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. (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999. Pp. vii, 212. $35.00, cloth.)

It was once the case that historians believed Lincoln trampled on individual liberties, while the South went out of its way to preserve freedom in its futile quest to create a separate nation. More than any single scholar, Mark Neely has altered our understanding of all the issues imbedded in that dialectical proposition. In his fine study, The Fate of Liberty, Neely enormously complicated the picture of Lincoln. Most would grant that Lincoln's suppression of rights was for the most part necessary to win the war and worthwhile since human freedom was at stake. Still, Neely showed that the number of political prisoners in dank cells during Lincoln's administration was far greater than most realized. Neely even documented instances of torture in northern prisons. The South, on the other hand, has gotten off as the protector of (white) rights, even as its society totalized its war effort. In almost all respects, Neely argues convincingly that such a view of the Confederate States of America is wrong, a myth deliberately perpetrated during Reconstruction that endured in part for technical reasons (the records lay in improbable archives).

... the very creators of the Confederate state later retouched its image, painting over the scenes of a people united in a long history of constitutionalism and uncompromising dedication to southern rights. The image was as false as any forgery and misled later historians, but the true canvas presenting a rougher image is now emerging into view (. 173).

Everywhere in the South during the war liberty was suppressed. There was a passport system that controlled white movement much as slaves had long experienced. Vast conscription forced most able-bodied white males into military service. Free speech was strictly controlled, often by capricious local commanders. The writ of habeus corpus was widely suspended on a de facto basis, which in turn led to arrests of anyone who questioned or threatened the goals of the war. In many areas and for extended periods martial law was in effect that gave military officers authoritarian power. The South during the Civil War was not friendly to dissent.

The surprise, really, is why anyone would have ever believed otherwise about the South. The CSA was locked in mortal combat with an invading army that steadily wore it down. Every meager resource in the South had to be mobilized toward the war effort. Dissent and criticism threatened that project. …