Claiming the Union: Stories of Loyalty in the Post-Civil War South

Lee, Susanna Michele, Department of History, University of Virginia
Ayers, Ed, Department of History, University of Virginia
Hale, Grace, Department of History, University of Virginia
Gallagher, Gary, Department of History, University of Virginia
Railton, Stephen, Department of English, University of Virginia

The public memorialization of the Civil War in the South dismissed the role of slavery, instead rooting causation in a controversy over state's rights. This dissertation undermines the apparent consensus on the meaning of the war by moving beyond the words of veterans and their sons and daughters to explore the perspectives of southerners who never penned their memoirs but who nevertheless wished to claim the Union as their own. Employing approximately 10,000 cases from the Southern Claims Commission, this dissertation examines southerners' stories of their wartime allegiances. Congress established the commission in 1871 to compensate "loyal" southerners for their wartime losses. Most historians turn to these records for sources on the war; this study returns the commission to its postwar context. The commission provided northerners and southerners the opportunity to debate the meaning of the war, the nature of postwar citizenship, and the direction of the reunited nation. In their testimony, southerners offered various interpretations of the war. Many nonslaveholders depicted the war as the handiwork of slaveholders intent upon preserving their slave property. Former slaveholders blamed the war on secessionists' and abolitionists' agitation over the slavery issue. Many white women distanced themselves from the masculine domain of war and politics and appealed to the Federal government on the basis of their feminine suffering and sacrifice. Black southerners celebrated the war as the end of bondage and oppression. These southerners centered their stories of the war around the controversy over slavery. The northern commissioners, however, rejected these interpretations, conceiving of the war strictly as a repudiation of secession. Ironically, then, the commissioners rather than the claimants facilitated an official interpretation of the war that obliterated the significance of the institution. Northerners and southerners embraced specific interpretations of the past to secure leverage in the present. An interpretation of the war focused on constitutional grounds negated the necessity for a reconstruction of the South. In contrast, an interpretation of the war centered on the issue of slavery raised the possibility of revolutionary change in social, economic, and political relations. Ultimately, southerners attempting to preserve a meaning of the war which recognized the significance of slavery lost the fight on the national level.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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