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  • With Malice toward Some: Treason and Loyalty in the Civil War Era by William A. Blair
  • Lorien Foote
With Malice toward Some: Treason and Loyalty in the Civil War Era. William A. Blair. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014. ISBN 978-1-4696-1405-2, pp. 496, cloth, $40.00.

Treason was the ubiquitous word of the Civil War. It pervaded daily conversation, newspapers, official documents, military orders, court cases, and political campaigns. William A. Blair restores this common concept to the central place it held in the practice of daily life during the era and redirects the scholarship on treason from its focus on administrative policy, constitutional theory, or northern Copperheads to the widely shared popular understanding that guided officials from the local to the national level in their actions against treason. Defining and suppressing treason was a collaboration among the loyal people of the Union, the military, and all three branches of government. Blair’s most important contribution is to demonstrate the vital role the military and the provost marshals played in shaping, not just enforcing, policy.

With Malice toward Some effectively applies several recent trends in Civil War scholarship to the topic of treason and equally effectively steers it in some new directions. Blair joins the transnational turn in the historiography with its emphasis on the importance of the international laws of war in Union policy-making. He discusses how courts, Congress, and the executive borrowed from Swiss philosopher Emer de Vattel’s definition of a civil war to claim that rebels could simultaneously be enemy belligerents and remain citizens who could be punished for treason later. Heeding Jonathan White’s call to bring the judiciary back into the literature on the Civil War, Blair explains how the courts applied maritime law in a series of important rulings that defined secession as treason subject to civil punishment. Turning to international law for precedents and theories, all three branches of [End Page 68] the Union government reached a consensus about the policies necessary to define and handle treason.

Another turn in Civil War scholarship is to treat the military as a vital component in the policy-making process regarding emancipation. Blair demonstrates that the military was equally important in defining and enforcing loyalty. Soldiers and officers shared popular outrage over traitorous speech and made arrests according to community standards of disloyalty, often before officials in Washington had a chance to endorse such decisions. Scholars generally absolve Lincoln of acting arbitrarily, and without disagreeing, Blair reminds us that actions on the ground could give a different impression to those witnessing local arrests. In the occupied South, meanwhile, the military handled women as potential enemies of the state and tied provisions and the ability to practice certain professions to loyalty. One of the book’s most thought-provoking portions is its chapter on the military’s role in fighting treason through intervention in the political process. Blair persuasively argues that the Union army “left a heavy footprint” on elections, particularly in the Border States, where troops supervised test oaths, oversaw balloting at the precincts to prevent disloyal people from voting, and helped secure the outcome of the fall 1863 elections (95).

Blair also deserves kudos for delving into a subject most scholars have inexplicably avoided, considering its obvious importance to the conduct of the Civil War: the provost marshal system. He uncovers the various types and levels of provost marshals—civilian special provosts, army provosts, and departmental provosts—that emerged in a grassroots, haphazard fashion in the early stages of the war without central direction. The provost marshals served as internal security against disloyalty. These authorities arrested vigorously, often at the instigation of anxious citizens, and often operated on their own bailiwick unless their actions somehow came to Lincoln’s attention.

Considering the deep-seated desire among loyal unionists throughout the war to identify and punish traitors, Blair concludes his study by asking a simple question: why didn’t traitors hang when the war was over? His answer explores a combination of circumstances and public debates that put off trials until the passage of time made such punishment more and more unlikely. Blair reminds us that...


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