Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War, by Charles B. Dew
Anyone who makes the fallacious claim that the Deep South rebelled from the Union in late 1860 and early 1861 because of state’s rights without slavery being an issue should be told, “Here’s your sign,” and then told to read this book. The author, a native Southerner whose devotion to historical truth fortunately (for us) outweighed his love for his native people, gives a damning and historically impeccable account of the pivotal role of racist fears and slavery propaganda in leading to the secession of the South’s states through a thorough account of the speeches and writings of the obscure secessionist commissioners appointed by South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi in late 1860 and early 1861.
The book itself is a short one, just over 100 pages of written work (followed by the meticulously cited notes). The book opens with a touching introduction of the author as a native Southerner, then examines the first wave of Alabaman and Mississippian secession commissioners, then the South Carolinians, then the Alabamans, and then the mission to Virginia, and follows with a conclusion on how the secession commissioners themselves joined the “party line” of figures like Davis and Stephens in whitewashing their own racist and slavery-based appeals after the Civil War was lost, serving a role in formulating the neo-Confederate Lost Cause myth that still remains potent in the memory of the historically ignorant.
The one complaint that could be made about this book is that it could easily have been made much longer, and much more destructive of the false claims of neo-Confederate historians, by including even more of the primary documents of the slave commissioners themselves, with their florid and overheated rhetoric about Black Republicans, the horrors of submission to authority, the specter of race wars and the most shocking horror of them all, the prospect of racial amalgamation. Racial rhetoric did not advance much in the South between 1860 and 1960, as the same arguments that got trotted around the dog and pony show for secession were also used by racists in the 20th century against integration. The book as a whole is required reading for anyone who wants to know what arguments really reflected the Southern drive to secede in 1860 and 1861, and the answer isn’t “state’s rights” but rather the specific right to own and exploit other people.
In reading this book I also had a very dark realization that the same techniques used by the secession commissioners in 1860 and 1861 were techniques I had seen used by the dissidents within UCG over 2010. The same spirit motivated each of them–the refusal to accept equality, the same overheated rhetoric about the “other side,” the same refusal to accept legitimate authority and obey it, which was equated with surrender and submission, the same elitism, the same prickly sense of personal honor and unwillingness to honor and respect others, the same tendency to repeat the same false accusations and insults and buzzwords and talking points over and over again in different letters and appeals, and the same goal of disunion in order to preserve unjust systems of government and debased and immoral cultural traditions. It is a sobering thing to see the same script being followed for the same goal of rebellion, a way of demonstrating the continuing relevance of the American Civil War even in seemingly unrelated issues.
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Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War. By Charles B. Dew. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001. Pp. vii, 124, $22.95 (hbk), ISBN 0-8139-2036-1
In his memorable and eloquent Second Inaugural Address, President Abraham Lincoln observed of the cause of the Civil War that all people, North and South, knew slavery “somehow” stood at the center of America’s riveting central event. Yet as David Blight recently noted, this is a powerful “somehow,” and Lincoln’s utterance cast an ominous shadow over the legacy of the American Civil War in the collective consciousness of victors and conquered alike. Southerners, much as they rejected Lincoln’s ascendency to the presidency, rejected in the long term his interpretation of the war’s causation. Such prominent southerners as Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens worked religiously to recast the legacy of their war against the North. The myth and religion of the Lost Cause runs so deep, in fact, that Charles Dew set about to dispel and discredit the dubious assumption that efforts to protect states’ rights, “somehow,” caused the secession crisis in the winter of 1860. As a native southerner, and as a distant son of Confederate veterans, Dew writes with measured regret in issuing this lament for his heritage. He locates the seemingly incontrovertible answer to the question of what forces, exactly, precipitated the secession crisis in the activities and written records of the southern secession commissioners in Secession Winter.
At the crux of Dew’s argument and narrative framework lies this fundamental fact: “The secessionists of 1860-61 certainly talked much more openly about slavery than present-day neo-Confederates seem willing to do” (10). Southerners, Dew contends, seceded primarily to protect racial slavery and the purity of the white race. Dew traces the activities of commissioners from the Deep South—where they spoke, with whom, to whom they delivered speeches, with whom they corresponded—and illustrates how totally southerners perceived Lincoln’s presidential election as an apocalyptic event. With Lincoln’s election, and the prospect of “Black Republicans” in power, southerners feared three things: first, the unthinkable and dishonorable prospect of racial equality; second, the ever-present threat of race war and mass violence (as manifested in Saint Domingue); and third, the defiling of white purity through racial amalgamation.
In all, some fifty-two southern men represented the Deep South as secession commissioners in the weeks leading to the Civil War (19). Remarkably, they did not constitute the South’s ablest and preeminent political voices; they were, as Dew puts it, “relatively obscure figures—judges, lawyers, doctors, newspaper editors, and farmers.” All possessed a talent and knack for oratory and rhetoric (19). Many earned their appointments as commissioners on the basis of their connections to those states whose legislatures had yet to settle the question of secession. Together, they represented the breadth of the moderate and radical political factions within the Democratic and Whig parties. All spoke fervently and relentlessly on the issue of preserving the purity of the white race and protecting southern civilization from political despotism, blackness, and Republicanism—all of which formed a singular entity in the southern mind. Alabama and Mississippi dispatched the first wave of commissioners, which Dew outlines in his second chapter. These men went as far north as Maryland; some went even to South Carolina, if only to urge on the issue of immediate secession in a state not wanting for radicalism or secessionist sentiment. The initial flurry of commissioners spanned four days, December 17th to the 20th, 1860.
