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William A. Blair’s commendable study shows how a popular [End Page 121] understanding of treason dominated Union government policies and practices toward southern rebels and perceived disloyalists in the North during the Civil War and immediate postwar years. Under the U.S. Constitution, treason is narrowly defined. Moreover, prior to the war, the crime had rarely been tried in the courts. But the unprecedented challenges of civil war prompted Unionists from all walks of life to paint dissenting speech and other acts as treason. Consequently, governing authorities assembled makeshift and inefficient mechanisms to police the country using broad, often imprecise, definitions of loyalty and treason. In short order, the U.S. Army took the lead as the enforcer of an elastic understanding of loyalty and disloyalty, as well as deciding when non-action was just as bad as a traitorous act. Although learning quickly that treason is difficult to prosecute, the army resolutely plowed ahead and arrested northern newspaper editors for publishing disloyalty or detained civilians for discouraging enlistments or encouraging desertion. Congress helped by passing laws giving authorities new tools to enforce the popular views of treason and the disloyal. Blair outlines a period when numerous arrests for perceived disloyal speech or treasonous acts occurred throughout the northern states, as both civil and military authorities took their cues from community norms of thought, speech, and behavior. After the Union prevailed and the victorious army occupied the former Confederate states, government policies to punish rebel treason yielded to leniency as northern Democrats and Republicans jockeyed either to regain power or retain primacy.
Blair’s discussion of a wartime federal government that failed to stand up for civil liberties for all citizens but yielded to common sentiments of retribution and partisan bloodlust might seem to point the finger of blame at President Abraham Lincoln. Although references to Lincoln are many, he is not the central figure in the book. The army and Union people generally are the main actors who are faulted. As Blair notes, the president and his cabinet “were interested in finding the practical tools to win the war, while ensuring that they maintained a toe in the water of constitutional plausibility” (p. 4). [End Page 122] Lincoln, while characterized by Blair as a strong leader, succumbed to subordinate officials, especially military commanders, and allowed them to employ popular, not constitutional, standards to dictate how they punished both northern and southern treason.
Although an insightful work, Blair’s analysis is in some ways a work of synthesis. Frequently cited are historians Mark E. Neely Jr. and Jonathan W. White, as well as political scientist Richard F. Bensel, who has published on military interference in voting during the war. Blair uses many primary sources but mostly cites those published or available on microfilm or online (e.g., the well-known Official Records series and newspapers). He could have bolstered his arguments and avoided a number of factual errors had he cited unpublished army records in the National Archives and steered clear of the corpus of historian Frank L. Klement, whose works on the “copperheads” (antiwar Democrats) in the Midwest are replete with errors. Blair’s account of their conspiracies in Indiana and neighboring states, based on Klement, unfortunately repeats them. As well, readers of the Register will want to know that archival records show the army arrested and banished Kentucky lieutenant governor Richard T. Jacob not merely for speaking against recruiting African American slaves as troops, as Blair argues, but because army spies reported that he was in communication with leaders of the Sons of Liberty, a secret organization that planned armed insurrection in the commonwealth and across the Ohio River. These shortcomings aside, Blair has produced a thoughtful work that Civil War scholars will study with profit. [End Page 123]
STEPHEN E. TOWNE is associate university archivist at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis and author of Surveillance and Spies in the Civil War: Exposing Confederate Conspiracies in America...