The Enemy Within: Fears of Corruption in the Civil War North (review)
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The Enemy Within: Fears of Corruption in the Civil War North. By Michael Thomas Smith. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011. Pp. vii, 229. $35.00 cloth)

Generations of historians have followed T. Harry Williams’s 1952 thesis in interpreting the Civil War as “the first of the modern total wars” (p. 2). McNeese State University professor Michael Thomas Smith, however, detects a paradox in describing the war as modern since many wartime Americans adhered to “elements of . . . premodern political philosophy” characterized by an “intense suspicion of corruption” (p. 2). Smith applies the word corruption in the nineteenth-century sense of the word to encompass any misuse of power that threatened economics, society, morals, or politics.

Civil War Northerners rooted in republican values and ideology “were deeply fearful of the centralization of power . . . [and] consistently perceived its encroachment as dangerous corruption rather than welcome protection” (p. 10). Some vigilant Northerners would point to various scandals that cropped up in the Federal government as evidence of widespread corruption. While Smith considers most Civil-War-era corruption scandals as “overblown” and “bogeymen,” he interprets the very real fears of corruption as illuminating “key aspects of the values and beliefs central to Americans of this era—specifically, their attitudes towards republicanism and masculinity” (pp. 13, 175, 12).

Smith illustrates his argument by assessing several Civil War corruption [End Page 113] scandals involving government contractors, political generals, recruitment fraud, wanton activity in the Treasury Department, and the cotton trade. These scandals, for some Northerners, threatened to undermine civic and societal virtues. The concern over government contractors stemmed from the sale of “shoddy” merchandise and the perception that they were war profiteers (a “shoddy aristocracy”), which was antithetical to prized mores of “self-sacrifice and . . . condemnation of greed” (p. 21). Political generals, like Benjamin F. Butler and John C. Frémont, were also lightning rods for corruption fears. Both generals had self-interested designs for political power that often were at odds with mid-nineteenth-century ideals of manhood such as self-restraint and disinterested benevolence. Smith concludes that for some Northerners, “The preservation of the republic . . . came to depend as much on keeping [men like] Frémont out of power as it did on defeating the Confederates” (pp. 93–94). Another unmanly group, bounty jumpers, oftentimes drew the ire of citizens who reviled them for their “greed, cowardice, and a lack of patriotism” (p. 127).

Many of the scandals examined had a strong correlation between “private and public virtue”—when people failed to be virtuous in private life, Northerners questioned their ability to be virtuous in public life (p. 112). Smith offers the titillating accusations of sexual misconduct between male and female Treasury Department employees as an example. This hyperbolic scandal likely added fuel to the fire for Northerners who were already suspicious about Treasury policies, like issuing paper money, which encroached upon republican values. The cotton trade was another profit-motivated scandal that corrupted “anyone who had anything to do with cotton” and besmirched the reputations of otherwise upstanding leaders like political general Nathaniel P. Banks and even Abraham Lincoln (p. 161).

The Enemy Within is concise, well-written, and provides a subtle critique of much standard historiography regarding the Civil War as a “modern” war. One notable, and inexplicable, omission from his secondary-source bibliography is Mark Wilson’s The Business of the Civil War (2006), which one needs to engage if one is to argue [End Page 114] that the Civil War was not a “modern” war. One gets the impression from Smith’s often all-inclusive use of “Northerners” that all Northerners harbored fears of corruption. However, his examples fail to conclusively show this. His evidence does show that there were some Northerners who cherished republican values, but he does not show that there were also Northerners who endorsed and rallied to the actions of the Federal government. It remains to be seen which group was the more populous or influential. In the end, The Enemy Within is a generally informative and entertaining monograph; the chapter on the Treasury Department scandal is original, and the use of scholarship on manhood to reinterpret more familiar...