Confederates from Iowa:

Not to Defend, but to Understand

Category: Book review

An upset in the making: A review of The Confederacy at Flood Tide

Football announcers, amazingly enough, parallel the work of historians:  They both offer play-by-play comments, descriptions of players, speculation, and post-game analysis.  Historian Philip Leigh has written a thoughtful book, The Confederacy at Flood Tide:  The Political and Military Ascension, June to December 1862.

Leigh describes “the Confederacy’s most opportune period for winning independence.”  He excels at setting things in context, ranging from battles in the Eastern and Western Theaters to geopolitical struggles in Europe.  The book ends on the crescendo of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

Divided loyalties

The author offers a political insight about Robert E. Lee and the South in general:

Since he [Lee] famously, and reluctantly, resigned as a U.S. Army colonel during the secession crisis, Lee appreciated that the Confederacy was composed of people with divided loyalties and consciences.  Many would require victories in order to remain steadfast to the new cause.

View from the street

A few lively quotes pepper the text.  For example, a pro-Union woman was dismayed that Confederates had entered her Maryland neighborhood:

I asked myself in amazement, were these dirty, lank, ugly specimens of humanity the men that had driven back again and again our splendid legions with their fine discipline, their martial show and color?

I felt humiliated at the thought that this horde of ragamuffins could set our grand army of the Union at defiance.  Oh!  They are so dirty.  I don’t think the Potomac River could wash them clean.

Financial fallout

Leigh shares interesting, little-known financial information about the broader war at sea.   For example, he states:

Raiders like the Alabama caused a surge in insurance rates for cargoes carried in American hulls.  Consequently, many Northern ship owners sold their vessels at depressed prices to foreign buyers who could sail their ships without fear of Confederate capture.

Half the U.S. merchant fleet vanished during the Civil War.  Rebel raiders destroyed about 100,000 tons, but 800,000 tons were sold to neutral registrants.  Although previously the envy of the maritime world, the U.S. merchant marine was permanently eclipsed thereafter.

What if … ?

Counter-factual scenarios are some of the most intriguing questions in history.  Leigh considers what might have happened if war had broken out between Britain and the United States:

Although it would be hard for Britain to maintain an army in America, its powerful navy might have ended the federal blockade of Southern ports and even blockaded Northern harbors.

Contrary to popular belief, the Monitor and Merrimack were not the first ironclad warships.  The British and French began building bigger and faster deep-water ironclads before America’s Civil War started.

The Road to emancipation

The author deftly traces Lincoln’s journey as he formed his thoughts about abolition and emancipation.  Leigh also clearly explains Lincoln’s strategy of using the Emancipation Proclamation to hasten the end of the war.

My recommendation

This book is a good contribution to the discussion of the Civil War, Lincoln, emancipation, and the Confederacy’s seemingly best chance to obtain independence.  I recommend this logical, clear, and thought-provoking book.

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It’s nice to know where you came from: A review of A History of Iowa

Imagine a scene from the dawn of time:  A warrior on a canoe, spear held loosely, glides up a river toward an unsuspecting mastodon.  The spear flies, and the mastodon falls.  Centuries later, its massive skeleton is in the State Historical Museum in Des Moines.

Professor Leland L. Sage takes us back to early days of what became Iowa.  His book, A History of Iowa, begins with the impact of the glaciers through the end of the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Sage excels at describing the growth of Iowa’s government and explaining political movements in Iowa, from territorial days through the farm mortgage-default crisis in the 1920s and 1930s.  He also discusses agriculture.

Sage claims that when he wrote this book, “No scholarly general history of the state existed.”

He writes with authority and insight.  The text is lucid, and he wastes no words.  Sage writes with endearing skepticism.  Two examples will suffice.

  1. According to Sage, it “requires an exercise of great faith” to accept that the name “Iowa” came from the favorite residence of the Ioway Indians. He then offers good reasoning for this skepticism.
  2. After discussing Lincoln’s death, Sage writes, “The Lincoln no one knew would soon take form.”

A small bone to pick

I found a small weakness in Sage’s book, namely, his brief mention of the arrest of Democratic editor Dennis A. Mahony in fall 1862.  Sage writes:

“By remarkable coincidence, U.S. Marshal Hubert Hoxie of Des Moines appeared in Dubuque only six days before the Democratic District Convention, arrested Mahony, and hustled him off to Washington, without benefit of a trial but accused of interfering with the war effort” (pg. 163)

It’s possible that Sage was being ironic, referring to the “remarkable coincidence” of Mahony’s arrest.  However, the author doesn’t examine why Mahony was arrested.  Furthermore, Sage doesn’t discuss the propriety and the implications of violations of civil liberties in Iowa during wartime.  Perhaps the author lacked information.  After all, his book came out six years earlier than Hubert H. Wubben’s Civil War Iowa and the Copperhead Movement.

