Author Interview--Ben H. Severance (A War State All Over) Part 2

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we feature the second part of our interview with 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.

Part 1

How do you read election results to support say a peace or war Confederate? Does the absence of a party system in the Confederacy make it more difficult to interpret the data?

BHS: The Confederacy’s no-party political system does complicate the process of identifying who was who on the war question. Nonetheless, there are ways of discerning the answer. An obvious one is to note how individual politicians expressed themselves in public and private on war-related topics. This helps determine the mindset of those for whom we have a substantial set of speeches or correspondence, such as Congressman Jabez Curry of Talladega, who was one of the most jingoistic war Confederates in the state. In establishing the outlook of the entirety of Alabama’s officeholders, however, I found the best metric to be their voting records. The state’s congressional delegation consisted of nine members in the House and two senators. Based on how they voted on total war policies, I found that over the course of the war, most of Alabama’s lawmakers at the national level were war Confederates. All but one—William R. Smith, a contrarian politico from Tuscaloosa—supported conscription, impressment, and the destruction of property; and a majority of them supported the suspension of habeas corpus and the eleventh-hour law in 1865 that authorized the recruitment of slaves as soldiers.
Classifying Alabama’s state legislators as advocates of war or peace proved more daunting because the general assembly comprised 133 seats and the election saw about 230 candidates vying for them. The key to giving the winners a political label was the critical senatorial election that occurred in the late autumn of 1863. The term of the incumbent senator Clement Clay (a fire-eater on secession and a war Confederate on rebellion) was expiring and the ensuing election for his seat illuminated the political attitudes of Alabama’s legislators like nothing else. Clay sought to retain his seat, while Jabez Curry sought to replace him. Both of these men were prominent and staunch war Confederates. Anyone voting for them shared this alignment. Another aspirant was John J. Seibels, a man who openly consorted with the so-called Peace Society and was an outspoken proponent of reconstruction with the North. Anyone voting for him shared his views. War Confederates had the numbers, but in dividing their votes between Clay and Curry they elected neither. Peace Confederates were united behind Seibels, but could never muster a majority. This pattern played out over the course of twenty ballots when war Confederates finally agreed on a compromise candidate—state supreme court justice Richard Walker—and then put him over the top. Because Walker had evinced misgivings about secession, and because Clay and Curry were both denied a victory, many historians see this moment as an example of Alabama’s shift toward defeatism. But my examination of the actual voting reveals that Walker enjoyed the imprimatur of the war Confederates. He was not their ideal candidate, but he was a reliable supporter of the cause. Conversely, the peace Confederates rightly understood that Walker was an opponent of their reconstruction agenda and so voted overwhelmingly for an alternative of their own, Benjamin Fitzpatrick, an elderly statesman who had grown disillusioned with the rebellion. It is the data from this important election that forms the basis for how I label Alabama’s legislators as for or against the war. Voting patterns on other war measures, such the militia act of 1863 and various resolutions calling for greater sacrifice or making better use of slaves for military purposes, are consistent with my classifications.

An older method for identifying who was who among Alabama’s politicians is to consult pre-war party affiliations. This has some value, but doing so tends to reinforce the enduring assumption that Whigs were less enthusiastic in their support for the Confederacy than Democrats. In Alabama, some of the most diehard war Confederates were former Whigs, including William Chilton, who served in the Confederate Congress throughout the war, Walter Crenshaw, who served as Speaker of the Alabama House, and Tom Watts, who won the gubernatorial contest in 1863. Politics in 1863 revolved around whether Alabamians thought the war was still worth fighting, not where elected officials stood on the issues of the 1850s.

This does lead to an interesting oddity. Soldiers were not able to vote. Why did the Confederacy and Alabama not consider some form of absentee election system? Would the soldier vote have made a difference?

BHS: Actually, Alabama was the only Confederate state, as far as I know, that made no provision for absentee balloting. The state constitution stipulated that a person had to reside in his home precinct for three consecutive months prior to an election in order to be eligible. Obviously, Alabamians in the ranks of Rebel armies in Mississippi, Tennessee, and Virginia, could not meet this requirement. Several state legislators called for an amendment (which would have required a constitutional convention) or tried to push through a special waiver, but both ideas were rejected on the grounds of being too impractical under wartime conditions. Curiously, the state had permitted soldiers to vote in the August 1861 elections right at the start of the war, but this involved only the few regiments that had formed at the time, not the scores deployed across the South in 1863. Fortunately, because Georgia and North Carolina permitted soldier voting, I have those returns available for comparative speculation into how Alabama soldiers might have voted—pro-war in my analysis. The hypothetical that I posed in Question No. 3 above does not assert a different military outcome to the war, but it does serve as a forceful rebuttal to anyone arguing that Alabama’s political commitment to the war was fading.

