Portsmouth, Virginia Embraces Its Southern Unionist Heritage

Last week the Portsmouth Historical Commission passed the following resolution honoring Southern Unionists:

Whereas the history of the Civil War has at times, understandably but mistakenly, been seen as a battle between regions . . .

Whereas in reality the dedication to Union and Emancipation was shared by millions of Americans north and south . . .

Whereas there were many in the states that formed the Confederacy “who in the darkest hour of slavery kept alive in their souls a love of manhood rights, justice, and the unity of the United States of America”

Whereas these men and women who risked everything to preserve the Union are rarely remembered as much as they should . . .

Whereas in Virginia especially, support for Union was so pronounced that the state split itself in two . . .

Whereas many of the people of present day Virginia can also look to the family histories of Unionism of which they can be proud . . .

And whereas the city of Portsmouth was, for much of the war, a haven for Virginia’s Unionists, both black and white . . .

Be it resolved that the City of Portsmouth through its History Commission. . .

Declare May of this year to be Southern Unionist History Month,

Encourage other localities in Virginia and the Commonwealth itself to join in this declaration, and

Provide for various events and information during May to make Virginians more aware of Civil War Unionism in and around Portsmouth, Virginia.

This week the organization asked the city council to adopt the resolution and set aside May as Southern Unionist Heritage Month.  The council was unable to vote on the resolution since it had not been placed on the agenda in time for the meeting.

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14 comments… add one
  • London John Mar 30, 2012 @ 4:44

    Do the promoters of the “Black Confederate” myth try to brush White Southern Union soldiers out of history?

    • Kevin Levin Mar 30, 2012 @ 4:55

      That tends to be the case. After all, Southern unionists don’t easily fit into their image of a racially unified Confederacy.

  • Connie Chastain Mar 29, 2012 @ 5:12

    Hmmm… The resolution says, “Declare May of this year to be Southern Unionist History Month….”

    But you use the term “heritage” in your subject header and in the last paragraph of your post.

    So which is it that Portsmouth is embracing? History? Or heritage?

    • Kevin Levin Mar 29, 2012 @ 8:21

      Yes, I understand the act itself as a form of heritage commemoration.

    • Michael Douglas Mar 29, 2012 @ 15:32

      Nice try, Chastain. 😉

    • Forester Mar 31, 2012 @ 6:03

      It’s Unionist heritage. I thought that read pretty clearly? **confused**

      Confederates don’t have a monopoly on “heritage.” And I say that as someong with strong Confederate heritage.

  • Bryan Cheeseboro Mar 28, 2012 @ 22:50

    Nice to see this article. But looking at the Confederate monument postcard and the monument in Norfolk in this 1910 picture (see link below) it reminds me of something a Confederate reenactor told filmmaker Shukree Tilghman in his “The End of Black History Month” program for PBS’ “Independent Lens” series: “After the war, there was a major move to quash Confederate history.” What a ridiculous statement.


    • Brad Mar 29, 2012 @ 4:10

      I also think it’s awesome that the Union heritage is remembered, a reminder that not all the Southern people were monolithic in the South’s support for the Confederacy. I wonder how many people know that story.

    • Forester Mar 29, 2012 @ 7:45

      That monument is in Portsmouth, not Norfolk. (Norfolk’s monument is smaller and less ornate, which is odd that “Union” Portsmouth would have the bigger, nicer Confederate monument). Back in 1910, the monuments were in prominent street intersections that you saw as soon as you got off the ferry on either side. Also, the last meeting of the United Confederate Veterans was in Norfolk in 1951. It was a pretty “Southron” area back then.

      Politicians in Norfolk waved Confederate flags at rallies until the 50s, and we even had actual KKK parades in the ’20s. There was no movement to ‘quash’ Confederate history here (not until modern times, at least). But even in modern times, it wasn’t really quashed, it just lost relevance. The white population of Norfolk (a Navy town) is transient, unlike the more constant black population. Old Dominion University and Eastern Virginia Medical School added to the influx of outsiders. Old-time Confederate southerners (my people) were simply outpopulated by liberal intellectuals who now define the Ghent area with its coffee shops, cafes and art shows.

      (Not that I’m saying Confederate-descended southerners are not intellectual, but rather the region has evolved into something more diverse and even international, leaving Confederate memorializing a distant memory). If that makes any sense.

      • Pat Young Mar 29, 2012 @ 8:29

        ” (Norfolk’s monument is smaller and less ornate, which is odd that “Union” Portsmouth would have the bigger, nicer Confederate monument).”

        Perhaps the politically insecure Portsmouth Southrons convinced themselves that size mattered.

  • Forester Mar 28, 2012 @ 12:43

    I walk by that monument all the time (Portsmouth is just a quick ferry ride from my home, Norfolk). Portsmouth has been Union-friendly in recent years (like only allowing Union reeenactors to march in the New Years Scottish walk), but I question the historical validity of these claims.

    Portsmouth’s next door bastard sister (Norfolk) was NOT Unionist-friendly at all (in some legal papers I’ve been reading, one man in Norfolk said “negroes and Union men wouldn’t be safe for a day without the military presence.” Norfolk’s “police” even consisted of Reb vets who wore their Reb uniforms in public half the time. That’s very interesting to hear that Portsmouth was Union-friendly, but I have some serious doubts. I’ll have to go digging through their library sometime, but this sounds more like the wishful thinking of the current politicians.

    • Pat Young Mar 28, 2012 @ 15:22

      Portsmouth has an African American majority now. If it did in 1861, I’m betting that it was pro-Union.

    • Emmanuel Dabney Mar 29, 2012 @ 6:06

      Well the Richmond Daily Dispatch reports Unionism coming from Blacks and Whites. One Black person got a white “lady” arrested for her snatching a Federal flag from him that he had waved in her face.

      Union men (presumably white men) unfurled Union flags over the streets in the summer of 1862 to force white Southern sympathizing women to walk under them.

      There are also accounts of pro-Union families leaving Portsmouth for the North in 1861 and 1862. Incidents can be found here: http://dlxs.richmond.edu/d/ddr/

  • James Harrigan Mar 28, 2012 @ 12:39

    “Southern Unionist History Month”, that is so awesome! Makes me proud to be a Virginia Unionist. I know nothing about the history of Portsmouth, but now I want to learn. Thanks for this post, Kevin.

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