Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Review - " The Governor's Pawns: Hostages and Hostage-Taking in Civil War West Virginia " by Randall Gooden

[The Governor's Pawns: Hostages and Hostage-Taking in Civil War West Virginia by Randall S. Gooden (Kent State University Press, 2023). Hardcover, maps, photos, illustrations, appendix, endnotes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xxi,198/271. ISBN:978-1-60635-457-5. $55]
The subject is largely absent from general Civil War histories, but hostage-taking was a common enough practice by both sides, particularly in contested border regions, to warrant special attention. It certainly receives that in Randall Gooden's The Governor's Pawns: Hostages and Hostage-Taking in Civil War West Virginia. Simply put, Civil War hostages were individuals arrested and held captive (most often without having been charged with any offense) in order to ensure the life and health of citizens similarly detained by the opposing side. The hostage was set free upon confirmation that the designated prisoner he was seized to protect was released and on the way home. According to Gooden, what made the hostage-taking procedure in Civil War West Virginia unique is that it was an official state program, formalized in state law and centrally administered by the governor himself.

Civil War hostage-taking did not arise in a vacuum, and Gooden's introduction provides a brief yet instructive primer on the history of North American hostage-taking, and how it evolved, going forward from the Colonial period. During tribal conflicts of the 1600s, hostages had a dual purpose. On the one hand, they facilitated communication and understanding during trade, diplomatic, and cultural exchanges, and, on the other, they were effective threats deemed necessary to ensure that negotiations were conducted in good faith. During the American Revolution and Early Republic periods, hostage-taking became more of a dual preventative and retaliatory measure practiced among all parties. Gooden describes the hostage-taking process, beginning with the Barbary States conflicts and the War of 1812, as becoming more "weaponized" during the nineteenth century. Additional background context is found in the book's able summation of the social, cultural, economic, and political differences between Virginians residing on either side of the Appalachian range and how those divides widened as the 1800s progressed. Gooden argues persuasively that all of that background combined to create an environment in which hostage-taking became widely accepted and its civil rights complications not broadly challenged after the outbreak of civil war.

As the narrative reveals, in the midst of wartime extremes (with neither the Restored Government in Wheeling nor the Richmond authorities recognizing each other's legitimacy) hostage-taking emerged organically. Along with private citizens suspected of aiding the rival government and its supporting military apparatus (or, in the case of physicians, simply prominent members of the community), local and state officials were frequently arrested during cavalry raids, security sweeps, and guerrilla attacks in the countryside. Those actions, in turn, led to retaliatory hostage-taking, with each hostage (or group of hostages) linked to the safe release and return of a specified individual.

Formal passage of West Virginia's state hostage law occurred in early 1863, and Gooden explains well the many complicated influences and pressures involved. With the state still in the middle of its birthing process, the trans-Appalachian counties became increasingly subjected to deep raids conducted by regular enemy cavalry as well as local attacks from pro-Confederate guerrillas. Out of a mixture of paranoia and legitimate safety concerns, many believed that the new state's very existence was at stake. The Confederate Jones-Imboden Raid of April-May 1863, during which a number of civilians and government officials were seized by the raiders, was frequently cited by statehood supporters as a prime example of why the hostage law was an absolute necessity. In this midst of these regular threats, statehood adherents came to consider any and all criticism aimed toward the movement as unqualified disloyalty, and the most prominent of the accused were targeted as hostage candidates.

In the book, Gooden frequently and effectively uses individual case histories to illustrate and explore larger issues, one of which was the legal dispute over federal versus state powers when it came to hostages and hostage-taking. The arrest of George W. Thompson, a former U.S. congressman, lawyer, and state judge widely respected among western Virginians before the war, took place before the state law was passed, but the resulting court action represented an important first step toward clarifying legal gray areas in regard to state and federal authority over hostage-taking matters. In securing hostages, federal military assistance was frequently required (and could not be ordered by state officials, but rather requested), but Gooden notes that after statehood was achieved West Virginia governor Arthur Boreman, in contrast with Restored Government leader Francis Pierpont, gained more standing with federal officers when it came to cooperation. Nevertheless, strained relations and jurisdictional challenges persisted throughout the war, and, on balance, Gooden concludes that most outcomes ended up on the side of reinforcing federal dominion over state powers.

