May 10, 2012Vol. 42, Issue 6

Southern Unionists in the Civil War

by Robert Tinkler, associate dean, HFA, and professor, Department of History

robert tinklerThe starting place for most Americans when thinking about the Civil War now and over the next few years of the sesquicentennial is a simple defining opposition: the North versus the South. According to this view, the southern slave states seceded from the United States and then fought against the northern free states in order to establish the independence of the South’s new government, the Confederate States of America. That understanding of the Civil War, however, ignores the crucial role played by southern Unionists, a group long left in the shadows of popular history.

civil union monumnet Southern Unionism took many forms. First of all, not every slave state seceded. The so-called Border States of Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri all remained officially loyal to the Union. It is true that many residents of the Border States supported the Confederacy, but more Border State whites served in the U.S. Army than in the Confederate Army.

Within Confederate states, pockets of white southerners opposed secession and often opposed the new Confederate government. The Appalachian region, where slaveholders made up a very small part of the population, proved particularly troublesome to Confederate authorities. Indeed, the mountainous western counties of Virginia formed the anti-Confederate state of West Virginia, and Congress admitted it to the Union in 1863.

In Appalachia and other low slaveholding areas, opposition to the Confederacy stemmed from a number of factors. For instance, in April 1862, the Confederate Congress adopted the Conscription Act, a law drafting men aged 18 to 45 into the armed forces and extending year-long enlistments to three years. Later, the rebel Congress altered the law to include those from 17 to 50. This draft law was revolutionary: throughout its previous history, the United States government had never passed a law requiring men to join the army (although it would do so in 1863, after the Confederates passed their draft law). Those southerners already predisposed to oppose the Confederacy particularly hated this Conscription Act and sought to avoid it. In addition, hundreds of soldiers who had volunteered for a year deserted rather than stay for three more.

George Thomas, U.S. army generalIn October 1862, Congress amended the Conscription Act with what became known as the “Twenty Negro Law,” a provision that exempted from the draft one white man of military age on plantations with at least 20 slaves. Designed to help secure plantation districts against slave revolts, this exemption policy inspired much class-based opposition to the Confederacy. “A rich man’s war, but a poor man’s fight” became the cry of many southerners of modest means.

Other policies also turned many poorer southern whites against the Confederacy. The government often demanded that farmers turn over their horses or mules to the army, and a “tax-in-kind” law required households to yield 10 percent of their farm produce (beyond a certain amount) to the army as well.  

As a result of Unionist sentiment—or, at least, anti-Confederate views—an estimated 75,000 (perhaps as many as 100,000) southern white men from Confederate states served in the U.S. military during the war. Many hailed from Appalachia and other highland regions. East Tennessee supplied the lion’s share of these recruits, but every Confederate state—except South Carolina—raised regiments of white Union soldiers. The First Alabama Cavalry, for instance, was one of the toughest units in General William Sherman’s Union army that marched through Georgia and the Carolinas in 1864-65.

Hamilton signature in a book and his photographIn addition to these southern whites, there is another crucial group of southern Unionists who should not be forgotten: African Americans. Black men and women by the tens of thousands advanced the Union cause by seeking their freedom during the war. They also assisted the Union army as scouts, cooks, nurses, and, with great controversy at first, soldiers. At least 150,000 former slaves served in Union blue during the war. Along with 30,000 or so free African Americans from northern states, these former slaves formed regiments commanded by white officers (the army limited blacks to enlisted positions). Frequently, they were not allowed in combat but instead guarded supply lines or performed manual labor. Black soldiers did, however, distinguish themselves in numerous battles, such as at Port Hudson, Louisiana, and at Fort Wagner, South Carolina (an engagement depicted in the 1989 motion picture Glory).

Southern Unionists—white and black—contributed significantly to Confederate defeat. They denied the Confederacy the internal unity it needed to succeed, and they actively sought to achieve Union military victory. After the war, southern Unionists formed the backbone of the Republican party that sought, with some success, to provide political and legal rights to African Americans and to achieve other reforms in the South.

Over the next few years of the war’s 150th anniversary, Americans can deepen and enrich their understanding of our nation’s greatest conflict by learning more about these southern supporters of the Union cause. ■