For a state whose historical identity is as inextricably bound up in the antebellum and Civil War years as Alabama—Montgomery served as the Confederacy’s first capital, after all—there are surprisingly precious few studies of the state’s overall war experience by historians. In truth the last serious scholarly attempt at chronicling the political and military battles which ravaged the state from 1861 to 1865 and the way both impacted the collective homefront was Walter Lynwood Fleming’s Civil War and Reconstruction in Alabama. While still useful in some ways, that landmark book (published in 1905) is hopelessly outdated and far from an objective one. There have been numerous studies since its publication that addressed some of its main themes, most of them either strictly military or political, and even more focusing on individual geographic regions. Clearly, Christopher Lyle McIlwain’s recently-released Civil War Alabama is a welcome addition to the state’s historiography, then, and would seem to promise to address a long-overdue subject and frame it for a new generation. It is and it does, but not necessarily in the way one might assume.
For starters, the book is a provocative study that will surely spark discussion and encourage a new understanding of the war among its readers instead of elaborating in more detail on events of relatively common knowledge. It may actually make some question all they thought they knew about the causes, course, and consequences of the Civil War in Alabama in the process. McIlwain’s primary argument, made early and often, is that most Alabamians either opposed or had lukewarm enthusiasm for the Confederacy, and in effect were led as sheep to the slaughter by a short-sited, arrogant, but powerful ruling class who, despite their minority status, possessed the means and authority to squelch dissent in a ruthless manner. The majority of these dissenters, in McIlwain’s view, were “reconstructionists” who desired a Union where slavery still had a place. That citizens of such persuasions existed and operated in every corner of the state during the war may not necessarily be a revelation to many, but McIlwain’s study asserts their numbers and influence as larger and more pervasive than most previous scholars. His most eyebrow-raising assertion, that secessionists may have even been in the minority during the very height of the fervor which led to disunion, hints at a major revision in the way we approach an understanding of the war and undergirds his thesis.
Due to an undeniably high level of scholarship, this is a serious book that deserves attention. It is built upon some substantial research, for starters. McIlwain has seemingly unearthed virtually every letter, article, and order that he could find during decades of investigation to lay the foundation for his argument. He brings to light the breadth and depth of disaffection in Alabama and explores how internal division wrought havoc on the war effort and the homefront. As one might imagine, the results are impressive, but careful readers will note they are arranged to communicate his points in such a way that one cannot help but sense a lack of balance in some areas.
If the Confederate war effort was truly as half-hearted and outright resisted across the board in the manner his numerous examples suggest, one cannot help but wonder how the state seemingly so enthusiastically embraced secession, or why so many of its men volunteered to fight in its armies at home and abroad and endured four long years of deprivation and defeat in a doomed cause which, to continue, required them to put their lives on the line. It also leaves one to wonder how so many could so vociferously and strenuously lie to themselves and others in proclaiming their support for the Confederacy in communications private and public. Further, McIlwain seems to allude to a vague but omnipresent, and apparently omnipowerful, Confederate state infrastructure ruled by demagogues and served by a pliant press as able to successfully intimidate and silence opposition throughout the war as the primary reason the reconstructionists were trumped at almost every turn. With resources inadequate to defend its borders and often even maintain a functioning government, plus with defeat and economic ruin steadily engulfing the state as the war dragged on, one must additionally wonder how this authority was so successfully leveraged by so few upon so many for so long. To dismiss every bit of Confederate optimism among journalists, or every bit of collective resistance to Union troops as the orchestrated political spin of a conspiring press or the rhetoric of blowhards is unintentionally disingenuous. Alabama did as much as any other state to bring on the war, to continue the war, and it fought to win the war. This is not to suggest McIlwain is wrong or in some way devious in the way he brings to light his well-documented evidence of dissent, however. Rather, it begs a number of questions that go largely unaddressed in his narrative and must be pondered to arrive at a true estimation of the book’s merit. In places it seems as if the author does not adequately allow for that most fundamental of situations in understanding the commitment of the public to any cause—a change of opinion as circumstances and costs changed. Alabama was a much different place in 1861 than in 1865, and attempting to explain the course of the war through a probe into a nonexistent continuity of opinion is an impossible task. Perhaps the most obvious thing that many will feel is not adequately addressed in the book, though, is the war itself. This is not a book about the course of the war in Alabama as the title suggests; it is a political history of the wartime state and a chronicle of the degree of anti-Confederate sentiment which existed among the general population in every walk of life and the way political leaders wielded influence in pursuit of their goals.
The book is, in truth, one part of a many-sided story, but a part which has really never been told well, if at all. For that reason alone, the book is a must-read for anyone interested in this era of Alabama’s past and should find a prominent place in the historiography of the state. It will challenge readers to understand the war from a new vantage point, and it will surely enlighten them on many things of concern to Alabama’s citizens at the time they scarcely have given much thought to previously. Alabama still awaits its definitive chronicle of the Civil War on the battlefields, but Civil War Alabama has forced us to think of an old topic in a new way. This is no small feat, and one worthy of our consideration.