- The Enemy Within: Fears of Corruption in the Civil War North by Michael Thomas Smith
In the midst of dreadful Civil War battles and intermittent domestic turmoil, northerners still found time to worry over corruption in their midst. Shoddy goods, the lavish lifestyles of department commanders, hanky-panky in government departments, cotton trading across the lines: these were among the episodes that sparked public outcry and congressional investigations. The traditional explanation has been that while corruption was real enough, it was often exaggerated for factional political ends. Or else it wasn't exaggerated at all, proving the essential moral bankruptcy of Lincoln's government and the Union cause. Michael Thomas Smith acknowledges these earlier positions but believes the fear of corruption drew from deeper sources. He locates its roots in the North's abiding commitment to republicanism. Northerners "were obsessed with corruption during the Civil War because they had been educated in the principles of republicanism, which warned that they must vigilantly guard against the encroachment of government power against the individual liberties that they cherished just as dearly as did their Southern counterparts" (2).
Smith employs this insight to evaluate two points regarding political development in the Civil War period. Scholars including Joyce Appleby have argued that by this time, Americans had largely abandoned premodern republicanism in favor of laissez-faire liberalism. Smith believes the prevalence of corruption scandals supports the view of Gordon Wood and others that Americans persisted in their vision of the United States as the virtuous republic. This persistence complicates the picture of the Civil War as the nation's first modern war. Corruption and the response to it indicate a mixed political culture in which premodern attitudes collided with modern notions of the state and political behavior. Smith does not believe the northern war effort met the criteria for modernization in wartime. Nonetheless, "Civil War Northerners were deeply fearful of the centralization of power . . . [and] consistently perceived its encroachment as dangerous corruption rather than welcome protection" (10).
This well-researched study covers six corruption cases, including the production of defective war materiel by "shoddy" contractors, the abuses of power by political generals Benjamin Butler and John Frémont, the 1864 Treasury investigations, the bounty and recruitment frauds, and the controversy over trading cotton across the lines. These episodes will be familiar to many Civil War scholars and make for lively reading. They reveal the degree to which the northern war eff ort was punctuated with revelations [End Page 137] of official malfeasance and crass opportunism at the same time it faced a determined enemy. Smith considers the real basis (as far as can be determined) for each scandal and the factional politics that propelled it. For instance, the imbroglio with Frémont, who issued his own emancipation proclamation in Missouri in August 1861 and surrounded himself with a European-style ceremonial guard, challenged Lincoln's authority, offended republican sensibilities, and unleashed the fury of political opponents.
Butler quickly gained a reputation for bold and controversial acts. The Massachusetts Democrat was, Smith argues, the North's first popular hero by virtue of his actions to restore military connections to Washington, D.C., immediately following the Baltimore riots. His subsequent declarations that escaping slaves were "contraband of war" and that any southern lady caught insulting Union soldiers would be treated as a streetwalker "plying her avocation" earned him accolades in the North and condemnation from the South. Butler, Smith notes, often furthered the interests of federal arms but did so in ways designed to enrage southern sensibilities and generate maximum publicity. Moreover, his "valiant" deeds were accompanied by less seemly behavior, including commercial speculations, financial corruption, and charges that Butler was less courageous than he claimed to be. Butler, Smith concludes, came to represent "everything that was wrong with Northern society and the Union war effort; the tyrannical abuse of power, the selfish pursuit of individual gain, and general immorality and dishonesty" (40).
Other episodes were less entertaining and more directly harmful in their...