Monday, February 11, 2019

Review - "North Carolina Unionists and the Fight Over Secession" by Steve Miller

[NORTH CAROLINA UNIONISTS AND THE FIGHT OVER SECESSION by Steve M. Miller (Arcadia Publishing & The History Press, 2019). Softcover, photos, tables, notes, index. Pages main/total:122/141. ISBN:978-1-62585-937-2. $21.99]

Many fine books have documented the struggles of moderate slave state politicians to head off the secession movements that gathered increasing momentum in their section of the country during the late antebellum period. Of course, the strength of these internal pro-Union factions greatly increased as one journeyed north from the Deep South and into the slave states of the Upper and Border South. Though as successful as their Border State brethren in blocking secession during the turmoil immediately following the 1860 election, the great majority of Upper South Unionists joined the secessionists (reluctantly or otherwise) after the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter and President Lincoln's call for 75,000 militia to crush the rebellion. A focused selection of moderate North Carolina leaders, some slaveholders, who believed that the proslavery interests of the South were best protected within the Union are the focus of Steve Miller's North Carolina Unionists and the Fight Over Secession.

In the book, Miller provides informative capsule biographies of seven North Carolina politicians who counseled against secession for most of their public lives: George Edmund Badger, John Adams Gilmer, William Alexander Graham, John Motley Morehead, David Lowry Swain, Zebulon Baird Vance, and Jonathan Worth. Where relevant, the author briefly discusses their reactions to radicalizing events and their roles played in many of the legislative proposals and passed measures that preceded the Civil War (ex. the Wilmot Proviso, Compromise of 1850, Kansas-Nebraska Act, and more).

Any kind of comprehensive accounting and analysis of the composition, ideological principles, and actions of North Carolina's Unionists as a whole during the lead up to war is beyond the scope of this introductory-level book, and, as stated above, Miller chooses instead to focus on a select group of prominent individuals. While the Democrats became the state's dominant party during the 1850s and increasingly promoted secession over that decade, men like Badger, Gilmer, Graham, Morehead, Swain, Vance, and Worth (all ex-Whigs, lawyers, and proslavery moderates) led the opposition. With the exception of the youthful Vance, these were conservative figures of the older generation. Out of the eleven states that joined the Confederacy, only Tennessee held out as long as North Carolina did before leaving the Union. Sandwiched between Virginia and South Carolina, the geography of North Carolina did its Unionists no favors, but it was the outbreak of war that forced them to conclusively choose sides.

Because all seven abandoned their prewar stances against secession after Lincoln's call to arms and went on to serve the Confederacy in some capacity (with Vance being the only one young enough to fight for a period of time), some might be puzzled with the book's unqualified "Unionist" label. For the purposes of his main discussion, Miller does not differentiate between Conditional Unionists (a grouping that would include all seven of his main subjects) and Unconditional Unionists. Defining and making use of these historiographically mature labels would surely have clarified and enhanced understanding within the broad reading audience the book is intended to serve. Reconstruction authorities were certainly mindful of the distinction, blocking those of the seven that were popularly elected to political office from assuming their seats. Nevertheless, by introducing an important group of moderate North Carolina voices, Steve Miller has provided a useful service to Civil War readers wishing to learn more about the men who led antebellum opposition to secession in the Upper South.

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