Thursday, June 20, 2019

Booknotes: Treason on Trial

New Arrival:
Treason on Trial: The United States v. Jefferson Davis by Robert Icenhauer-Ramirez (LSU Press, 2019).

In one of those odd quirks of coincidental timing, a curious relative asked me how much is known about why Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis were not tried by the U.S. government for treason just as, unbeknownst to him, John Reeves's The Lost Indictment of Robert E. Lee was being released and advance word of Robert Icenhauer-Ramirez's Treason on Trial: The United States v. Jefferson Davis was just coming out. I am especially looking forward to reading the latter.

From the description: "In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, federal officials captured, imprisoned, and indicted Jefferson Davis for treason. If found guilty, the former Confederate president faced execution for his role in levying war against the United States. Although the federal government pursued the charges for over four years, the case never went to trial. In this comprehensive analysis of the saga, Treason on Trial, Robert Icenhauer-Ramirez suggests that while national politics played a role in the trial’s direction, the actions of lesser-known individuals ultimately resulted in the failure to convict Davis."

That's an interesting take. I would guess that if Civil War readers as a whole were required to come up with a 30-second elevator speech on the issue the vast majority would suggest strategic political expediency as the primary force behind the collapse of the case against Davis. More: "While Icenhauer-Ramirez agrees that politics played a role in the case, he suggests that focusing exclusively on that aspect obscures the importance of the participants. In the United States of America v. Jefferson Davis, preeminent lawyers represented both parties. According to Icenhauer-Ramirez, Lucius H. Chandler, the local prosecuting attorney, lacked the skill and temperament necessary to put the case on a footing that would lead to trial. In addition, Supreme Court Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase had little desire to preside over the divisive case and intentionally stymied the prosecution’s efforts. The deft analysis in Treason on Trial illustrates how complications caused by Chandler and Chase led to a three-year delay and, eventually, to the dismissal of the case in 1868, when President Andrew Johnson granted blanket amnesty to those who participated in the armed rebellion."


  1. It will be interesting to see how the author analyzes Chase's putative 14th Amendment reasoning. Although on the Supreme Court, he was sitting as a district/trial judge on Davis's case.

    1. If I were a historian of the non-legal type writing about stuff like this, I would constantly dread getting finer points of the law wrong. Does your legal mind always find things to quibble with when reading CW history? Habeas corpus drives me crazy because every book seems to operate on its own definition. That's an exaggeration but not by much.

    2. It is a minefield for somebody who is not a lawyer and does not have a background in the legal system as it was in the mid-nineteeneh century. For example, both Taney in the Merryman case and Chase in the Davis case were not acting in their capacity as Chief Justice of the SCOTUS but, instead, in their ancillary role as a single justice/circuit court judge (something that still exists somewhat in form but not in practice). Ex Parte Merryman, Taney's habeas corpus decision, is taught today but it's never been clear what its precedential effect was. Then there's the Dred Scott decision. Because there were multiple concurring opinions in the 7 Justice majority, Taney's most controversial ruling in the case may not represent the majority viewpoint on that issue. I think that some authors who have jumped into this thicket without legal training have done a good job of staying out of the woods and avoiding critical errors. Mark Neely comes to mind. Brian Dirck is very good, as well, and seems to actually have made a mission of "learning up". But I can also think of others where authors understandably flounder.


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