In contrast to Sage’s treatment of Mahony’s arrest, he gives an ample discussion of violations of civil liberties of German-Americans in Iowa during World War I.

My suggestion

I recommend this book and its meaty end-notes.

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When words broke bones: A review of The Civil War: A Book of Quotations

“Death and life are in the power of the tongue,” an ancient writer tells us.  In a sense, words inflamed the country and, in 1861, flared up into Civil War.

Like a good interviewer, Bob Blaisdell quotes many people in The Civil War:  A Book of Quotations.  The characters range from famous to common folk, and we encounter the intensity of those days through their eyes.

The quotations allow us to get at the personalities, the humanity, and the complexity of the whole affair.  Blaisdell aptly places the quotes within summaries of each stage of the war.

Changing opinions

Some characters had mistaken judgment, and others changed their minds.  For example, Robert Toombs advised Georgians (on December 24, 1860) that a vote for secession “will be your best guarantee for liberty, security, tranquility, and glory.”

Republican Senator William H. Seward said on January 12, 1861, before the war began, “I do not know what the Union would be worth if saved by the use of the sword.”   Seward and other Republicans drastically “changed their tune” after the first cannonballs smashed into Fort Sumter.

The nature of war

This book invites questions about the nature of the war.  For example, President Lincoln said, in the midst of a bloody campaign:

We accepted this war for an object, a worthy object, and the war will end when that object is attained.  Under God, I hope it never will until that time.

Three days later, on June 19, 1864, Mrs. Sarah Butler, wife of Union General Benjamin Butler, wrote her husband:

What is all this struggling and fighting for?  This ruin and death to thousands of families?  … What advancement of mankind to compensate for the present horrible calamities?

My recommendation

This book helped me look at the Civil War in a fresh way, and it stimulated my thinking.  I highly recommend The Civil War:  A Book of Quotations.  It has a little something for everyone.

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The pleasure of good storytelling: A review of City of Sedition: The History of New York City During the Civil War

When was the last time you simply enjoyed a history of a city – or any book about the Civil War?  For me, it happened over Thanksgiving at my aunt and uncle’s house in rural Iowa.

The writer in me reveled in John Strausbaugh’s City of Sedition:  The History of New York City During the Civil War.


This book is a joy to read.  The exception is the barbarity of the 1863 Draft Riots.  But even here, the author puts events in context, portraying a simmering pot, stoked hotter and hotter, that erupts, scalding everyone nearby.

Peopled with leading characters from politics, history, and literature, New York City comes to life in Strausbaugh’s engaging book.   In a nice touch, detailed biographical sketches advance the narrative.

Contradictions abound

The paradox of New York City is trotted out in all its glory.  The author states:

No city would be more of a help to Lincoln and the war effort, or more of a hindrance.  No city raised more men, money, and material for the war, and no city raised more hell against it …

The same New York banks that funded the spread of plantation slavery across the Cotton South would provide the start-up capital for the Union war machine that ended slavery.  New York merchants outfitted both.

Port of slavers

I caught my breath as I read this shocking claim:

By the 1850s, it was an open secret that New York was the North’s major slaving port.  New Yorkers owned and invested in slave ships and financed their voyages.  New York shipyards fitted them out.

New York’s corrupt and easily bribed port authorities turned a blind eye.  In 1865, the Evening Post published a list of 85 slave ships that had sailed from New York bound for Africa in 1859 and 1860.

Skillful writing

The author tries to present and describe things as the characters saw and experienced them.  Strausbaugh paints characters with warts and all.

The author includes excellent quotes.  For example, Jesuit chaplain Joseph O’Hagan described the Excelsior or Sickles’ Brigade in this way:

Most of them were the scum of New York society, reeking with vice and spreading a moral malaria around them.

With a novelist’s eye for details and tension, Strausbaugh describes John Wilkes Booth’s older brother Edwin Booth:

Even with his second sight, Edwin had no inkling of the bizarre and shattering turns it [life] was going to take.

I wrote in the book margin, “Builds anticipation.  My gosh, the author’s good.”

Negative critiques

I have two minor beefs about this book:

  1. The quality of the paper doesn’t match the high quality of the writing.
  2. There are so many interesting nuggets that I frequently flipped back to the endnotes. Unfortunately, the endnotes are rather cursory, and that made it hard to pinpoint some good quotes.

