Southern Rights: Political Prisoners and the Myth of Confederate Constitutionalism
On the day Fort Sumter surrendered to Confederate authorities, General Braxton Bragg reacted to a newspaper report that might have revealed the position of gun emplacements by placing the correspondent, a Southern loyalist, under arrest. Thus the Confederate army's first detention of a citizen occurred before President Lincoln had even called out troops to suppress the rebellion. During the civil war that followed, not a day would pass when Confederate military prisons did not contain political prisoners.
Based on the discovery of records of over four thousand of these prisoners, Mark E. Neely Jr.'s new book undermines the common understanding that Jefferson Davis and the Confederates were scrupulous in their respect for constitutional rights while Lincoln and the Unionists regularly violated the rights of dissenters. Neely reveals for the first time the extent of repression of Unionists and other civilians in the Confederacy, and uncovers and marshals convincing evidence that Southerners were as ready as their Northern counterparts to give up civil liberties in response to the real or imagined threats of wartime.
From the onset of hostilities, the exploits of drunken recruits prompted communities from Selma to Lynchburg to beg the Richmond government to impose martial law. Southern citizens resigned themselves to a passport system for domestic travel similar to the system of passes imposed on enslaved and free blacks before the war. These restrictive measures made commerce difficult and constrained religious activity. As one Virginian complained, "This struggle was begun in defence of Constitutional Liberty which we could not get in the United States." The Davis administration countered that the passport system was essential to prevent desertion from the army, and most Southerners accepted the passports as a necessary inconvenience, ignoring the irony that the necessities of national mobilization had changed their government from a states'-rights confederacy to a powerful, centralized authority.
After the war the records of men imprisoned by this authority were lost through a combination of happenstance and deliberate obfuscation. Their discovery and subtle interpretation by a Pulitzer Prize&emdash;winning historian explodes one of the remaining myths of Lost Cause historiography, revealing Jefferson Davis as a calculated manipulator of the symbols of liberty.