When South Carolina formally severed ties with the Union on 20 December 1860, it moved quickly to improve its political and geographic isolation. Dew devotes his third chapter to the Carolinians, who carried forth the initial call to form a constitutional convention in Montgomery, Alabama. The work of these commissioners resembled, in the words of the author, a “campaign for Southern unity” (45). Significantly, Dew draws attention to the reality in December 1860 that a southern confederation was hardly a foregone conclusion: “South Carolina’s headlong rush to secede required some explanation and justification, particularly in light of the state’s well-deserved reputation as the most radical of all the slaveholding states” (49). Dew concentrates his focus on Alabama’s commissioners in chapter four. Stephen Fowler Hale bore the special distinction of winning Kentucky for the cause of secession, a mission he failed for reasons beyond his own competency. Nonetheless, Hale’s mission to Kentucky serves to reinforce Dew’s broader agenda, which is to show how southerners viewed the issue of secession as racially charged and expressly for the preservation of racial purity and superiority (A letter that Hale wrote to Governor Magoffin of Kentucky, laden with racial language and a useful window into interpreting southern motives for secession, appears in the Appendix). Dew devotes his final chapter to assessing the missions of commissioners to Virginia, the crown jewel of the future Confederacy.
This is a potent book that leaves little doubt as to the motives of southern secessionists. Importantly, it does the historical community and general readers a great service in reestablishing racial slavery as the cause of the American Civil War. It deals a mortal blow to proponents of the Lost Cause and States Rights doctrine. Nonetheless, the book seems bound by certain limitations. Dew, of course, is right to identify the impetus for southern secession as the preservation of racial purity and the perpetuation of institutional slavery. It does not necessarily follow, though, that the North bore no racial prejudice in 1860 as southern states looked to dissolve their bonds of union. Nor does it follow that northerners stood willing in December of 1860 to fight a war for the total eradication and abolition of slavery, and abolitionists remained very much on the fringe of political respectability. In a very real sense, to live in the United States, North or South, in December of 1860 was to live in a racially charged world with attitudes about the purposes, limits, and possibilities of racial equality incomprehensible to this present age.
MITCHELL G. KLINGENBERG
Texas Christian University
Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War. By Charles B. Dew. (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 2001. Pp. ix, 103.)
What caused secession and the Civil War? In his brief tome, Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War, Charles B. Dew directs attention to a neglected source of insight. Dew acknowledges the mounds of books already written on the subject, and emphasizes that he does not detract from previous historiography on secession, but rather contributes one more facet to the multiple causes that led to secession. Racism, Dew explains, spurred secession – it was a defense of white supremacy. While not a wholly novel argument, the basis for Dew’s conclusion, the words of secession commissioners, is noteworthy.
Dew begins with reminders of the ongoing controversy over the Civil War and its causes (recent circa the book’s 2001 publication date), illustrating the intense emotions and wildly conflicting views still held by many Southerners. Though Southerners frankly acknowledged the importance of slavery to their cause before and during the Civil War, afterward they insisted they fought only for “states’ rights,” liberty, and constitutionalism. To cut through the contradictory claims, Dew offers a neglected source of insight: the words of secession commissioners, men appointed by some Southern state governments in late 1860 or early 1861 to travel the region justifying and promoting secession. A total of fifty-two men served as evangelists of secession, giving public speeches and writing to prominent officials. Secession commissioners were usually not particularly famous men; they were chosen for their oratorical abilities and often for having some personnel connection to the state they visited.
By the end of November 1860, even before seceding, Mississippi moved to send out commissioners to other slave states; Alabama followed suit in December. Other states followed. Besides warning of impending doom, South Carolina’s commissioners encouraged seceding states to gather in Montgomery in February 1861 to write a new constitution for a Southern confederacy. Secession commissioners had the job of explaining to the Southern people the dire threat that required secession as a response. Their great theme was that Abraham Lincoln and the so-called Black Republican intended to eliminate slavery and establish racial equality. Secession was the only way for the South to avoid brutal slave insurrection, they proclaimed. Fear, anger, racism, pride – all were on display in the passionate arguments of the secession commissioners. Wealthy, populous Virginia held a prominent place in the dreams of secessionists, and it received special attention from commissioners. The commissioners worked to squelch any hints of compromise by insisting the chasm between North and South was so wide that only permanent separation could save the South.
What caused secession and the Civil War? From the words of the secession commissioners, Dew concludes that irrational fears of three imminent horrors – racial equality, race war, and miscegenation – spurred secession. The white race was in mortal danger, a clash of two civilizations, and commissioners preached a gospel of salvation by secession. A brief conclusion to the book offers a revealing look at the post-war rhetoric of some secession commissioners. They quickly became ardent defenders of the Lost Cause, conveniently seeming to forget their warnings of degradation before black assassins and fanatic abolitionists and insisting the South fought only for constitutional government and liberty. Dew consulted a variety of archives and employs speeches and letters of the secession commissioners (an appendix includes the text of a couple of these) along with newspapers and published primary sources. He located the texts or detailed summaries of forty-one speeches or letters by various commissioners. Though the opening chapter is a trifle longwinded and the conclusion is not stunningly cutting-edge, this short book is nonetheless well worth reading. Dew rightly observes that the causes of the Civil War remained widely disputed, making the evidence he presents, a valuable contribution to historical knowledge.
Jonathan T. Engel