Remembering Virginia’s Unionists

One of the places where the distinction between those interested in "heritage" as opposed to history comes into play is the question of Southern Unionism.  In recent years historians have explored the complexity of what William Freehling calls "the many Souths."  On the other hand those with an interest in "southern heritage" find it difficult to talk about the history of the Confederacy without talking about white loyal Confederates in the Lost Cause tradition.  Race may be a difficult topic to broach (as it is for most Americans) but the presence of pockets of Southerners who remained loyal to the United States is perhaps even more troubling.  Think about the postwar scene and what happened to Confederate generals such as James Longstreet and William Mahone who for one reason or another decided to back political views that were perceived to be a threat against conservative southern slaveholding values.  Longstreet and Mahone were not Unionists, but their treatment following the war reminds us of the influence of the Lost Cause tradition which laid out a unified white Southern face during secession and the war. 

Two bloggers (Richmond Democrat and Slantblog)in Richmond are supporting steps to honor the state’s Civil War Unionists.   From the Richmond Democrat:

A few days ago I proposed that the time had at last come to honor Virginia’s
Unionists — Virginians who had stayed loyal to the United States during the
American Civil War. My proposal is based on the simple premise that Virginians
who render heroic service to the United States are deserving of some recognition
in the form of a monument or monuments…

I bring this to your attention not because I am an advocate or because I am convinced that this blogger’s intentions have any chance of succeeding.  I am much more interested in what the proposal does to the way most of us think about the South.  Can "heritage" incorporate Southern Unionists? 

My local PBS station recently aired a short documentary about the debate surrounding the Arthur Ashe monument on Monument Avenue in Richmond.  A few Confederate reenactors were interviewed who tried to make the point that they were not necessarily against a monument to Ashe, but the placement of it in close proximity to Lee, Stuart, Jackson, and Davis.  Let’s assume that this had nothing to do with Ashe being black, but a matter of wanting to preserve Monument Avenue for Virginia’s Civil War heroes.  If that be the case could we expect opposition to the placement of a monument honoring Elizabeth Van Lew, Major General George H. Thomas or Sergeant Major Christian Fleetwood of the 4th USCT?  All of these figures are important parts of Virginia’s rich Civil War history and can be considered to be heroes because of their actions. 

I am convinced that in the end most people tied to "Virginia heritage" desire to maintain a white only interpretation with "others" fitting in in ways that do not threaten certain preconceived notions such as secession and slavery.  Evidence for this can be found in the opposition to the placement of the Lincoln and Tad statue a few years back.  The idea that a portion of the Richmond population (both white and black) welcomed Lincoln to the capital of the Confederacy in its final moments was simply too much to ask. 

I am still thinking my way through the question of whether heritage and history are mutually exclusive ways of looking at the past. 

Earlier Posts:
Is Heritage History?
Is Heritage History? (Part 2)

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3 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin Jan 3, 2007 @ 14:07

    Cash, — You are indeed correct re: Fleetwood. Please substitute your favorite Virginia Unionist in his place.

    African-American Sergeant Major Christian Fleetwood was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for heroism on the field of battle at Chaffin’s Farm, September 29, 1864. He was twenty-three. Born a free man in Baltimore, he traveled to Liberia as a youth and later graduated from Ashmun Institute in Oxford, Pennsylvania, (later Lincoln University).
    Fleetwood was an editor, a musician, and a government officer. After the war, he continued his interest in military affairs, organizing in 1887 a battalion of the District of Columbia National Guard, and in 1888, the Washington, D.C., Colored High School Cadet Corps. At Fleetwood’s funeral in 1914, Daniel Murray was an honorary pallbearer.

    Tim, — On the complexity of postwar remembrance see Jonathan Sarris’s _A Separate Civil War_ which examines two northwest Georigia counties into the postwar years.

  • Cash Jan 3, 2007 @ 13:44


    Maybe I’m wrong on this, but I thought Christian Fleetwood was a Marylander from Baltimore, not a Virginian. He earned his Medal of Honor in Virginia, but then again, the whole Army of the Potomac fought in Virginia and they aren’t considered Virginians.


  • GreenmanTim Jan 3, 2007 @ 13:00

    This plays out in fascinating ways in border states where regiments were raised on both sides. Chestertown, MD had a (modern) monument that honors its war dead who fought for the Union and for the Confederacy on separate sides of the same stone.

    How does West Virginia remember its Civil War veterans? I’d imagine it is even more complicated for Eastern Tennessee.

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