Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Review - "A War State All Over: Alabama Politics and the Confederate Cause" by Ben Severance

[A War State All Over: Alabama Politics and the Confederate Cause by Ben H. Severance (University of Alabama Press, 2020). Hardcover, photos, tables, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xiv,192/264. ISBN:978-0-8173-2059-1. $49.95]

The accepted view among many political and social history scholars is that the Alabama polity had become war weary enough by mid-1863 to strongly express a readiness to accept compromise measures (including reunion) that would end the war. The argument goes that Alabama voters, stunned by the twin military disasters at Gettysburg and Vicksburg (during which thousands of Alabama soldiers were slain, wounded, or captured) and fed up with total war policies adopted by state and Confederate governments (among them conscription, impressment, tax-in-kind, suspension of habeas corpus, and property destruction laws), turned to Peace Society leaders in numbers sufficient to transform Alabama's entire political landscape. However, Ben Severance's A War State All Over: Alabama Politics and the Confederate Cause comes to the opposite conclusion, strongly arguing instead that actual voting returns, legislative records, and other historical sources make it clear that the peace movement (though a significant force from 1863 onward, especially in the state House of Representatives) never had the electoral strength or organization to challenge the dominant pro-war faction at any level of government. According to Severance's research, the best evidence shows that Alabama's war supporters faced down all challenges in 1863 and remained "a war state all over."

Given that the antebellum two-party system (for good or ill) no longer existed in party-free Confederate Alabama or the Confederacy as a whole, and the evidence strongly supports the conclusion that old Whig vs. Democrat distinctions did not strongly correlate with pro or anti-war views, Severance simplifies the discussion by dividing politicians into "war Confederates" and "peace Confederates." Basically, war Confederates were committed to independence, supportive of total war, and loyal to the Confederate government in Richmond while peace Confederates represented a much wider range of views, from outright Unionists and defeatists at the extreme end of the spectrum to the far more numerous "reconstructionists" who favored a negotiated settlement of the war and an honorable reunion that preserved as much of the southern economy and society as possible. The author readily admits that fitting everyone into two polar categories is an oversimplification, but the analytical construct effectively facilitates the discussion by keeping it generally free of constantly diverting semantic distinctions.

Beginning in August 1863, Alabama experienced a remarkable election cycle during which massive turnover at all levels of government was made possible. Thus the year's elections possessed exceptionally heightened usefulness as barometers of public opinion regarding the progress of the war, confidence in the state's political leadership, and faith in ultimate victory. Severance begins by surveying the incumbents in Alabama's nine congressional districts and firmly establishing (through the personal background, speeches, and voting records of each) the bonafides of 8 of 9 of these men as dedicated war Confederates and strong advocates of total war. The landslide defeat in 1863 of the most prominent of these men, the 4th District's Jabez Curry, is often cited in the literature as being indicative of a surging Peace Society movement, but Severance finds no evidence of such a widespread transformation. Jabez's loss was indeed a shocking blow, but the author's close examination of the words and legislative records of each 1863 race winner finds that, although peace Confederates made significant inroads, a war Confederate majority (6 of 9) remained.

Similarly, the heavy defeat of Governor John Shorter, who was widely viewed as Jefferson Davis's strongest ally among the Confederate war governors, by Thomas Watts (the man Shorter beat in the 1861 gubernatorial race) is often presented as a sharp popular indictment of the war effort. However, Severance sees this narrow view as a stark misrepresentation of the true state of affairs. Watts, a former Confederate colonel, was popular among the fighting men and held ideas about total war that were very similar to Shorter's. In policy implementation there was little to choose between the two men. The author is persuasive in interpreting Shorter's downfall not as an indication of popular repudiation of war policy and the increasing sacrifices required on the home front but rather a function of Shorter's harsher manner and a voting population's desire for change in leadership during a particularly rough patch of the war. In other words, the majority of Alabama voters did not reject Shorter's political ideology and war policies only his methods.

Many Alabama House and Senate seats were also up for grabs in 1863. In the Senate war Confederates dominated the election, but the peace Confederates made respectable gains in the House (37 seats out of 100 total). However, in a legislative body with an incredible 86% turnover in a single election, the war Confederate faction held both a solid majority and a preponderance of parliamentary experience and ability. Not only did the peace Confederates in the House not put together any kind of organized resistance, but many even voted with the majority on war resolutions. Where peace Confederates expected to have the greatest influence was in the selection of the state's two Confederate senators (in an usual situation, both seats needed to be filled in 1863 as William Yancey, a towering figure among southern Fireaters, had died in office). If peace Confederates really thought the new senators, Robert Jemison and Richard Walker, would prove to be antiwar reconstructionists they would be quickly disappointed. While peace Confederates expressed joy at getting Jemison appointed, the fact remained that most of the war Confederates voted for him as well. Severance describes Jemison's voting record as "erratic" but found that the senator generally sided with the war Confederates on the major issues. When it comes to the author's examination of Walker's record (which he describes as "undistinguished"), the evidence, contrary to what some scholars have maintained, supports the conclusion that "it may be too much to brand Walker an outright war Confederate, but he was definitely not a reconstructionist" (pg. 149).

The study also takes a closer look at Alabama's serving soldiers and assesses the effect they might have had on the elections had they been legally permitted to vote. Severance's characterization of how Alabama soldiers viewed peace Confederates is similar to the scholarly literature's portrayal of how western Union soldiers saw the Midwest "Copperhead" movement. One might question the author's assumption that 80% of Alabama citizen-soldiers would have voted for war Confederate candidates in the 1863 elections, but his educated guess has anecdotal support through manuscript research, newspaper articles, published unit resolutions, and other sources. It's also roughly the same proportion of soldier vote support that Lincoln possessed in 1864 in the face of northern home front opposition. The book even conducts a hypothetical election cycle that included the soldier vote. If Alabama, like some U.S. states managed to do, had changed its laws to allow soldiers to vote in the field, their numbers would have had a major impact in 1863, increasing winning war Confederate margins in some cases and altering the result outright in others. Given the assumptions made regarding soldier support of the war effort (and there isn't much reason to strongly contest them), the analysis clearly shows that major peace Confederate gains were only possible in the absence of the soldier vote.

While recognizing that military defeats and home front privations had some effect on public morale and continuing support for the war effort's most draconian measures, Ben Severance's A War State All Over clearly demonstrates that the state's leaders and voting citizens maintained consistent loyalty to the Richmond government and willingness to fight for independence through the conflict's middle point and beyond. Contrary to what many have contended, the results of the 1863 elections clearly indicated the existence of a prowar majority with enough remaining reserves of devotion to the cause to carry the state through the even more trying final year and a half of the war. As the author notes, the book also contributes additional weight to the argument that the Confederacy succumbed primarily to military defeat rather than destruction from within. Highly recommended.

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