Overall recommendation

Strausbaugh’s 367-page book was well worth my time.  I highly recommend it.

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Split-screen history: A review of From Blue Mills to Columbia: Cedar Falls and the Civil War

Iowa during the Civil War offers drama:  Noble leaders, scoundrels, bright hopes, and bitter disappointment. In short, we see a reflection of our common humanity.

A respected colleague suggested that I read more books about home-front Iowa.  Kenneth L. Lyftogt’s From Blue Mills to Columbia:  Cedar Falls and the Civil War is a good addition to my library.


Lyftogt reminds me of a seasoned trail guide, who enlivens the journey with stories.  Published by the University of Iowa Press in 1993, From Blue Mills to Columbia gives a split-screen view of the Civil War.

In one frame, we follow residents of Cedar Falls and Black Hawk County, Iowa who served in the Union Army.  In the other frame, we see how townspeople experienced the war from afar.

The story gathers steam with the full-throated uproar over Fort Sumter and the rush to arms.  As the war dragged on, hope-filled soldiers and civilians were frustrated and deeply disappointed.

Firing upon Ft. Sumter

Firing upon Ft. Sumter

An interesting phenomenon occurred in Cedar Falls:  Business boomed during the war, and at the same time, residents grew increasingly anxious over the safety of soldiers.

Against this backdrop, Lyftogt describes a grieving father (whose son had died at Andersonville Prison).  This father smashed the windows of a hotel, run by a lady who said she supported McClellan for president in 1864.  It’s unlikely that the father was prosecuted in heavily Republican Cedar Falls.

Pendulum-swing of emotions

Cedar Falls residents had a frenzy of celebration after Lee surrendered at Appomattox.  One handbill crowed, “Bad Luck on the Man who is Sober Tonight!”

Less than a week later, President Lincoln was assassinated.  Ashen grief, despair, and bitter anger ruled the day.  A leading resident, Peter Melendy, wrote:

Would to God that the hot wrath of the people might swing every man that rejoices in this calamity.  Revenge is my motto.

Peter Melendy

Peter Melendy

My recommendation

I appreciate the way Lyftogt provides context, using just enough explanation but not too much.  He excels at including excerpts of letters that enrich his narrative.

For a snapshot of home-front Iowa, and an overview of Iowa regiments at war, I recommend Lyftogt’s readable book.

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Dig a little deeper in the well: A review of Reluctant Rebels: The Confederates who joined the Army after 1861

For the past six years, I’ve asked myself, “Why would someone leave a nice state like Iowa and serve the Confederacy?”  Seeking insights, I read James M. McPherson’s masterful book, For Cause and Comrades:  Why Men Fought in the Civil War.

McPherson and other historians have focused on men who enlisted in 1861.   Historian Kenneth W. Noe gives a richer, fuller, and more nuanced picture in Reluctant Rebels:  The Confederates who joined the Army after 1861.


When Noe looked at the body of Civil War literature, he asked the following questions:

Where were the conscripts? … Where were the deserters?  Where were the men who broke and ran away?  Where were the garrison troops and backwater outfits?  For that matter, where were the reluctant Rebels, the men who waited months or years before enlisting?

Noe added:

Scholars and general readers alike would never truly understand the full range of the soldier experience, I suggested, until all those men found their historians, too.

Almost one-fourth (22.5%) of all Confederate troops enlisted after 1861.  If you add conscripts (15%) and substitutes (9%), almost half of all Confederate soldiers entered the Confederate service after 1861.

Defying stereotypes

Noe states in his introduction:

While they were not so different than other soldiers – and those similarities as well as differences will be delineated in the pages that follow – later-enlisting Confederates ultimately defy stereotyping and must be met on their own ground.  Doing so offers a fuller portrait of them and all Confederate soldiers.

In Reluctant Rebels, Noe explores “the reasons that compelled most of those ‘later enlisters’ … to stay at home initially only to join up later on.”  He also considers “the factors that kept them in the ranks and emboldened them in combat.”

Noe draws upon a sample of 320 later-enlisting Confederate soldiers.   He interweaves his analysis with the positions of Civil War scholars, including Bell Wiley, James M. McPherson, Gerald Linderman, Randall Jimerson, and Chandra Manning.

A sampling of surprises

Author Noe surprised me several times in Reluctant Rebels.  For instance, regarding slavery, he states the following:

 Later scholars maintain in sum that Johnny Rebs enlisted, remained in the ranks, and fought battles to preserve legal slavery.  They also admit that such an interpretation requires a degree of historical interpretation and literary deconstruction, for relatively few of the soldiers they studied wrote blatantly about fighting to preserve slavery.