The mechanisms of the state hostage law and who its targets would be are well described in the text. An individual did not have to commit any overt act against the West Virginia or United States governments in order to be arrested as a hostage, just be a known or suspected sympathizer with the enemy or critic of the statehood faction. In all of the conflict's most divided regions, coercive systems reliant upon hearsay evidence were highly exposed to abuse from accusers holding neighbor, business, family, or political grudges. West Virginia's hostage program was no different. In hostage selection, status was very important. Those having respected and influential positions in the community were most valuable as hostages. With functionality in mind, West Virginia authorities routinely tasked hostages with using their personal influence to secure the release of designated civilian political prisoners held by the enemy, an uncertain process that sometimes involved extensive travel and weeks or months of negotiation in Richmond. All in all, though there were exceptions (sometimes tragic ones), Gooden's narrative seems to convey a picture of overall restraint and a large degree of mutual acceptance among the parties to the process.

As mentioned before, the West Virginia governor was directly involved at all levels of the state's hostage system, and Gooden reveals that much of what we know about it today is owed to Arthur Boreman's detailed recordkeeping. Utilizing that treasure trove as well as a host of other primary and secondary sources, Gooden is able to assemble a geographically broad survey of the hostage law's implementation and the kinds of activities it was designed to curtail. Particular attention is paid to raiding and hostage-taking in Barbour, Gilmer, Doddridge, and Morgan counties as well the valley of the South Branch of the Potomac and the southwest border area. Indeed, in providing context for his study of hostages and hostage-taking in those areas and regions, Gooden contributes more than a little to our general understanding of the character and scope of irregular warfare in West Virginia.

Significantly, Gooden also gives voice to the victims of West Virginia's hostage system. Boreman's detailed records are great for history and historians, but they also held potential for getting the governor himself in trouble from aggrieved parties seeking redress during and after the war. Fallout from the arrest and death in custody of George Buchanon was the most prominent example of that, and his case is well documented in the book. Not charged with any offense, Buchanon was held as a state hostage for six months under shaky legal grounds. Immune to petitions from loyal citizens and Union soldiers alike who vouched for Buchanon and requested his release, the governor, who admitted that he held firm to a great degree out of annoyance at the petitioning, refused to release the sick and declining Buchanon from state custody. Eventually, the prisoner died. Buchanon's family later sued Boreman, but their legal complaints failed to gain any headway in state and federal courts.

At the end of the study, Gooden briefly surveys the contrasting postwar experiences of a small selection of former hostages, some of whom suffered from continued social and professional ostracism while others benefited from the experience by successfully using it as something of a badge of honor. Generally speaking, Gooden's findings support earlier scholarship concluding that it was often the case that prewar and wartime animosities among West Virginians greatly diminished during postbellum decades through shared economic associations that often had the additional effect of smoothing over differences between old antagonists.

The Governor's Pawns is an excellent history of a war measure that tested (sometimes sorely) the legal, jurisdictional, and cooperative boundaries between state and federal authority during the Civil War. That the hostage law emerged in the midst of a statehood movement that was itself of questionable legality only added to its controversy, and its geographical confines have limited its exposure among Civil War readers. Raising the level of awareness, Gooden's work adds significantly to the Civil War literature addressing the delicate balance between ensuring public safety and protecting the individual civil liberties of citizens. Predictably, definitive answers cannot be assigned to questions surrounding the "success" of the hostage law and whether the ends justified the means. Though detailed exploration is well beyond the scope of this study, Gooden's suggestion that deep concerns regarding the "validity and usefulness" (pg. 198) of West Virginia's wartime hostage program influenced the demise of the practice on the national level, specifically on the part of the U.S. Army, going forward seems, at the very least, to be a feasible proposition.

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