With Malice toward Some: Treason and Loyalty in the Civil War Era

With Malice toward Some: Treason and Loyalty in the Civil War Era

With Malice toward Some: Treason and Loyalty in the Civil War Era

With Malice toward Some: Treason and Loyalty in the Civil War Era

Synopsis

Few issues created greater consensus among Civil War-era northerners than the belief that the secessionists had committed treason. But as William A. Blair shows in this engaging history, the way politicians, soldiers, and civilians dealt with disloyalty varied widely. Citizens often moved more swiftly than federal agents in punishing traitors in their midst, forcing the government to rethink legal practices and definitions. In reconciling the northern contempt for treachery with a demonstrable record of judicial leniency toward the South, Blair illuminates the other ways that northerners punished perceived traitors, including confiscating slaves, arresting newspaper editors for expressions of free speech, and limiting voting. Ultimately, punishment for treason extended well beyond wartime and into the framework of Reconstruction policies, including the construction of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Establishing how treason was defined not just by the Lincoln administration, Congress, and the courts but also by the general public, Blair reveals the surprising implications for North and South alike.

Excerpt

Roughly twenty years ago, a graduate seminar planted the seed for this book. The professor raised the intriguing notion that perhaps the history of the U.S. South would have turned out more favorably for African Americans had Union authorities lined planters against a wall and executed them. The statement contained just enough seriousness to make it provocative. Students chuckled at the outlandish thought. Such a thing could not happen, could it? But the idea of a different outcome to the war intrigued. Additional reading yielded ample examples of those who sought revenge, not only northerners railing against Confederates but also Republicans condemning Democrats who opposed the Lincoln administration. Further investigation found letters from citizens housed in the National Archives that asked authorities to hang Confederate leaders higher than biblical proportions so that Jefferson Davis could replace Haman as the new standard for the height of a symbolic noose. But in the real world, no one beyond the Lincoln conspirators and the commandant of Andersonville faced execution, although plenty of former Confederates were indicted for treason. How can one reconcile what appeared to be a heartfelt hatred of the rebels, and expressions of vengeance, with the demonstrable record of leniency?

Finding the answer prompted a journey into understanding how Civil War era northerners conceived of, and acted upon, treason. The first revelation came in the extent to which ideas about treason proliferated as a primary means of constructing policy during the conflict—especially in guiding the military in defining the contours of loyalty on the northern and Confederate home fronts. Treason pervaded public discourse. It represents a challenge for a researcher to find a northern newspaper or periodical during any day of the war in which the words “traitor” and “treason” do not appear as a characterization of the rebels, of political opponents, or of the people suspected of holding divided loyalties in the United States. Popular conceptions of treason—or opinions formed outside of civil courts but in tracts, legislative halls, and executive chambers, and through actions in the streets—justified confiscation of rebel property, including slaves, ships, and other contraband; allowed soldiers to arrest women who taunted them; enabled a Union general in New Orleans to hang a man for . . .

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