Author Interview--Ben H. Severance (A War State All Over) Part 1

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we feature Ben H. Severance to talk about his new book A War State All Over: Alabama Politics and the Confederate Cause, which came out in June 2020 with the University of Alabama Press.

Ben Severance is professor of history at Auburn University at Montgomery with a Ph.D. from the University of Tennessee. Severance has also published Tennessee’s Radical Army: The State Guard and Its Role in Reconstruction, 1867-1869 (University of Tennessee Press, 2005) and Portraits of Conflict: A Photographic History of Alabama in the Civil War (University of Arkansas Press, 2012).

How did you become interested in writing a book about the Alabama election during the American Civil War?

BHS: My interest grew out of my work on Portraits of Conflict: A Photographic History of Alabama in the Civil War. While researching the home front portion of that book, I discovered that most scholars presented the election of August 1863 as either an outright repudiation of the Confederate war effort, one that demanded a negotiated peace with the North, or as a conspicuous indication of the state’s waning enthusiasm for the cause. These assertions were based on the fact that some prominent pro-war incumbents (mostly erstwhile Democrats who supported secession) lost their races, while several former Whigs won, the supposition being that southern Whigs generally opposed secession and the ensuing rebellion. Examining the aftermath, however, I noticed that not much changed politically; Alabama maintained its total war approach and the so-called peace movement never really materialized. Moreover, I discovered that former Whigs could be and were just as fervent for the cause as their brethren among the former Democrats. Finally, I was surprised to find that Alabama’s soldiery did not participate in the election due to a constitutional technicality that prevented absentee balloting (this was not the case in other Confederate states). Consequently, I began to wonder how historians could draw a definitive conclusion about an election when thousands of potential voters did not participate. I also presumed that most soldiers were staunch patriots who would never have voted for anti-war politicians. Therefore, I decided to write a fuller history of the election and, more broadly, Alabama’s political allegiance to the Confederate cause.

What do you argue in your book?

BHS: Essentially, I contend that Alabama’s government (including its Congressional delegation) was strongly resolved to winning the Confederacy’s bid for independence, both before and after the mid-war state elections. I refer to the members of this pro-war majority as “war Confederates” and their opponents as “peace Confederates.” These are not official party labels—the Confederacy had no formal party system—but a construct I use to more easily differentiate between the competing camps. By way of qualification, in saying that Alabama was a “war state all over,” I do not mean to suggest that the whole society was gung ho for the cause (although most citizens were indeed supportive to some extent). Instead, I argue that the polity of office-holders and military personnel in the state was determined to win the war no matter the cost. The election of 1863 bears this out. Rather than ushering in a wave of defeatism and disillusion, as many historians have claimed, the outcome of the election affirmed the state’s commitment to seeking an unconditional victory. The words and deeds of Alabama’s politicians, especially their voting records in the Confederate Congress and the state legislature, demonstrate that a super-majority of them were war Confederates who advocated extreme policies to the very end of the struggle. This dedication helps explain why the Confederacy was able to put forth the impressive armed resistance that enabled it to survive for as long as it did.

Which is an interesting transition since you take David Donald’s essay that the Confederacy died of democracy to task, how do you illustrate that there were limits to democracy but also a commitment to victory?

BHS: Donald’s essay is still valid when it comes to freedom of the press in the South and to the uncensored opinions of its soldiers. Where it falls short, at least in the case of Alabama, is with the most important expression of democracy—voting. Although they displayed genuine, martial patriotism for their new nation, Alabama’s fighting men were basically disfranchised in 1863. Their absence from the polls contributes greatly to the misperception that Alabama was wavering in its resolve to win. My approach to addressing the soldiers’ role in politics was to first establish that they were, indeed, dedicated to the cause, and then to ponder their impact on the election had they been able to participate. As citizen-soldiers, Alabamians in the ranks paid close attention to political developments back home. Based on scores of letters to family relatives or to the state newspapers, as well as numerous petitions and resolutions from the regimental files, Alabama’s soldiery exhibited a strong sense of nationalism and excoriated peace Confederates who talked about Reconstruction (i.e., a negotiated cease-fire followed by conditional reunification with the North). To be sure, many letters and diaries bemoaned the hardships of camp life and expressed frustration over a war that seemed to have no end—but these are universal complaints by all soldiers involved in protracted wars. What I did not find, however, were calls for the Confederacy to surrender or doubts about the righteousness of the Rebel cause. Whenever the soldiers did talk about politics, their insistence on a fight to the finish is unmistakable. With this in mind, I then developed a careful counter-factual exercise where I weaved soldier votes into the election returns for 1863. Recent scholarly studies of wartime elections in North Carolina and Georgia reveal that soldiers in those states voted overwhelmingly for pro-war candidates (88 percent and 75 percent respectively). And then there is the famous example of Lincoln winning re-election in 1864 with 78 percent of Union soldiers voting for him. Based on these case studies, I thought it reasonable to set Alabama’s potential pro-war soldier vote at 80 percent. The results of this hypothetical exercise have war Confederates winning many more seats at every level of governance. It should be noted that Alabama remained a “War State All Over” even without soldier votes; but with them the war Confederates would have enjoyed a much clearer mandate for their rule. This is why I rephrase Donald’s “died of democracy” to “death by democracy denied,” because a major pro-Confederate voting bloc was not permitted to weigh in on a contest that affected the course of a struggle that they were willing to die for.

I want to pivot to your methodology. You have done extensive work on the elections, where did you locate the election return? Were their holes in the record? Can we trust the results (especially in light of say Georgia’s session election)? How do you make sense of the amount of data you collected?

BHS: As an interior state within the Confederacy, most of Alabama had yet to suffer any widespread disruption by enemy invasion and occupation at the time of the election. To be sure, the Tennessee River Valley counties experienced regular Union incursions, but for the most part the polls opened across Alabama without incident. The returns are available in great detail and completeness in the Secretary of State files at the Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery. Most newspapers at the time also listed the returns, and the numbers between the two sources match up in just about every instance. When presented to the general assembly, no one objected to the final tallies; there were no accusations of fraud or intimidation. Therefore, the data is reliable. That said, the numbers reflect only about a third of the electorate compared to the dramatic presidential election of 1860. For a variety of reasons, ranging from refugee displacement to war weariness, fewer Alabamians cast ballots. It should also be reiterated that nearly half of those not voting in 1863 came from the “disfranchised” soldiery who very much wanted to participate. This low voter turnout is why I avoid making big assertions about the society’s degree of nationalism and keep my focus on the polity—the state—whose overall war Confederate mien was upheld at the ballot box, the lack of a popular mandate notwithstanding.