On the subject of substitute soldiers, the author writes:

Despite the expected public shame associated with hiring a substitute, the market for such proxies in the Confederacy exploded overnight as men swallowed both the vaunted Southern honor historians wax eloquently about and their reputations.

Ultimate problem

I found the following insight to be compelling:

Part of the Confederacy’s ultimate problem was that the thin gray line of white men the South called up in the war’s second year and beyond always were too few in number, too old, too divided in heart and soul, and physically not always up to the task before them.  Later enlisters could and would fill the ranks and kill in combat, but many of them could not always march and fight as well as their new nation needed them to do.

As the Gospels surely reminded some of them during their trials, ‘The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’  Lacking sufficient manpower both in terms of quality and quantity, the thin gray line of later enlisters proved insufficient, and the Confederacy yielded at last.

My recommendation

Reluctant Rebels is insightful, persuasive, and peppered with captivating quotes.   To his credit, author Noe admits the limitations of his research, and he gives solid reasoning to support his conclusions.

In short, I found Noe’s book to be well worth reading.

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“When you’re holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail”: A review of Lincoln’s Autocrat: The Life of Edwin Stanton

Many Americans can picture the “devoted patriot” Edwin Stanton, close to Lincoln’s bedside as the president lay dying.  After Lincoln breathed his last, a stoic Stanton reportedly said, “Now he belongs to the ages.”

Historian William Marvel has written Lincoln’s Autocrat:  The Life of Edwin W. Stanton (Civil War America series, University of North Carolina Press).  This engaging, well-documented book tells how Stanton, an able lawyer, came to serve Presidents James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln, and Andrew Johnson.


This book reveals Stanton’s duplicitous, self-serving character.  The author describes Stanton’s “deep insecurity,” a condition suggested by his “sycophancy, double-dealing, and self-congratulatory storytelling.”


Marvel preferred to use “the most contemporary primary sources – diaries, letters, official documents, and newspaper observations from the period in question.”  He explains:  “All those sources suffer from personal and political prejudices, but those are usually easier biases to detect than those absorbed unconsciously, over the passage of decades.”

The author does a good job of setting events in context, while maintaining the thread of a story.  I was fascinated to learn about Stanton’s role in suppressing and violating civil liberties in the North during the Civil War.

The power to arrest and imprison

After Fort Sumter, Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus in the North.  This meant that federal authorities could arrest and imprison civilians, without any charges.

Secretary of State William H. Seward was, at first, in charge of arresting civilians.  Secretary of War Stanton assumed this authority in early 1862.

Lincoln signed into law the first draft in U.S. history on July 17, 1862.  Marvel describes what happened less than a month later:

Stanton quickly … nullified much of the Bill of Rights.  Citing no authority but his own, on August 8 he ‘authorized and directed’ all U.S. marshals and chiefs of police – over whom he could claim no constitutional authority whatever – to arrest and imprison anyone who ‘may be engaged, by act, speech, or writing, in discouraging volunteer enlistments, or in any way giving aid and comfort to the enemy, or in any other disloyal practice against the United States.’

Stanton’s orders were significant, from a civil liberties perspective.  Marvel states:

In a single sentence, Stanton abolished the First Amendment, overrode the Fourth, ignored the Fifth, and eviscerated the Sixth.  He essentially criminalized every citizen’s right to criticize the government.

Republican officials would quickly embrace his order as an opportunity to treat criticism of the Lincoln administration and its political supporters as a form of treason, and to punish Democrats – almost exclusively – for daring to voice disagreement.

Bringing it home to Iowa

Shortly after Stanton issued his orders, federal and state authorities arrested and imprisoned about 36 Iowans in August 1862, according to historian Hubert H. Wubben.  Arrestees included Dennis Mahony, editor of the Dubuque Herald, and David Sheward, editor of the Constitution and Union (in Fairfield, Iowa).

Dennis Mahony, editor of the Dubuque Herald (Loras College)

Dennis Mahony, editor of the Dubuque Herald (Loras College)

The arrestees were imprisoned without any formal charges and without a jury trial.  They were held in prison for as little as two months.  Mahony, “like most of his fellow prisoners,” was forced to sign a pledge that he wouldn’t sue Stanton or other officials for false arrest.

The arrests and imprisonments violated the following civil liberties:

  1. Freedom of speech;
  2. Freedom from criminal punishment except upon indictment and trial;
  3. The right to a speedy trial by an impartial jury;
  4. The right to be informed of the nature of an accusation; and
  5. The right to confront contrary witnesses.

