Civil War History 49.2 (2003) 202-203
[Access article in PDF]
The Union Divided: Party Conflict in the Civil War North. By Mark E. Neely, Jr. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002. Pp. 272. $24.95.)
In The Union Divided, Mark Neely's aim is to overthrow the "deadening cliché" about politics in the Civil War North that, in his view, has inhibited original thinking on the subject for over a generation. He attributes this malaise to a widespread acceptance of the late Eric McKitrick's 1967 essay, "Party Politics in the Union and Confederate War Efforts." In this speculative piece, McKitrick claimed that the wartime party system in the North enabled the Republicans and Democrats to play a politically creative role that benefited the Union war effort.
In essence, McKitrick argued that a system of competitive party politics legitimized opposition as loyal and functional rather than treasonous, while simultaneously providing a mechanism to coordinate the nineteen states and the Federal government and enabling the political issues confronting the North's citizenry to be presented in clear and communicable terms. In the Confederacy, however, politics was partyless and atomized, thus inhibiting its ability to wage war.
While Neely cites a couple of general books relating to the Civil War that have accepted the broad observation that parties were a positive force in the Union, political historians have not, for the most part, paid the thesis much attention, referring to it somewhat obligatorily but not addressing its interpretation or pursuing its implications any further. Since it has not dominated the study of politics in the Civil War or even the debate about why the North won, the numbing orthodoxy of what Neely calls "the two-party system thesis" is probably more imagined than real.
Nevertheless, McKitrick's proposition remains an interesting, provocative, and in some ways counterintuitive, approach that merits a rejoinder, although at this late date perhaps not an entire book. At any rate, Neely's rebuttal charges that the Union's political parties did not behave as McKitrick imagined. In his view, there was nothing remotely like an organized party system, with the result that the parties acted quite irresponsibly and immoderately and made few, if any, contributions to the Union war effort. Indeed, as Neely presents them, they seem to border on the dysfunctional.
In six short chapters drawing primarily on newspapers which, in that era, were all solidly and avowedly partisan, the author provides sketches of various aspects of the parties' attitudes and behavior. This impressionistic portrait of Civil War parties consists of the following elements: 1) a patronage system still functioning as a source of spoils and offices but rarely promoting policy goals, in this case the war effort, or rewarding military or other wartime service; 2) a resolute refusal by politicians to subordinate party interest and identity to the need for cooperation and unity during wartime; 3) a press that was partisan in its objectives and pre-professional in its methods and therefore quite incapable of generating military correspondents qualified to report accurately and comment knowledgeably about the course and conduct of the war; 4) an utter lack of concern about freedom of the press that allowed for the arrest of editors and the frequent interference with, and even suspension of, newspapers that criticized or dissented; 5) an interrelationship between the parties that was so [End Page 202] limited that, rather than moderating and channeling policy-positions and rhetoric, as McKitrick had indicated, it actually provoked its opposite, since the extremist wings of both parties, the Radical Republicans and the Peace Democrats, actually gained strength over the course of the war. And finally, an opposition party, the Democrats, that was so feeble, "essentially useless" (119), that it proved unable to offer credible opposition. Moreover, it was so removed from political reality that its newspapers, exemplified by the "dyspeptic" Harrisburg (Pa.) Patriot and Union, "flailed about wildly" (136) in "the bewildered world of powerless frustration"(124) that afflicted the party more generally. So there was no opposition to the Republicans, let alone a legitimate and loyal one...