Deserter Country: Civil War Opposition in the Pennsylvania Appalachians
By Robert Sandow
(August 2010 Civil War News)
Illustrated, photographs, maps, bibliography, appendix, index, 246 pp., 2009, Fordham University Press, www.fordhampress.com, $55.
Like many wars, the Civil War fostered dissent. Scholarship about resistance in the North has focused on the “Copperheads” who were aligned to one extent or another with the “Peace Democrats,” notably in the Midwest, or on the immigrant-fueled, mob responses to conscription in New York City and Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal fields.
In this book Robert Sandow, a professor at Lock Haven University in northern Pennsylvania, makes a strong case that other regions were centers of equally strong dissent that resulted from more varied causes.
This volume concentrates on 10 counties in north-central Pennsylvania. This mountainous, thinly-settled region was labeled “deserter country” by Ella Lonn in her seminal Desertion During the Civil War (1928).
It was the center of a lumber industry that was undergoing rapid change when war came. The area was populated by small farmers who supplemented their incomes by hewing the region’s white pine forests into rafts and floating them downstream to sawmills.
These “raftsmen” nurtured a climate of dissent when they orchestrated an 1857 rebellion against the large outsider commercial operators who had taken over the rivers with large log drives steered to booms located at the destination mills.
Sandow traces the increasingly lukewarm response of these counties to the calls for enlistment. Enforcement was complicated by the area’s physical isolation. Growing discord followed as the war progressed, crystallized most clearly in mutual, strident charges of disloyalty by the region’s party-affiliated newspapers.
One interesting element of this discord involved the creation of a loosely organized secret society called the “Democratic Castle,” which appears to have played a role in fomenting dissent — but never to the point where its members could be charged with violations of the law.
Sandow shows that enactment of the conscription law exacerbated discontent and resulted in active resistance as residents avoided the draft or deserted by hiding out in the forests.
Predictably, this resistance led to incidents of local violence when officials attempted to enforce conscription. Ultimately, in late 1864 the Federal government sent in regiments from the newly-created Veteran Reserve Corps to round up the numerous deserters hiding out in these tracts and to stamp out organized resistance.
The small number of deserters actually documented suggests that Lonn’s label for the region might be hyperbole.
Sandow establishes that resistance in these counties was the result of complex and unique economic, social, historical and political factors. As such, it differed from the more organized New York City riots and dissent in the Pennsylvania anthracite fields and their equally complicated causes.
Relying mostly on the available primary sources, such as local newspapers and government records, Sandow enhances his analysis with extensive, explanatory endnotes. The appendix contains several informative thematic maps.
At times Sandow’s style is turbid, especially in his discussion of regional adherence to concepts of “republicanism” and its impact on the local debate over what did or did not amount to “disloyalty.” The chapters on resistance to the draft and on federal intervention are more readable.
As an analysis of wartime dissent in a state that contributed vast numbers of troops to the Union armies, this volume makes a significant contribution. Readers with a serious interest in the subject should not be dissuaded by the hefty price tag for a relatively slim volume.
Sandow’s book also is a worthwhile addition to the growing number of localized studies that focus on the Northern home front.
Reviewer: John Foskett
John Foskett is a practicing attorney in Boston, Mass., and has a life-long interest in the Civil War.