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Southern Rights

Political Prisoners and the Myth of Confederate Constitutionalism
Mark E. Neely, Jr.

BUY Cloth · 212 pp. · 6.125 × 9.25 · ISBN 9780813918945 · $43.50 · Oct 1999

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.


Mark Neely's Southern Rights is a work of major significance that revises many traditional views about civil liberties in the Confederacy. By carefully analyzing the previously ignored arrest records of more than 4,000 political prisoners in the Confederacy, Neely demonstrates that in crucial ways the regulation of dissent was simultaneously more sweeping and less controversial in the Confederacy than in the Union, and in theprocess effectively calls into question the standard paeans to Confederate constitutionalism. Neely's careful scholarship reveals how little we knew previously about the formulation of Confederate policy on this issue or how Confederate laws and policies were actually enforced at the local level. This is a stimulating and provocative work that asks new questions, challenges many reigning beliefs about southern society and values, and points Confederate scholarship in new directions. With implications far beyond its particular subject, Southern Rights is one of the most original and important books on the Confederacy ever published.

William E. Gienapp, Harvard University

About the Author(s): 

Mark E. Neely Jr., McCabe-Greer Professor of Civil War History at the Pennsylvania State University, won a Pulitzer Prize in history for his book The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties. He is also author of The Last Best Hope of Earth: Abraham Lincoln and the Promise of America.

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