Thursday, October 11, 2018

Review - "Mountain Feds: Arkansas Unionists and the Peace Society" by James Johnston

[Mountain Feds: Arkansas Unionists and the Peace Society by James J. Johnston (Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, 2018). Softcover, maps, photos, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:200/305. ISBN:978-1-945624-12-4. $24.95]

Contemporary source limitations will always inhibit modern efforts to record the full history of secret societies associated with the American Civil War, particularly those of the comparatively short-lived variety and those whose members had the most compelling reasons to fear for their own personal safety. Even though it perhaps strayed a bit too far into conjecture, David Keehn's Knights of the Golden Circle: Secret Empire, Southern Secession, Civil War (2013) is one of the better recent attempts at deciphering a Civil War secret society. Though their northern chapters were able to operate in the open, the Union Leagues had many practices common to the secret societies popular to the period. Their history was comprehensively examined for the first time by Paul Taylor in his 2018 book The Most Complete Political Machine Ever Known: The North's Union Leagues in the American Civil War. The membership rituals, practices, and activities of the pro-Union Arkansas Peace Society are far less well known than those of the KGC and Union Leagues, but James Johnston's Mountain Feds: Arkansas Unionists and the Peace Society, the end result of decades of research in legal depositions, Southern Claims Commission files, military service records, Pension Bureau documents and much more, goes a great distance toward successfully working around those unavoidable source constraints mentioned above. Like no one else has ever done before, Johnston brings the shadowy Peace Society into the light of day.

It is commonly recognized that the citizenry of Arkansas as a whole possessed a very strong Unionist streak that consistently resisted the minority independence movement during the secession crisis. Opposing Arkansas secession was a solid bloc of upland yeoman (the "Mountain Feds" of the book's title), northern-born residents, recent immigrants, and old-line conservative Whigs. Though many immigrants and northerners fled the state during the crisis, and Lincoln's call for volunteers to invade the Deep South states after Fort Sumter converted most Whigs to secession, the Unionism (or at least the anti-Confederate feelings) of many upland farmers and other folk existing in similar fashion outside the slave economy—especially those living in the North-Central counties—proved to be unconditional. The early stages of Johnston's study provides a fine overview of this transformative period in Arkansas history.

According to Johnston, there are no written records of when or where the Arkansas Peace Society first formed. Many Confederate supporters accused the Society of being imported from the North and used that unfounded assertion effectively as propaganda, but the author was unable to uncover any real evidence that the organization wasn't homegrown. Copies of the Peace Society membership oath are the only foundational documents that exist. For obvious reasons there were no membership rolls recorded at the time or meeting notes taken, and much of what is known about the early part of the Society's existence is from postwar testimony and pension records. The book does go into some of the signs and hand signals that Society members allegedly used to identify themselves to colleagues and allies.

As the book demonstrates, during most of 1861 Arkansas's Unionists were able to live in relative peace but increasingly aggressive Confederate Army recruitment and growing distrust of the motives of the Unionist population led to a heavy-handed and effective crackdown by the end of the year. Johnston marks the end of relatively peaceful coexistence with the mid-November arrival in Arkansas of news of the coordinated bridge-burning incidents that occurred in Unionist East Tennessee earlier that month. Fearing that similar uprisings would occur in their own state, Confederate and Arkansas state military forces along with citizen vigilante groups conducted mass sweeps throughout the upland counties, arresting accused Peace Society members and effectively breaking up their organization. Primary sources pertaining to Confederate suppression of the Peace Society are far more abundant than those of the society itself, and the process is documented in the book in highly detailed fashion, county by county. Though some officially unsanctioned hangings occurred, most of the prisoners were marched en masse to Little Rock, where they were given the option of trial or enlistment in the Confederate Army. Distrusting the judicial process, many of the captives selected the latter. Ironically, the stubborn few that stayed to await trial were typically awarded their release after the authorities failed to offer convincing evidence of their guilt.

The unwilling volunteers filled entire companies, including two in the 18th Arkansas infantry regiment, but most individuals took the earliest opportunity to desert and either go home, join a guerrilla band, or enlist in the Union Army. In addition to recounting the formation of Arkansas Union companies, battalions, and regiments, the book also discusses efforts by Kansas and Missouri units to recruit renegade Arkansans. The book covers a good selection of their operations as well as providing some insights into the "inner war" that raged on the Arkansas home front, mostly in the north but also across other parts of the state.

Sometime during the war, probably in 1863 (though, as with so many other questions, no real supporting evidence exists toward nailing down a date), the Peace Society morphed into the Union League. In the book, Johnston shows how many of these Union League men played an active role in wartime reconstruction, supporting the abolition of slavery (but not black equality). However, their leadership influence waned during postwar Reconstruction, even in their Searcy County stronghold, in the face of resurgent ex-Confederates.

In addition to his main narrative, Johnston also prepared an extensive appendix section for his book that will undoubtedly prove to be of great assistance to current readers and future researchers alike. Among its several impressive and highly useful features one can find fairly detailed rosters of both the 1861 state convention delegates and known Peace Society members. Another appendix highlight is the section's pair of roster-histories of Confederate companies filled with coerced Society "volunteers."

Mountain Feds is an important book that's worthy of hearty recommendation on a number of levels. The study represent the first comprehensive history of the Arkansas Peace Society, but it additionally needs to be considered a key new component of the growing literature of Southern Unionism, a general knowledge of which is essential to any real understanding of the societal dynamics and divided nature of the Confederate home front. In-depth discussion of the many ways by which Peace Society members directly aided the Union war effort (while at the same time denying recruits for, and tying up a portion of, Confederate Arkansas's already overextended armed forces) also makes the volume a useful contribution to the military history of the Trans-Mississippi theater.


  1. Great review!I had not heard of this book. I got to meet Mr. Johnston at the North Central Arkansas Ancestor Fair in 2002. Peace Society Member, Chain Gang Member, and Co M 3rd Ark Cavalry private Franklin Wortman is my great-great grandfather. My grandmother Grace Wortman Cox (1906-2002) remembered how her father, Franklin's son John, told her he would never forget the sight of his father being marched off in chains. I have a copy-of-a-copy etc. of a photo of Franklin Wortman in his Union uniform & keep it on a bookshelf in my office. I also have a photo-of-a-photo of him & his wife Elizabeth Turney Wortman in their elder years on another shelf.

    1. Thanks for sharing. Another good reminder that, even though 150+ years might seem like the distant past, living memory connections can make it seem not so long ago.

  2. Thanks for this review! To be honest, the goofy cover concerned me about the book's quality, but I'll be adding it to my list!


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