A Confederate in Congress: The Civil War Treason Trial of Benjamin Gwinn Harris by Joshua E. Kastenberg. McFarland & Company, 2016. Paper, IBSN: 978-1476664897. $35.00.
In the weeks following the chaos of two major Confederate surrenders and the Lincoln assassination, another extraordinary event took place: military authorities arrested Benjamin Gwinn Harris, a Democrat congressman from Maryland, for committing treason. Harris was convicted by a court-martial and sat in prison for several weeks until being released by President Andrew Johnson. This unusual trial forms the climactic event in Joshua E. Kastenberg’s A Confederate in Congress, a book that is part biography and part “holistic legal history” (in the author’s words). Rather than focus on the trial, Kastenberg reconstructs Harris’ life and considers his trial in the context of broader questions about border state loyalty and the limits of public dissent. This task is difficult, for in many ways Harris and his case have disappeared from historical memory.
One reason that Harris’ case has received little attention is the relative dearth of sources documenting his life. Kastenberg notes that, for someone of his stature, Harris’ personal collections are relatively small. Still, Kastenberg has to build a larger narrative, which he attempts by trying to locate Harris in the broader histories of Maryland politics during the war and antiwar politics across the Union. His section on Maryland in particular lends itself nicely to useful parallels with other border states like Kentucky and Missouri. While Harris’ eventual support for secession is out of step with all except the most radical of southern sympathizers in the North, Kastenberg does show that Harris remained an effective representative of the voters in Maryland’s Fifth District, especially in his support for both slavery and religious freedom for Catholic immigrants.
A noteworthy figure in Maryland politics, Harris supported secession after the Baltimore riots and later won a seat in Congress in 1863. He came to national attention during the House of Representatives’ debate over expelling Alexander Long, a more famous Copperhead. Harris’ defense of Long departed from the issue at hand to attack the Lincoln administration and openly defend the righteousness of secession. In response to these intemperate remarks, some members of the House responded by attempting to expel him. Far from fading into the background, Harris remained a prominent figure in the Democratic Party in spite of his open support for the Confederacy. Kastenberg devotes an entire chapter to Harris’ activities at the 1864 Democratic convention. An at-large delegate, he effectively led the Maryland delegation, supporting Thomas Seymour as a challenger to George B. McClellan, who Harris viewed as a potential tyrant.
Harris was arrested in May 1865 for having supplied financial aid to two paroled Confederate soldiers. As Harris was a sitting congressman, the army told Johnson about the arrest before it happened, though the president’s personal papers provide no additional comment. Kastenberg’s background as a veteran in the Air Force Judge Advocate General’s Corps is especially helpful when recounting the trial, as his familiarity with the procedures involved in a court-martial, including the differences between the 1860s and the present, make the process easier to follow. Harris was found guilty and sentenced to three years in prison; he was also barred from holding public office, which was well beyond the scope of powers for any court.
It is not often in Civil War historiography that an author is able to find an event or idea about which so little has been written, but Kastenberg appears to have done it. The author specifically notes the works of historians Frank Klement, Jennifer Weber, Joanna Cowden, and Mark Neely bypass Harris’ story. Trying to explain this oversight, Kastenberg notes that Harris was not only an unabashed secessionist and white supremacist, but also a combative and unpleasant personality. In addition, the trial took place shortly before the capture and trial of the Lincoln assassination conspirators; the conviction of a secessionist was no match for the publicity generated from that event.
Though the book does not quite provide the insights promised into wartime civil-military and executive-legislative power struggles, the larger lack of contemporary commentary hampers that goal. That being said, the consistent absence of Harris and his trial in the larger historiography make this book a welcome addition to a growing body of Civil War scholarship.
Keith Altavilla teaches history at Lone Star College, CyFair.