an original and important documentation and analysis of such dissent and its consequences.

More CWBA reviews of UMP titles:
* The Civil War in Missouri: A Military History
* Price's Lost Campaign: The 1864 Invasion of Missouri
* Demon of the Lost Cause: Sherman and Civil War History
* Yankee Warhorse: A Biography of Major General Peter J. Osterhaus
* General Sterling Price and the Confederacy (for Missouri History Museum)
* Thomas Ewing Jr.: Frontier Lawyer and Civil War General
* Man of Douglas, Man of Lincoln: The Political Odyssey of James Henry Lane
* Confederate Colonels: A Biographical Register
* Peacekeeping on the Plains: Army Operations in Bleeding Kansas
* Missouri's Confederate: Claiborne Fox Jackson and the Creation of Southern Identity in the Border West
* The Civil War's First Blood: Missouri, 1854-1861 (for Missouri Life)
* Key Command: Ulysses S. Grant's District of Cairo


  1. Nice to see UM press publishing again. Last year we were all giving them up for dead.

    1. Yes, but unfortunately it looks like they lost their pipelined manuscripts (not surprising, given the circumstances). I don't know if they'll even have a 2013 catalog.


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