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. 213. Acknowledgments, introduction, notes, indices. $35.00.)

In constitutional and legal circles the Lincoln administration's legacy of high-handed oppression has long been recognized and is enshrined in leading Supreme Court decisions. Conversely, less has been written on the Confederacy, and much of that followed Jefferson Davis's postwar claim that the South placed civil liberties on a pedestal.

The driving reason for writing this new study was the discovery that buried in 150 reels of microfilm entitled "Letters Received by the Confederate Secretary of War" were reports from Confederate habeas corpus commissioners revealing the existence of over 4,000 political prisoners. Rather than writing a systematic account, one that would chronicle civil liberties infringements involving both the states and the Confederate government, the author chose to fire a four-barreled shotgun at the problem, in the process giving some of his targets a direct hit but merely wounding others.

The first barrel, entitled "Liberty and Order," starts with "The Rogue Tyrant and the Premodern State," and is devoted to Arkansas's Thomas Carmichael Hindman's effort to make the state a power base for the Confederacy. Virtually no one, not even his biographers, has paid proper attention to what Hindman attempted or considered that the opposition it generated from Albert Pike produced some of the most cogent writing on civil liberties to come out of the entire nineteenth century. Even if the author glosses over a number of important details, it is commendable that Hindman's concept of total war, which preceded that of the Union's W. T. Sherman, gets the attention it deserves. The other pellet in this barrel only wounds the attempt to control demon rum through martial law.

The second barrel contains an overview of the South's bench and bar before moving into the author's analysis of the North Carolina supreme court, which dealt with martial law in forty-six cases. …