Book Review: “The Limits of Loyalty: Ordinary People in Civil War Mississippi”

Easy as it is to imagine the Confederacy made up of a solid group of Union-hating slave owners and their friends, the reality of the situation is much more complex. Jarrett Ruminski, a freelance writer, researcher, and consultant, investigates this reality in his dense, well-researched book The Limits of Loyalty: Ordinary People in Civil War Mississippi.

If the reader can get past the first chapter, he or she will be in for an enjoyable, informative read. Chapter One, “A Contest of Passion, Not Reason,” lays out a great deal of academic vocabulary necessary to understanding the ordinary Mississippians and their reaction to secession, then to occupation, and finally defeat. Phrases like “Protective Nationalism,” and prefixes like micro and macro become important ideas as author Ruminski discusses whether or not taking an oath of loyalty is a serious commitment–or not. He uses primary sources from planters who did not serve in the Confederate Army to debate and defend personal decisions to continue selling cotton to the North, and using whatever means necessary to go through Union lines to obtain the material goods that defined life prior to the outbreak of war. Suffice it to say that a Mississippian’s money was not always where his or her mouth was alleged to be.

Mississippi was under Union control early in the War. Her location along one of the most vital waterways in America made her strategically important to the Union and the Confederacy. Politically and socially, the state was one of the most rabid in the Confederacy. She seceded early (January 9, 1861) but was under Union control from May 1862 onward.

Because people had to continue their lives even with the Union Army next door, local people had to make pragmatic changes One example, given early in the book, was the Oath of Allegiance to the Union. At first, Mississippi newspapers railed against taking the oath, calling for “unyielding resistance under all circumstances,” from the state’s citizens. As the war continued, the problem of loyalty became more complex until the oath became a practically meaningless promise for southerners who found that feeding their families and maintaining their property took precedence over mumbling mere words.

Some argued that they were even more loyal to the Confederacy by taking the Union oath, for it enabled them to continue sending food and goods to the Confederate armies in the field.

Mississippi sent about 80,000 white men to fight for the Confederacy, leaving many households under the control of women. In Natchez, for instance, women had to deal daily with Union occupation. Ruminski clearly defines the daily, micro loyalties of the women who ran small households, plantations, and everything in between. Macro loyalties–those to the ideals of a separate Confederate nation–often took second place to providing for and maintaining a household. Mississippi civilians often “held their noses” and did what was necessary to continue on in the face of economic collapse, even if it meant trading with Yankees for household staples.

One particularly interesting chapter, “Prey to Thieves and Robbers,” concerns the problems made by Confederate deserters who often travelled as a group, pretending to be partisan rangers. Deserters had many other reasons to leave the army besides “defending hearth and home from Union invasion.” In fact, Ruminski questions the historiography of this idea, writing that “Military defeat, Union occupation, economic collapse, and the breakdown of law and order facilitated opportunistic collective violence among Confederate deserters, whose localized group attachments underlay their indiscriminate pillaging of the Mississippi home front.”

As I said, this book is dense, as in full of facts and information. The Appendices are copious, and the entire book is a very intellectual undertaking. It is not an easy read, nor is it a comfortable one. If a reader is looking for a way to prop up a “Lost Cause” mentality, this book is not the right choice. If, however, a reader is looking for a serious study of the Mississippi home front in an effort to better understand the Confederacy as it was, not as how you hoped it would be, The Limits of Loyalty will suffice nicely.

Jarret Ruminski, The Limits of Loyalty: Ordinary People in Civil War Mississippi.

University Press of Mississippi, 2017.

2 Appendices, Notes, Bibliography, Index, 284 pp. total.