Considering the currently ongoing discourse about absentee and mail-in voting, what does you example illustrate to us about voting during a time of grave crisis?

BHS: The Civil War on both sides demonstrated that fair elections can occur under the direst of circumstances. Despite waging total war, neither Presidents Lincoln and Davis nor any of their war governors suggested that the elections in their respective areas be postponed or cancelled. They all exercised authoritarian power over their polities, but they all understood that elections were a foundational component of any genuine republic. The people (i.e., white men in 19th Century America) had a right to vote, especially when their governments were demanding great sacrifice during a time of war. Even though Alabama neglected to set aside a technical barrier when it came to its soldiery, the state still conducted its scheduled election. The Civil War’s respect for the overall electoral process is encouraging history for our own day. The current talk that views with suspicion the integrity of mail-in-voting is just plain nonsense, if not outright scaremongering. In 1863, Alabama’s Governor John Gill Shorter rightly feared that he would lose the election, but he never contemplated interfering with the process, and he accepted his defeat with grace. I would like to think that Donald Trump would display a comparable respect for democracy’s verdict should he share a similar fate.

How does Alabama illustrate larger electoral and voting/voting rights trends within Alabama, the southern states, and the United States?

BHS: Unfortunately, the word “disfranchisement” is a leitmotif in Alabama’s politics (not to mention the rest of the South). There is the de facto disfranchisement of soldiers during the Civil War and the de jure disfranchisement of African-Americans afterward. Alabama’s soldiers were unintentionally disfranchised because state legislators did not think an exception to the constitution could be made in the midst of a war. This was an atypical development in the context of the rest of the Confederacy and therefore it’s really an anomaly, albeit a controversial one. Otherwise, Alabama’s wartime elections were remarkably fair and free of incident. Conversely, those during Reconstruction, despite massive voter turnout, were marred by violence and charges of fraud. The outcome of several congressional elections were contested before investigative committees during these years. After Reconstruction, of course, disfranchisement became official policy. The so-called “redeemers” exalted white supremacy and deliberately set out to deprive blacks of the right to vote. To that end, Alabama instituted a poll tax that effectively eliminated African-American suffrage for almost a century. It should be noted that the poll tax never mentioned race lest it run afoul of the terminology in the Fifteenth Amendment. It should also be noted that many poor whites also lost the franchise, a product of class contempt rather than racism. This state-sanctioned disfranchisement was designed to re-establish the supposedly superior herrenvolk democracy of the antebellum and Civil War years, a belief now connected to the Lost Cause that proclaims that true political liberty is for white men only.

It certainly is a dark story, to close, what are your future plans?

BHS: I’ve got a couple of projects in mind. The first one builds on my knowledge of Alabama—an article-length study of what total war looked like in terms of human mobilization. To that end, I want to determine with real accuracy how many white Alabamians over the course of the war served in the ranks, either as volunteers, conscripts, federalized militiamen (i.e., home guard), or as “tories” in the Union army. I’ll also look at war-related employment in factories and on the plantations. Overseers, for instance, were exempt from wearing the uniform, but they still served a vital military role behind the lines by maintaining order over a slave population that rightly suspected that Dixie was in jeopardy. As a complement to this research, I’ll try to nail down a more precise figure of war deaths in Alabama. The numbers here range widely from just under 20,000 to over 40,000. In the process of gathering these statistics, I’ll re-examine the extent to which the Civil War, at least in Alabama, was a “Rich Man’s War, Poor Man’s Fight.” I share James McPherson’s contention that this slogan is overblown and misleading, but it’s remarkable how many lay folks and students of the period accept the basic premise that slaveholders did the seceding while yeoman did the fighting (and dying). Addressing this issue will require a census search to identify a representative sample of slaveholders who served and how many became casualties.
The second project is long term. I’m contemplating an assessment of Confederate war policy using the insights from On War, the great military tome by Carl von Clausewitz, as my analytical lens. Many scholars have drawn on various portions of On War in making their points (Robert G. Tanner, through his book Retreat to Victory?, is among the best who does so), but none have offered a truly comprehensive evaluation of Confederate strategy from a Clausewitzian perspective. Clausewitz famously and rightly connected the military and political dimensions; so that would be my intent as well, to examine generalship together with the performances of Jefferson Davis and his War Department. My initial framework for this endeavor will be Harry G. Summers’s On Strategy, a superb Clausewitzian study of the Vietnam War. Such a project, if it ever actually comes to fruition, will likely serve as my academic coda.