Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Booknotes: Alabamians in Blue

New Arrival:
Alabamians in Blue: Freedmen, Unionists, and the Civil War in the Cotton State by Christopher M. Rein (LSU Press, 2019).

Putting aside for a moment the enormous contributions of the border slave states to Union military manpower, the white Unionist volunteers of the Confederate states alone could have collectively filled the ranks of a very large field army. These were the kinds of double losses that the already heavily underdog CSA could not afford. Anti-Confederate elements exists in every seceded state to some degree or another, but the three stronghold regions most often raised during discussion of Southern Unionism and its military expression are East Tennessee, western Virginia, and northern Alabama.

Christopher Rein's Alabamians in Blue: Freedmen, Unionists, and the Civil War in the Cotton State "offers an in-depth scholarly examination of Alabama’s black and white Union soldiers and their contributions to the eventual success of the Union army in the western theater. ...Rein contends that the state’s anti-Confederate residents tendered an important service to the North, primarily by collecting intelligence and protecting logistical infrastructure. He highlights an underappreciated period of biracial cooperation, underwritten by massive support from the federal government. Providing a broad synthesis, Rein’s study demonstrates that southern dissenters were not passive victims but rather active participants in their own liberation."

The study also moves beyond ideological questions in its examination of the reasons why Southern Unionists chose to fight. "Ecological factors, including agricultural collapse under levies from both armies, may have provided the initial impetus for Union enlistment. Federal pillaging inflicted further heavy destruction on plantation agriculture. The breakdown in basic subsistence that ensued pushed Alabama’s freedmen and Unionists into federal camps in garrison cities in search of relief and the opportunity for revenge."

The most well-known regiment was the First Alabama Vol. Cavalry (Union) and the military experience of those volunteers and others is a major focus of the book as well. "Once in uniform, Alabama’s Union soldiers served alongside northern regiments and frustrated Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s attempts to interrupt the Union supply efforts in the 1864 Atlanta campaign, which led to the collapse of Confederate arms in the western theater and the eventual Union victory. Rein describes a “hybrid warfare” of simultaneous conventional and guerilla battles, where each significantly influenced the other. He concludes that the conventional conflict both prompted and eventually ended the internecine warfare that largely marked the state’s experience of the war." Sounds very interesting.

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