43 pages 1 hour read

Charles B. Dew

Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2001

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide


Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War is a historical account of the secession movement in the antebellum Southern US written by Charles B. Dew. Dew is a distinguished professor of history at Williams College specializing in the Civil War and Reconstruction Eras. Apostles of Disunion was published in 2001 by the University of Virginia Press and won the 2001 Fletcher Pratt Prize from the Civil War Round Table of New York. This 15th-anniversary edition was released in 2016 with a new Afterword.

Apostles of Disunion examines speeches and letters of commissioners who were appointed to spread the message of secession across the South after the election of Abraham Lincoln. Before diving into this examination, Dew introduces himself to the reader as a practicing historian and a white Southern descendant of Confederate soldiers. He describes an emotional process of confronting the racism of his ancestral heritage, which emerged from an encounter with the writings of a secession commissioner. He acknowledges the scholarly discourse around the causes of the Civil War and positions Apostles of Disunion as a supplement to, rather than an argument with, that scholarly dialogue. In Chapter 1, Dew examines the contemporary sociopolitical climate, which lacks a clear consensus around the key factors that led to the war.

Chapters 2 through 5 present a close examination of the commissioners’ rhetoric to show that racism and slavery were central causes of secession. Dew narrates the “first wave” of catalytic actions in a coordinated push for secession, beginning in November 1860 when Mississippi and Alabama held conventions to consider leaving the Union. Over four days they sent commissioners across the South urging other slave states to secede. Chapter 3 describes the secession vote in South Carolina on December 20, 1860, and the journeys of South Carolinian commissioners that followed. Dew charts the strategic movement of these commissioners across the South, while excerpting their many speeches and writings to show a pattern of overtly racist, pro-slavery rhetoric at the heart of all arguments for secession. Chapters 4 and 5 focus more deeply on individual incidents in Kentucky and Virginia to more closely examine the logic and rhetoric employed in more moderate states. These chapters detail the commissioners’ apocalyptic visions of Southern society under Republican governance: the specter of racial equality, slave insurrection, race war, or miscegenation. Dew presents their rhetoric with minimal commentary, as evidence that preserving slavery and white supremacy was the South’s driving motivation toward war.

In his closing chapters, Dew asserts the relevance of his study to the current social and political climate. The Conclusion summarizes the key points of his research and states definitively that racism and slavery were core factors in secession. In his Afterword, he revisits this thesis 15 years later, citing examples of racist violence that continue as the lack of consensus around Civil War causation persists. He provides new evidence to show the South’s economic stake in slavery as an important factor in states’ decisions to secede. However, while economic factors played a larger role than he previously described, racism still was the core issue in the push for war. In his final paragraphs, Dew cites and echoes a 2015 editorial in the Richmond Times-Dispatch which, like Dew, calls for a real reckoning with the legacies of white supremacy and slavery, which has not yet occurred.