Southern Rights: Political Prisoners and the Myth of Confederate Constitutionalism

Article excerpt

Southern Rights: Political Prisoners and the Myth of Confederate Constitutionalism. By Mark E. Neely Jr. A Nation Divided: New Studies in Civil War History. (Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, c. 1999. Pp. viii, 212. $35.00, ISBN 0-8139-1894-4.)

In Southern Rights, a book sure to stir both interest and controversy, Mark Neely adopts a sharply revisionist approach to southern constitutionalism. "Instead of protecting the southern rights and liberty to which politicians had extravagantly pledged their society before the war," he writes, "the Confederate government curtailed many civil liberties and imprisoned troublesome citizens" (pp. 1-2). In Confederate War Department records and other sources, Neely found evidence of some 4,108 civilians held by military authorities. For the most part, as the author repeatedly points out, historians of various interpretative bents have long assumed Confederates generally preserved civil liberties during the war. This spirited reexamination raises new questions, gathers new evidence, and draws provocative conclusions.

Neely has uncovered some fascinating material on a host of topics, ranging from General Thomas C. Hindman's reign as a "rogue military tyrant" in Arkansas (p. 11) to the Confederate efforts to restrict whiskey production. Few Confederates, including lawyers or judges, proved to be either consistent or determined defenders of civil liberties. Thus Justice Richmond N. Pearson of North Carolina, whose rulings in habeas corpus cases so disturbed both state and national leaders, became the exception that proved the rule. In part, indifference reflected the often marginal status of the prisoners. Poor men, northerners, foreigners, and members of dissenting minorities, Neely clams, were more likely to be arrested than so-called true southerners, but then similar generalizations might apply to nearly any society.

The reader is sometimes left wondering about the significance of the findings. Were citizens arrested primarily because of their political views or for other reasons? At times Neely strongly suggests the former and sprinkles some interesting numbers in the text, but a few tables bringing together these laboriously obtained statistics would have greatly clarified sometimes overly subtle distinctions used to explain the patterns of arrests. …