Olsen on Dew, 'Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War'

Author: 
Charles B. Dew
Reviewer: 
Christopher Olsen

Charles B. Dew. Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War. Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 2001. x + 124 pp. $22.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8139-2036-8.

Reviewed by Christopher Olsen (Department of History, Indiana State University) Published on H-South (January, 2002)

Secession, Slavery, and Racism: Confederates vs. Neo-Confederates

Secession, Slavery, and Racism: Confederates vs. Neo-Confederates

This slender volume examines the work of secession commissioners sent from the deep South to other slave states in the winter of 1860-1861. The men were charged with defending secession and urging fellow southerners to follow them out of the Union. Charles B. Dew properly notes that historians trying to uncover the emotions and motives behind disunion have rarely examined the words of these commissioners. The men themselves are commonly ignored by historians entirely or dismissed as minor figures. Dew has speeches or letters from forty-one of the fifty-two men who served as commissioners. They were all slaveowning politicians, with varying experience and partisan affiliations; most were natives of the states to which they were appointed. This is not a complete study of the men or all of their work, but it is an important contribution to the literature on secession and a good introduction to the story of these neglected figures.

Dew evidently intends the book for both academics and a more general readership. The text is barely eighty pages, followed by an appendix and only a minimum of notes, which should make it appealing for classroom use. The prose is clear, jargon-free, and includes enough of the narrative of secession that even beginning students will be able to follow the book. But the material is complex enough, and the representative documents well chosen, so that it should also stimulate discussion among advanced readers.

For the book's primary audience--non-academics and beginning students--the author's intent clearly is to disabuse them of the (incredibly) still popular notion that secession was not about preserving slavery and racial subordination (and the southern culture based on them), but rather to assert some sort of abstract commitment to states' rights. Academic historians, of course, have long-since concluded that states' rights was the means, not a primary motive, for secession and war. Dew's principal target is the somewhat shadowy "Neo-Confederate" movement, including the League of the South and the patrons of "Neo-Confederate web sites, bumper stickers, and T-shirts" (p. 10). He notes correctly that secessionists themselves "talked much more openly about slavery than present-day-neo-Confederates seem willing to do" (p. 10). The book's first chapter makes clear the relevance of his discussion to recent controversies over the Confederate flag in a number of states and Virginia's Confederate history month, among others. The author writes with some obvious passion. A native southerner he recalls "my boyhood dreaming about Confederate glory," and confesses that he is "still hit with a profound sadness when I read over the material on which this study is based" (p. 2).

Not surprisingly, Dew has little difficulty demonstrating his primary thesis. The secession commissioners repeated the same message wherever they went: Lincoln and the Republicans were abolitionists determined to establish racial equality or promote amalgamation; secession and independence offered white men the only alternative to degradation and cultural destruction. The Republican threat, the men argued, was really three-fold: racial equality, race war, and racial amalgamation. The authors of Mississippi's "Declaration of Immediate Causes," for instance, claimed that the North "advocates negro equality, socially and politically, and promotes insurrection and incendiarism in our midst" (p. 13). Alabama's Leroy Pope Walker summarized that Republican rule would cost southerners first, "our property," "then our liberties," and finally "the sacred purity of our daughters" (p. 79).

Perhaps the most effective evidence Dew offers is the coarse racism that punctuated many of the commissioners' appeals. Thoughtful and open-minded readers will recognize that the preservation of slavery and racial purity--of the Ku Klux Klan variety--were founding principles of the Confederacy. As Stephen Hale, Alabama's commissioner to Kentucky, wrote: Republican victory was "nothing less than an open declaration of war, for the triumph of this new theory of government destroys the property of the South, lays waste her fields, and inaugurates all the horrors of a San Domingo servile insurrection, consigning her citizens to assassinations and her wives and daughters to pollution and violation to gratify the lust of half-civilized Africans" (p. 54). Dew touts Hale's letter as the best summary of secessionist arguments about slavery and race--indeed, he quotes the passage cited above on three separate occasions--and its full text is presented in the Appendix.