Marvel comments:

Suddenly it was impossible to utter any effective criticism of the war, or the administration, without at least the threat of arrest.

Republicans faced a backlash during state elections in October and November 1862.  Nonetheless, Marvel writes that Stanton “kept jailing critics, painting all who disagreed as traitors, and the president allowed him free rein.”


I have focused on only one part of Marvel’s lucid and thought-provoking book.  I highly recommend Lincoln’s Autocrat:  The Life of Edwin Stanton.

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Johnny on the spot: A review of Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief

Jefferson Davis was a lifelong friend of George Wallace Jones, one of Iowa’s first U.S. Senators (and father of two Confederates from Iowa).  Even more than that, Jefferson Davis read and commented on most or all letters from Iowans who sought Confederate commissions or offices.  Those intersecting lives gave me ample reason to read Embattled Rebel:  Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief.

James McPherson has written 14 other books about the Civil War.  In this book, McPherson tells the Civil War as a story, with Jefferson Davis as the main character.

Embattled Rebel Jefferson Davis book cover AMAZON dot COM

McPherson artfully condenses strategies, battles, and entire theaters of war.  He uses the right number and types of quotations to introduce his points.

For example, McPherson describes the Confederate decision to fire upon Fort Sumter in April 1861.  I have seen this as a huge mistake because it stirred up a hornets’ nest of Northerners, buzzing with righteous indignation.  McPherson offers a perspective I hadn’t considered before:

Davis had reason to believe that an actual shooting war would bring more slave states into the Confederacy to stand with their Southern brethren against Yankee ‘coercion.’

Inter-personal relationships

The author gives a few examples where Jefferson Davis showed “favoritism toward incompetent friends.”  My study of early U.S. Senator from Iowa, George Wallace Jones, suggests another way to look at President Davis’s actions.

George Wallace Jones and Jefferson Davis were college friends who remained close the rest of their lives.  Their relationship suggests that Davis was routinely loyal toward his friends.


Jefferson Davis serves as a prism for looking at the Civil War.  Students of the war may glean insights in McPherson’s masterful book.

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Fence posts and scholarship — A review of To Live and Die in Dixie: Native Northerners who Fought for the Confederacy

Historical research and scholarship remind me of putting up fence posts the old-fashioned way.  Gripping a post-hole-digger, a person presses down, making it bite into the soil.

Repeated turns strain the pectoral muscles, shoulder muscles, biceps, triceps, wrists, and hands.  Next comes pounding a fence post into the hole, digging a new hole, and repeating the process.

Historian David Ross Zimring has added a new fence post with To Live and Die in Dixie:  Native Northerners who Fought for the Confederacy (Knoxville, 2014).    Zimring identifies 303 men and women, born in northern states (not including Iowa), who moved South before the Civil War (sometimes as early as the 1810s).    This scholarly book explores the complex dynamics of identity formation in the nineteenth century.

To live and die in Dixie Native Northerners who fought for the Confederacy BOOK COVER Amazon DOT com

Main questions

Zimring asks why northern emigrants “chose to fight for their adopted home and against their native section?  Most importantly, what do their experiences tell us about the nature of sectional identity and Confederate nationalism?”  I have thought about related questions for the better part of six years.

The author contends:

Those [emigrants from the North] who supported the Confederacy did not fight as northerners dragged into the Confederate ranks against their will; they viewed themselves as both southerners and Confederates in thought and action, by adoption rather than by blood.

Differences between his definition of “resident” and mine

Zimring defines “resident” as a native of a northern state who left that state and moved South as an adult.  I define resident as a person who lived in Iowa no earlier than 1850 (that is, after Iowa became a state), for at least two years, and who was 13 or older while living in Iowa.

Zimring’s definition of resident is more stringent than mine.  It seems open to discussion as to whether people as young as 13-15 years old are able to identify with a state and/or a region.  This question may need further study.

Positive attributes

I found Zimring’s main points to be compelling.  I appreciated the fact that his sample size (303) is much greater than my list of 75 Confederates from Iowa (although research is continuing).

Negative critique

To Live and Die in Dixie would have been richer if Zimring had included Iowans.  I question whether Zimring needed to include Northerners who moved South as early as the 1810s, 1820s, and 1830s.  On a micro level, I think that Zimring’s book would benefit from another round of copyediting.  Specifically, some individual statements (in support of a larger point) are weak or indefensible, although the larger points are typically credible and persuasive.   Additional copyediting might also reduce repetitive statements.

My recommendation

This book is rather expensive (I paid $53.39 for a copy).  Nonetheless, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in northerners who emigrated to the South before the Civil War.

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