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  • The Urban South and the Coming of the Civil War
  • Bridget Ford (bio)
The Urban South and the Coming of the Civil War. By Frank Towers. (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2004. Pp. xi, 285. Cloth, $45.00.)

One week after the firing on Fort Sumter, secessionist and Unionist sympathizers in Baltimore took up arms against each other, spilling the "first blood of the Civil War" (8). Twenty-five partisans died in this urban riot, and violence would also plague St. Louis and New Orleans. In The Urban South and the Coming of the Civil War, Frank Towers charts the shifting politics in the South's three largest cities after 1840 to explain why this bloodshed took place. Recovering a fascinating history of violent partisanship in Baltimore, St. Louis, and New Orleans on the eve of the Civil War, Towers's book raises important and fresh questions about our conventional understanding of the war as a struggle between an agrarian South and an industrializing North. Usually an "overlooked anomaly," the urban South moves to the center stage of an ideological conflict over the meaning of American democracy in Towers's hands (18). The Urban South therefore combines meticulous local history with a broader examination of the way Southerners viewed the rapidly changing social and political landscape of their largest cities.

In the antebellum decades, large-scale industry, immigration, and free wage-labor contracts chipped away at the unique "urban paternalism" characteristic of work relations in the big Southern cities, according to Towers (37). Their economic standing threatened, white skilled workers in Baltimore, St. Louis, and New Orleans responded with increased political "militancy" by supporting opposition parties such as the Know-Nothings (68). Thus in the 1850s, while most regions of the South moved inexorably towards one-party dominance, residents in the large cities did the opposite: they "kept alive" traditions of partisan political conflict (211). Even more striking, some southern urbanites practiced a "violent partisanship" by joining street gangs closely allied with elite-led political parties; members of these gangs would eventually participate in [End Page 707] the deadly riots of 1861 (112). As Towers argues, this partisanship alarmed southern nationalists who saw in the region's cities a dangerous kind of mobocracy they associated with politics and society in the North. Spawned by workers' growing militancy, the disorderly events in Baltimore, St. Louis, and New Orleans appeared to threaten rural planters' regional hegemony. Akin to the northern fears of a "Slave Power," the "specter of mob rule" in the cities drove Southern planters to make the case for secession as a hedge against majoritarian democracy (15). In this way, real conflicts within and ideological concerns about the South's largest cities "hastened the onset of the Civil War" (5).

An intrepid researcher, Towers has consulted a wide array of sources to show how workers transformed urban politics in the South. For example, using evidence as disparate as police payrolls, customs service records, coroner's inquests, city council papers, and even a port warden's report, Towers pieces together a remarkable history of workers' involvement in gang violence during municipal elections to ensure Know-Nothing victories. Towers also discovers close connections between party loyalists and Union and secessionist sympathizers in Baltimore, St. Louis, and New Orleans. "The big cities were not the only Southern places to experience internecine conflict over sectionalism," Towers explains, "but their partisans stood apart from the rest of the region because they applied to the war the allegiances and organizing strategies that had been learned in the process of party competition" (212). In a direct illustration of this point, nearly fifty percent of Know-Nothing gang members in Maryland would volunteer to serve in the state's Union regiments. Complementing this careful social history, Towers mines newspapers and the writings and speeches of leading political figures to describe the "uniquely Southern variant of northern workers' free-labor politics" which disavowed antislavery sentiments (142). When Towers discusses the ways that urban partisanship and gangs challenged Southern notions of honor and gender, he reveals how cultural history deepens our understanding of antebellum politics and society.

Towers's sophisticated study offers not just a close examination...


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pp. 707-709
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