Another of the book's strengths is Dew's effective juxtaposition of comments made by the same men before and after the war. Through the words of Jefferson Davis, Alexander Stephens, J. L. M. Curry, John Smith Preston, and others, the author demonstrates that ex-Confederates created the myth of states' rights causation when they wrote Lost Cause memoirs. Before and during the war these men framed arguments for independence and Confederate nationalism in terms of slavery and racism. After the defeat, however, they sang a different tune. Stephens, of course, delivered his famous "cornerstone" speech in March, 1861, and Dew presents a thorough discussion of his remarks. In his 1868 memoirs, however, Stephens insisted that the war "was a strife between the principles of Federation, on the one side, and Centralism, or Consolidation, on the other." Slavery "was but the question on which these antagonistic principles" finally collided (p. 16). After the war Preston defended the Confederacy as a noble defense of "true constitutional liberty," a far cry from his antebellum characterization of Republican "canting, fanatics, festering in the licentiousness of abolition and amalgamation" (p. 75).

For specialists, of course, these themes--if not specifically the material--will be very familiar. Many historians of the secession movement will object to Dew's contention that "there is no better place to look [for the "secessionist mind"] than in the speeches and letters of the men who served their states as secession commissioners on the eve of the conflict" (p. 18). Furthermore, probably few would agree that to the commissioners fell "the challenge of providing such an explanation [for secession] -- of informing the Southern people of the dark forces threatening their region and driving their states to seek sanctuary outside the Union" (p. 24). Editors, politicians, and a host of other public spokesmen hammered away at the same themes throughout the 1850s and certainly the 1860 presidential campaign; the arguments to explain and justify secession had already received full expression when Lincoln was elected.

Dew also does not engage the historiography; his list of "recent" scholarship includes only two books published since 1988 (one of them a collection of essays). More frustrating for some readers will be the lack of attention to how "slavery" conjured different images for different listeners. Some of the most innovative work on secession--books by Lacy Ford or Stephanie McCurry, for instance--has considered the various meanings of slavery within the context of southern political culture and secession. The call to protect slavery from Black Republicanism was tied to the preservation of regional equality and honor, personal manhood, the rights of white male property owners and husbands, and more--in short, the duties and privileges of white men were at stake as well as the actual future of slavery and racial superiority.

None of these objections takes away from the author's primary thesis or the book's effectiveness. In fact, much of the material in the book may make it even more valuable as a teaching tool for advanced students. A careful reading and discussion should force them to engage the notion that many southerners understood "slavery" as more than just the institution itself and racial superiority. For instance, the words of South Carolina's Leonidas W. Spratt, commissioner to Florida, related the importance of masculinity as well as slavery: "We knew that the men of the South were too instructed, and too brave, to submit to the severities of final subjugation" (p. 44). Religious imagery infused the speeches of Mississippi's Fulton Anderson. Northerners were corrupted, he said, by "an infidel fanaticism" that warped men and women into believing "that we are a race inferior to them in morality and civilization." Republicans were determined to wage "a holy crusade for our benefit in seeking the destruction of that institution which...lies at the very foundation of our social and political fabric" (p. 63). Numerous passages repeated the ubiquitous terms--always linked by southern spokesmen--of "degradation and dishonor." In short, Dew's work should prompt readers to consider the many themes related to slavery that informed the secession crisis and affected how southern men understood the imperative dangers that Republicanism brought home. The inclusion of two full texts in the Appendix is especially welcome in this regard.

Apostles of Disunion should, although it won't, end the discussion of whether or not the South's primary goal in 1861 was to defend its slave-based culture. The book offers all of us who struggle with the irrepressible myth of states' rights devotion an effective way to force students to confront the integral place of slavery and racism in the mind of the Old South and the popular movement for secession.

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Citation: Christopher Olsen. Review of Dew, Charles B., Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War. H-South, H-Net Reviews. January, 2002. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=5809

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