Remembering Southern Unionism on Memorial Day

george henry thomasMy latest column at The Daily Beast hopefully sheds a little light on those white and black Southerners, who for one reason or another chose to remain loyal to the United States during the American Civil War. With all the talk about the dangers of erasing history in connection with the public display of Confederate iconography, we have forgotten that the monument building that helped to prop up and perpetuate the Lost Cause also contributed to erasing the lives of a significant number of Americans, whose service and sacrifice helped to preserve this Union and end slavery.

Just a thought on this Memorial Day.

21 thoughts on “Remembering Southern Unionism on Memorial Day

  1. David T. Dixon

    Thanks for this happy surprise on Memorial Day, Kevin. Despite the work of many scholars who have shed much new light on the Southern Union supporters over the past thirty years, this population and its impact on the Confederate war effort, remains understudied and under appreciated. The Southerners who served in the Union army are just the tip of the iceberg. The tortuous balancing act of considering allegiance to Union, state, family, neighbors, political party, economic well-being, etc…created what I have called a “mental calculus” of loyalty that was unique to each individual Southerners when they faced this momentous decision. This calculus was subject to change for some as the war progressed. A very hard subject to get one’s arms around, but, as you suggest, vital to a complete understanding of the Southern experience during the Civil War. Bravo!

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      1. David T. Dixon

        Yes, Moore’s archived site is excellent. Of the many books I have read on the subject over the past 20 years or so, Thomas Dyer’s Secret Yankees: The Union Circle in Confederate Atlanta (Johns Hopkins Press, 1999) is still my favorite. I believe it is also highly instructive to review Gary Gallagher’s book, The Union War. Gallagher explicitly excludes Southern Unionists from his study; but one must understand the almost mystical hold that the concept of “Union” had on the American public of the time to grasp how conflicted the Southern citizen felt when faced with the secession of his state.

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  2. Margaret D. Blough

    I think one of the least known stories of the Civil War is the hell suffered by the people of East Tennessee, which included a very high percentage of Unionists, at the hands of the Confederacy. This was approved at the highest level including this gem (copied from the Guild Press OR on CD-ROM):

    >>
    WAR DEPARTMENT, C. S. A.
    Richmond, November 25, 1861.
    Col. W. B. WOOD, Knoxville, Tenn.
    SIR: Your report of the 20th instant is received and I proceed to give you the desired instructions in relation to the prisoners taken by you amongst the traitors in East Tennessee:
    First. All such as can be identified as having been engaged in bridge-burning are to be tried summarily by drum-head court-martial and if found guilty executed on the spot by hanging. It would be well to leave their bodies hanging in the vicinity of the burned bridges.
    Second. All such as have not been so engaged are to be treated as prisoners of war and sent with an armed guard to Tuscaloosa, Ala., there to be kept imprisoned at the depot selected by the Government for prisoners of war. Wherever you can discover that arms are concealed by these traitors you will send out detachments, search for and seize the arms. In no case is one of the men known to have been up in arms against the Government to be released on any pledge or oath of allegiance. The time for such measures is past. They are all to be held as prisoners of war and held in jail till the end of the war. Such as come in voluntarily, take the oath of allegiance and surrender their arms are alone to be treated with leniency.
    Your vigilant execution of these orders is earnestly urged by the Government.
    Your obedient servant,
    J.P. BENJAMIN,
    Secretary of War.
    P. S.–Judge [David T.] Patterson, Col. [Samuel] Pickens and other ringleaders of the same class must be sent at once to Tuscaloosa to jail as prisoners of war.
    J.P. B.
    [NOTE.–The same letter with a slight verbal alteration of the opening paragraph and the omission of the postscript was sent at the same time to Brig. Gen. F. K. Zollicoffer, Jacksborough, Tenn.; Brig. Gen. W. H. Carroll, Chattanooga, Tenn., and Colonel Leadbetter, Jonesborough, Tenn.]
    —–

    RICHMOND, December 10, 1861.
    General W. H. CARROLL, Knoxville:
    Execute the sentence of your court-martial on the bridge burners. The law does not require any approval by the President, but he entirely approves my order to hang every bridge-burner you can catch and convict.
    J. P. BENJAMIN,
    Secretary of War.<<

    And people think Merryman (of ex parte Merryman notoriety) had it tough on being imprisoned during Lincoln's suspension of the writ of habeas corpus in Maryland in the earliest days of the Civil War.

    Reply
    1. Woodrowfan

      And yet if you drive through East Tennessee today you see they’re flying lots of Confederate flags.

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      1. London John

        Yes, I read an account of a lady trying to join the United Daughters of the Confederacy who proudly presented her ancestor’s discharge certificate, only for the UCD official had to point out that it bore the words “United States”.

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  3. DG Foulke

    You wrote ” . . . but we do know that somewhere around 100,000 southern white men from Confederate states, except for South Carolina, served in the U.S. military. ” This strikes me as very curious in its exception of South Carolinians. Clearly (I thought), this must be wrong.

    And indeed, it must be wrong. Common sense demands that this cannot be right. There were, after all South Carolina Unionists, and at their border, North and South Carolina are very “fluid”.

    Yet the writing of it seems “true” as well. For, as others have written “. . . but every Confederate state—except South Carolina—raised regiments of white Union soldiers.” (http://www.csuchico.edu/inside/current-issue/bigpicture-1.shtml ) and “Something like 23% of South Carolina’s white men would serve in the Confederate Army and state militia. Among Union troops not a single South Carolinian can be identified. South Carolina is the only state of the South to have that distinction. ” (http://northagainstsouth.com/south-carolina-unionists/)

    Presumably, this received knowledge is based on competent historical inquiry. Which – amongst other things – impresses upon me the limits of “history” to necessarily reveal the truth. For, surely, there were a pair of loyal boys from Lancaster or Spartanburg or just the other side of Waxhaw who found their way to Union latitudes and joined up.

