We welcome a guest blog post from William A. Blair, author of With Malice toward Some: Treason and Loyalty in the Civil War Era. Few issues created greater consensus among Civil War-era northerners than the belief that the secessionists had committed treason. But as Blair shows in his engaging history, the way politicians, soldiers, and civilians dealt with disloyalty varied widely. Citizens often moved more swiftly than federal agents in punishing traitors in their midst, forcing the government to rethink legal practices and definitions. Ultimately, punishment for treason extended well beyond wartime and into the framework of Reconstruction policies, including the construction of the Fourteenth Amendment. Establishing how treason was defined not just by the Lincoln administration, Congress, and the courts but also by the general public, Blair reveals the surprising implications for North and South alike.
In today’s guest blog post, Blair discusses the aftermath of the Civil War on voter registration laws and how northerners tried to deny voting rights to former members of the Confederacy.
Today, Republicans and Democrats argue over voter registration laws, especially the need for photo identification. Democrats see this requirement as trying to limit participation by poorer people rather than to prevent fraud, as the Republicans claim. Similar issues appeared in the Civil War era, as Republicans at that time tried to prevent former rebels and traitors from exercising the franchise, with one of the experiments coming in the form of voter registration.
Registration of voters was not the norm before and during the Civil War. As scholar Richard Franklin Bensel has noted in his The American Ballot Box in the Mid-Nineteenth Century, keeping accurate lists was virtually impossible in certain places, particularly cities. The development of laws and procedures in this area took shape later in the century, but there were examples of a trial run in early Reconstruction.
The Border States, including the new state of West Virginia, featured the greatest controversy for controlling white voting because so many former rebels returned home and tried to cast ballots alongside the Unionists who had remained loyal. It irked some, for instance, that former Confederate officer Bradley Johnson of Maryland might be able to cast his ballot in a postwar election while still under indictment for treason. Many worried that the traitors who had tried to tear apart the nation would return to power too easily and limit the gains of the war.
The more traditional way of disfranchising men who were considered traitors came through loyalty oaths. keep reading →