William A. Blair on the Consequences of Silence during the Civil War

With Malice Towards Some: Treason and Loyalty in the Civil War Era by William A. Blair

In a guest post over at UNC Press Civil War 150, William A. Blair, author of With Malice toward Some: Treason and Loyalty in the Civil War Era, discusses how those who didn’t openly support the Union and Lincoln’s administration risked being arrested on suspicion of treason during the Civil War.

Americans have a high regard for free speech, but should we have the same concern for the protection of silence? Should saying nothing or doing nothing open one to military arrest? What if a president has gone on record as advocating such a policy? This may sound like a ridiculous proposition, given our system of rights embedded in the Constitution. But it is not a hypothetical statement: this scenario faced northerners, border-state loyalists, and especially Confederates in occupied zones during the U.S. Civil War. Saying nothing and doing nothing did bring the U.S. Army to one’s door.

The Reverend K. J. Stewart received a lesson about the problem of silence in a civil war. On February 9, 1862, soldiers dragged this minister of St. Paul’s Church from the pulpit during worship service in Alexandria, Virginia. The reason? He had refused to say the prayer to the president. Soldiers from the 8th Illinois Cavalry, directed by a State Department detective, literally dragged the preacher from the church. He had to be pried from his grasp on the chancel rail. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and Stewart was released fairly quickly.

The most startling statement about silence and arrests came from none other than President Abraham Lincoln. In June 1863, he responded to criticism of military arrests by a group of Democrats from New York in a letter whose lead signatory was Erastus Corning. It was one of less than a handful of public letters that he issued during the conflict and was designed to rationalize the arrest of Clement Vallandigham, former congressman and gubernatorial candidate from Ohio. The politician had delivered a speech that challenged an order by Major General Ambrose Burnside prohibiting criticism of the administration. Vallandigham was arrested, tried by a military commission, and banished from the Union, creating outrage among many Democrats, including the group from New York.

Often missed by historians—but not by Mark E. Neely Jr.—was that a portion of Lincoln’s defense in what became known as the Corning Letter justified arrests that were preventative. In other words, Lincoln condoned imprisoning people before they had done anything wrong. He added that doing nothing could earn a visit from the military. “The man who stands by and says nothing, when the peril of his government is discussed, can not be misunderstood. If not hindered, he is sure to help the enemy.” The president added that, similarly, waffling statements suggested an underlying disloyalty that should be nipped. “Much more, if he talks ambiguously—talks for his country with ‘buts’ and ‘ifs’ and ‘ands.’” Lincoln ended this segment of the letter with a better known statement: “I shall be blamed for having made too few arrests rather than too many.”

Visit UNC Press Civil War 150 to read the full post, “When Silence Wasn’t Golden.”