William A. Blair on Confederate Disfranchisement after the Civil War

With Malice Towards Some: Treason and Loyalty in the Civil War Era by William A. BlairWilliam A. Blair, author of the forthcoming book With Malice toward Some: Treason and Loyalty in the Civil War Era (June 2014), guest blogs today over at our Civil War blog. His book explores how, although most northerners agreed that the secessionists had committed treason, the way politicians, soldiers, and civilians dealt with disloyalty varied widely. The book will be published next month.

In his guest blog post at UNCPressCivilWar150, Blair writes about one of the ways secessionists were punished for treason: disfranchisement. He looks at how states crafted various laws and policies whose intended effects were to prevent former Confederates from voting. He writes:

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.

Read the full post, “The Battle over White Suffrage after the Civil War.”