- Claiming the Union: Citizenship in the Post–Civil War South by Susanna Michele Lee
Susanna Michele Lee’s Claiming the Union sheds new light on something we thought we already knew. Lee examines the records of the Southern Claims Commission (SCC), the post–Civil War congressional commission tasked with assessing southerners’ claims for lost and damaged property, and interprets them differently from many scholars before her. The SCC records are a staple of Civil War loyalty scholarship, casting significant light on southerners marginalized or silenced by the Lost Cause’s facade of white unity. Claiming the Union is not another attempt to glean every last hint of wartime loyalty out of postwar records. Lee successfully places the wartime struggles over loyalty and citizenship in the SCC’s proper Reconstruction context. This placement of the SCC squarely within the Reconstruction era is insightful in and of itself. But Lee offers much more than that; she argues that the process embedded in the SCC’s direct engagement with southern civilians informed a “vernacular citizenship” that shaped postemancipation American citizenship (7). The overall result is a thoughtful and effective book that enriches our understanding of the complex nature of postemancipation American citizenship.
In Claiming the Union, Lee carries key questions about the war (such as loyalty and African American agency) through to the postwar period. For instance, the issue of loyalty had significant postwar ramifications as Radical Republicans battled moderates within their party and Democrats over the issue of who should rule. Radicals argued that past loyalty was the crucial factor for postwar political participation, which led them to favor stringent standards for claims. Moderate Republicans and Democrats preferred a political foundation based on future loyalty that would allow former Confederates to regain their citizenship quickly. As Lee makes clear, [End Page 467] these debates had significant impact on the process of reunion by creating a vernacular citizenship. Less concerned with the formal legal definitions of citizenship, Lee layers the war’s impact on fundamental social relationships (master and slave, husband and wife, citizen and noncitizen) against the claims each group made upon the federal government. This dialogue between southern civilians and the federal government effected changes in the meaning of citizenship through practice—direct engagement with the SCC—rather than through legal reform in a postemancipation United States.
Chapters on women, former slaves, and free blacks enhance Lee’s analysis of citizenship in the post–Civil War United States. The white male SCC commissioners initially looked for open opposition to secession and overt acts of Unionism in assessing the loyalty of these “noncitizens.” However, they quickly realized that their interrogatories were ill suited for southern dependents. In fact, the commissioners’ initial list of questions made no reference to people of color or women. Women’s and African Americans’ claims forced the government to wrestle with their professions of loyalty and their place within the postwar citizenry. It is here that some of the more subtle elements of Lee’s analysis shine through. In dealing with women, Lee reveals the sectional divisions between northern and southern womanhood and male perceptions of gender difference. Accustomed to elite and middle-class white women’s involvement in reform movements, the northern commissioners struggled to understand southern white women’s professed detachment from politics. The commissioners became especially incredulous when white southern women professed personal sympathies for Confederate family members while simultaneously espousing Unionist beliefs of their own. African Americans struggled to show their loyalty to white male commissioners who viewed them as inferior and incapable of citizenship. Their persistent claims to the Union, however, forced the commission to change its procedures to allow black southerners to assert their loyalty. Strategic professions that described all black men as loyal to the Union may not have fully swayed the white commissioners, but they helped foster stronger ties among former slaves and antebellum free blacks after slavery’s demise.
One of the most basic and yet most useful contributions of Claiming the Union is its contextualization of the...