- Tennessee’s Radical Army: The State Guard and Its Role in Reconstruction, 1867–1869
One of the most controversial aspects of the reconstruction and readmission of the South into the Union after the Civil War was how much and what kind of force ought to be used to protect black and white loyal voters and install a pro-Union government in each Southern state. It quickly became evident that local police were unwilling or incapable of safeguarding the registration and voting process, or providing the security of person Union men needed regardless of race, be they native-born white (Scalawag) or black (ex-slave) Southerners or Yankee interlopers (Carpetbaggers).
In this light, Ben H. Severance provides readers with two important services in his book on the State Guard of Tennessee during Reconstruction. He investigates the only seceded state that returned to the Union in 1866 without suffering the sanctions provided in the Military Reconstruction Acts of the following year, and undertakes the first complete look at a loyal militia by a historian in decades.
Usually unfairly condemned in history as "Negro militias," these post-Civil War state militias actually had few black members. In Tennessee this amounted to no more than some blacks in 7 of 21 companies or about 1,331 to 1,392 men total, and representing between 25 and 29 percent of the whole 2,000 men serving at any one time. Only one company was comprised solely of black soldiers under the command of a black captain, James Sumner. The rest were of mixed black and white infantry with all-white officers.
Ably commanded by General Joseph A. Cooper, the State Guard was renowned for its discipline and effectiveness, historian Severance finds. Organized three separate times, Severance credits the Guard with guaranteeing Confederate disfranchisement under state law, expediting the registration and voting processes, and protecting loyal black and white supporters from ex-Confederate gangs and the Ku Klux Klan. It was this support that made Governor William G. "Parson" Brownlow's "Radical" Republican administration as effective as it was.
An excellently researched and exquisitely written study, Severance's presentation raises two minor points of contention. He coins a new term to categorize ex-Confederate and pro-Union men who disagreed with overall federal Reconstruction policy, "anti-Radicals." As they were actually members of the Conservative Union Party, one might prefer that Severance stick with the commonly used term, "Conservatives." Moreover, this reviewer is not convinced that comparing the Tennessee State Guard to the Texas State Police is a point in favor of his argument as to the Guard's effectiveness. It tends to belittle the Guard's success, which is the key element to his thesis.
This book is a "must read" for serious scholars of Reconstruction and a fine way for the casual reader to delve into the essential problem of the era: How does one install a Yankee-approved government in a state dominated by [End Page 518] white men of either unapologetic, pro-Confederate secessionist proclivities, or loyal, Southern pro-Union men, who do not support the racial goals of the war's victors, emancipation of slaves, and political equality of all men? As Severance discovers, there is no ready answer.