    So, for these most-unsung of Southern Unionists (hailing from that place “too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum”) as well as for their better known Southern brothers-in-Union, I join in your call that we toast to them (and to so so many others) at our remembrance campfires this Memorial Day.

    Reply
        1. DG Foulke

          Well, that’s a horse of quite a different color – as compared to the strong implication embodied in the original text. One might as well (indeed, one might do better to) excise its “except” clause altogether (or give it a good solid edit)

          And in apparent flat contradiction to the second of my citations, see, e.g. the following:

          “[E]very Confederate state except South Carolina provided at least a battalion of white soldiers for the Union army, and individual South Carolinians joined Union regiments from other states.” (Lincoln’s Loyalists, R.E. Current; p. 5)

          “At least 98 men in the First Alabama Cavalry were native South Carolinians, and some South Carolinians doubtless served in other regiments, but South Carolina (alone among the Confederate states) provided no organization of white troops for the Union [fn omitted]” (Op cit.; p. 107)

          Just so.

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  4. Richard McCormick

    Another subset of Southern Unionists that deserves mention were those that supported the Union, many even joining the army, to PROTECT slavery. They (at least many) thought the established U.S. government (form not individual office holders) had always protected slavery and would continue to do do, better than what they perceived as the chaos or anarchy of secessionists.

    Many of them ceased to be “unionists” after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, so perhaps they were “Conditional” Southern Unionists, but even then did not necessarily like the idea of secession, despite feeling betrayed.

    Maybe these were predominantly Kentuckians – the last 2 books I have read have discussed this subject as at least part of their subjects, and I have not read about other border states – but this was another group of southerners who were not Confederates.

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  5. TFSmith

    Nicely done. You’ve read Richard Current’s “Lincoln’s Loyalists,” I presume?

    Current makes the point that every white southerner who donned blue – his estimate is 100,000 – should really be recognized as counting “twice” since white southerners were the only substantial manpower pool the rebellion could rely on for its armed forces, for obvious reasons.

    The other interesting point, of course, is that while there were loyal USV regiments from every slave state but South Carolina, so meaning the Border states plus all but one of the supposed “Confederate” states, there were no “rebel” units from any free state.

    Which, in a conflict fought over the issues of states rights, the federal tariff, and an overweening federal government, is an interesting point to ponder… 😉

    Best,

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  6. Bruce Vail

    It stretches your point out of all proportion to count freed black slaves who joined the US Army (or Navy) as Unionists.

    At the beginning of the war, human slavery was legal and Constitutionally protected. Are you suggesting that any black man who joined the US armed forces prior to the Emancipation Proclamation was fighting for a Union that protected slavery? Weren’t all the black men recruited into the army done so with the promise of freedom from slavery?

    It’s pretty safe to assume that black men who joined the Northern army were fighting for freedom, not to preserve the legal construct of Union.

    This quibble aside, I liked your Daily Beast article.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Hi Bruce,

      You make a really good point. The distinctions you cite needed to have been more clearly articulated by me in the article. Thanks.

      Reply
  7. Richard

    “no one talks about the history the South itself has erased, such as the many Southerners who fought for the Union.”

    America erased the history of Southern Unionism.

    Reply
  8. Shoshana Bee

    I actually bookmarked the article, so that I could contemplate the sacrifice that General George Henry Thomas made. Memorial Day offered just the right opportunity to think, as I took up post dressed in a sweltering hot uniform, and stood at parade rest (in front of a flag display in honor of our departed servicemen and women). I could not help thinking for all the angst and explanation set forth in defending Lee – regarding the “he had no choice” but to go with the Confederacy – as opposed to Thomas’s quiet resolve to defend the Union. A true hero who made his decision, Thomas accepted the consequences, and silently slipped into relative oblivion. It is unsurprising that he destroyed his private papers, leaving to others to defend his honour, rather than risk the exposure of his life’s intimate details. Perhaps during Veteran’s Day – another opportunity for quiet contemplation – I will make it a point to honour General George Henry Thomas, and help pick up the slack that others have left in the wake of the many years since his departure. Thank you for reminding me of this great man and his service to our country.

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  9. bob carey

    Shoshana;
    I live about 5 miles from Gen. Thomas’s gravesite. He is just across the river in Troy N.Y. in the Oakwood Cemetery. The General rests in his wife’s family plot. She was a Kellogg, a prominent local family.
    You might find it interesting that the General is in the same cemetery as Sam Wilson a meat-packer who supplied the United States forces of the War of 1812 with beef and pork rations. Wilson would stamp each barrel with the letters US, thus he became known as “Uncle Sam” to the troops. As they say the rest is history, but I always thought that it was appropriate that General Thomas was buried in the same cemetery as his Uncle Sam.

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    1. Shoshana Bee

      Thank you, Mr. Carey, for the additional information on General Thomas. After reading the article, I could not get Thomas out of my head, so once again, a new mission to fill the gaps — err, chasms — in my knowledge base was commenced. A dignified, loyal individual such as General Thomas deserves his rightful place of honour next the other more “popular” cast of characters of the CW (in some cases, in place of) For me, education is the first step in lifting him from the obscurity that otherwise leaves him largely forgotten or ignored.

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  10. Richard McCormick

    If you’re interested in Thomas, check out the story of William Rufus Terrill, another Virginian who sided with the Union despite his family’s wishes. Terrill’s mom even supposedly used contacts to have him assigned out west when he enlisted so that the brothers would not fight each other

    Both Thomas and Terrill were at Perryville, where Terrill died, breaking his father’s heart.

    Reply

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