The Union Reader

This is a book by Richard Barksdale Harwell. It’s a compilation of primary source material that allows us to hear directly from the people who lived through the Civil War and lets them tell the story of the war.

Most of the entries are contemporaneous documents or accounts, such as letters, orders, and in one very interesting case, the “Address of the Legislative Assembly of New Mexico: Manifesto of the Council and House of Representatives to the Inhabitants of the Territory of New Mexico” which says, “Without any fault or even offense of yours, your honor and property, your families and children are now in peril, by an enemy you have not injured, and whose invasion of the peace, security, and integrity of your soil and homes, you have not provoked. This enemy is Teas and the Texans. With their hostile armed regiments, rebels to the Government of the United States, to whose protection and flag, our good faith, our duties, our confidence, interests and hopes turn and belong, they have come upon us, in violation of every principle of right, of justice and friendship.” [p. 77] The manifesto identifies the cause of the conflict: “We are a free people, and our fathers ever abhorred negro slaves and slavery.–Our enemies found their rebellion upon pretences [sic] touching the negro, negro slaves and slavery. They have set up their rebel organization upon those elements, and boast in the face of a Christian world, of their skill and wisdom in building upon such foundations. We have condemned, and put slavery from among our laws. It is not congenial with our history, our feelings or interests. The marauders come to destroy our enactments, and force upon us by the cannon and rifle, slave institutions, against our will, protests and tastes.” [p. 79]

Another interesting document is the “Memorial of the Public Meeting of the Christian Men of Chicago To His Excellency, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States,” from September 7, 1862. In the memorial, they say, “We claim, then, that the war is a Divine retribution upon our land for its manifold sins, and especially for the crime of oppression, against which the denunciations of God’s Word are so numerous and pointed. The American nation, in this its judgment-hour, must acknowledge that the cry of the slave, unheeded by man, has been heard by God and answered in this terrible visitation. … The slave oligarchy has organized the most unnatural, perfidious and formidable rebellion known to history. It has professedly established an independent government on the avowed basis of slavery, admitting that the Federal Union was constituted to conserve and promote liberty. All but four of the slave states have seceded from the Union, and those four (with the exception of Delaware, in which slavery but nominally exists) have been kept in subjection only by overwhelming military force. Can we doubt that this is a Divine retribution for national sin, in which our crime has justly shaped our punishment? Proceeding upon this belief, which recent events have made it almost atheism to deny, your memorialists avow their solemn conviction, deepening every hour, that there can be no deliverance from Divine judgments till slavery ceases in the land. We cannot expect God to save a nation that clings to its sin.” [pp. 150-151]

The book reproduces “The Diary of a Lady of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, fro June 15 t.o July 15, 1863.” The July 2 entry reads, in part, “Of course we had no rest last night. Part of the time we watched the Rebels rob the house opposite. The family had left some time during the day, and the robbers must have gotten all they left in the house. They went from the garret to the cellar, and loading u p the plunder in a large four-horse wagon, drove it off. I expected every minute that they would burst in our door, but they did not come near us. It was a beautiful moonlight night, and we could see all they did.” [p. 232]

The book also reproduces Secretary of State William H. Seward’s February 7, 1865 letter to Charles Francis Adams, the US Minister to the Court of St. James in London, regarding the Hampton Roads Peace Conference. In that letter, Seward writes, “The Richmond party approached the discussion rather indirectly, and at no time did they either make categorical demands, or tender formal stipulations, or absolute refusals. Nevertheless, during the conference, which lasted four hours, the several points at issue between the government and the insurgents were distinctly raised, and discussed fully, intelligently, and in an amicable spirit. What the insurgent party seemed chiefly to favor was a postponement of the question of separation, upon which the war is waged, and a mutual direction of efforts of the government, as well as those of the insurgents, to some extrinsic policy or scheme for a season, during which passions might be expected to subside, and the armies be reduced, and trade and intercourse between the people of both sections resumed. It was suggested by them that through such postponement we might now have immediate peace, with some not very certain prospect of an ultimate satisfactory adjustment of political relations between this government and the States, section, or people now engaged in conflict with it. This suggestion, though deliberately considered, was nevertheless regarded by the President as one of armistice or truce, and he announced that we can agree to no cessation or suspension of hostilities, except on the basis of the disbandment of the insurgent forces, and the restoration of the national authority throughout all the States in the Union. Collaterally, and in subordination to the proposition which was thus announced, the anti-slavery policy of the United States was reviewed in all its bearings, and the President announced that he must not be expected to depart from the positions he had heretofore assumed in  his proclamation of emancipation and other documents, as these positions were reiterated in his last annual message. It was further declared by the President that the complete restoration of the national authority everywhere was an indispensable condition of any assent on our part to whatever form of peace might be proposed. The President assured the other party that, while he must adhere to these positions, he would be prepared, so far as power is lodged with the Executive, to exercise liberality. His power, however, is limited by the Constitution; and when peace should be made, Congress must necessarily act in regard to appropriations of money and to the admission of representatives from the insurrectionary States. The Richmond party were then informed that Congress had, on the 31st ultimo, adopted by a constitutional majority a joint resolution submitting to the several States the proposition to abolish slavery throughout the Union, and that there is every reason to expect that it will be soon accepted by three-fourths of the States, so as to become a part of the national organic law. The conference came to an end by mutual acquiescence, without producing an agreement of views upon the several matters discussed, or any of them.” [pp. 329-330]

I can recommend this book for students of the war because it puts us in direct contact with the people who lived through the war and gives us their thoughts. It contains a number of documents students of the war often don’t see in other publications.



  1. Just as an FYI, Richard Harwell’s brother was Ernie Harwell, long-time and legendary radio voice of the Detroit Tigers.

  2. Harwell also published a Confederate Reader, which I imagine is similar. According to the copyright dates, they came out the same year. I’ve got both in an early-90s omnibus printing, but they’re a good five years’ removed from my present research interests so I haven’t really delved into them.

    1. Stay tuned. My review of The Confederate Reader is on the way. 🙂

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