Unionism in Alabama is an issue that over the years since the end of the Civil War has become lost in the controversy of Jim Crow laws and politicians such as George Corley Wallace. Yet, Unionism was a widespread phenomenon in this Deep South State. During the Civil War and afterwards it was a very real fact.
Unionism came in many forms in Alabama. It is believed that no more than 15% of the adult male population were unconditional Unionists who stayed loyal to the Union from the very start of the war until its conclusion. They were most non-slaveholding farmers who lived in the northern third of the state. A few Unionists also lived in the piney woods and coastal plain further south. They resisted both secession and the Confederacy.
They were not different than their neighbors who supported secession. Their reasons for staying loyal to the Union are quite diverse. Some believed that secession was illegal. Others saw the very act of secession as a stain on their honor and their ancestors who fought in the American Revolution. Some were influenced by leading figures in their areas. Finally, some felt that secession would lead to a military and political disaster.
The rise of Unionism in Alabama began with the 1860 Presidential election. The Alabama legislature had passed a bill that called for the calling of a convention to discuss secession if the Republican candidate won the national vote. This vote took place 9 months before the general election.
The candidate of choice in Alabama was Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge, the sitting Vice President. Some 80% of eligible voters cast ballots in the election with Breckinridge receiving 54% of the vote. John Bell, the Constitutional Union candidate who was supported by a number of Alabamians hostile to secession, received 31% of the vote. Douglas, the candidate most associated with a strongly Unionist position, polled slightly more than 15%. Republican Abraham Lincoln wasn’t even on the ballot in Alabama.
As promised the legislature called a convention to discuss secession. Of the candidates elected to the convention, 53 were secessionists and 47 were cooperationists, a term that refers to the delegates’ desire to secede only in “cooperation” with other southern states. Of this latter group, perhaps one-third were Unionists who were opposed to secession in any form. These were all from the norther third of the state.
These delegates convened in Montgomery on January 7, 1861, and debated secession for four days. On January 11, 1861, the convention passed Alabama’s Ordinance of Secession by a vote of 61 to 39. Many of those who voted against the ordinance, however, ultimately did support secession, and four immediately reversed themselves and signed with the majority.
Unionists were in for a difficult time after secession. The were subject to public ridicule, intimation and ostracizing. After Confederate conscription began in April 1862, however, things became more difficult. Individuals who resisted the draft, for whatever reason, were subject to arrest and imprisonment. Their families were harassed or threatened with with violence or exile by conscript cavalry.
The hill counties south of the Tennessee River were notoriously Unionist, populated with yeoman farmers with no interest to preserve slavery. In the counties along the Tennessee River, however, yeoman farmers mixed with large slaveholders in the river bottoms and fertile plains that were ideal for cotton planting. Unionists and secessionists in northern Alabama were neighbors, business partners and kin. Geography and custom tied the region economically to Tennessee to the north.
Rather than siding with the fire-breathers of the Black Belt, farther to the south, northern Alabamians had initially tried to walk a tightrope, hoping to coordinate action with other seceding states rather than recklessly secede alone. The famed fire-breather William Lowndes Yancey threateningly referred to these cooperationist northern Alabamians as “enemies of the State.”
The situation in north Alabama became easier for the Unionists when the Union Army invaded in 1862. Many Unionists fled behind Union lines for protection or to work for the army as soldiers, spies, or laborers.
The most well-known unit from the state was the First Alabama Cavalry, U.S.A., organized in late 1862 by Brig. Gen. Grenville M. Dodge, stationed at Corinth, Mississippi. The regiment served mostly in northern Alabama, western Tennessee, and northeastern Mississippi. The regiment was selected by Major General William T. Sherman to be his escort as he began his march to the sea.
Other Unionists joined units from Tennessee, Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio. Those who remained at home, both within Union-occupied territory and behind Confederate lines, also actively assisted Union forces as spies and guides.
Those who stayed home collaborated with local African Americans (most often their own slaves) to aid and abet the Union Army or pro-Union men in their neighborhoods. Moreover, African Americans from Alabama also crossed the Union lines to serve as laborers and soldiers, and after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect in 1863, many were inducted into United States Colored Troops regiments. Almost 5,000 African Americans, or 6 percent of Alabama’s black male population between the ages of 18 and 45, volunteered in the Union ranks.
As was the case throughout the South, by the midpoint of the war Alabama’s original Unionists were increasingly joined in their dissent by deserters from the Confederate Army, mostly men whose families were struggling at home without their labor. They were disillusioned by the realities of warfare, angered by the inequities of service under laws exempting slaveowners and selected professionals.
These Alabamians generally wanted the war to end more than they desired Union victory, though some did cross lines and join the Union army rather than desert and avoid service altogether. A small peace movement also emerged at this time among men who had originally opposed secession but later supported the state.
During the war northern Alabama was a constant battleground with the occupation of the area from mid-1862 until the end of the war. Close to 3,000 white men from northern Alabama served with the Union Army during the Civil War. Bands of Union men fought their way out of the hill counties to sign up. Soldiers conscripted into the Confederate Army from northern Alabama also deserted in large numbers, estimated as high as 10,000 from a total force of about 90,000.
On May 2, 1862, Athens, a north Alabama town, was seized by Union forces under the command of Col. John Basil Turchin, a Russian émigré. After occupying the town, Turchin assembled his men and told them: “I shut my eyes for two hours. I see nothing.” Businesses were hit first. Anything of value that could be carried away was looted and anything that could not be was simply destroyed. After rampaging through stores the soldiers plundered private homes. The townspeople estimated the damage to be fifty-five thousand dollars. The resulting pillage and plunder came to be known as the Rape of Athens.
But this was only half the story – pro-Confederate sentiment abounded, and bushwhacker attacks grew, and were met with escalating reprisals. Union General Ormsby Mitchel found it difficult enough to maintain order in his widely spread command, and the guerrilla attacks exacerbated a volatile situation.
Mitchel begged for more troops, particularly cavalry. He wired to Washington that “armed citizens fire into the trains, cut the telegraph wires, attack the guards of bridges, cut off and destroy my couriers, while guerrilla bands of cavalry attack whenever there is the slightest chance of success.” No reinforcements were forthcoming.
Jeremiah Clemens depicted northern Alabama in his 1865 novel Tobias Wilson: “Neighbor was arrayed against neighbor, and to the evils of open violence were added private assassinations and midnight burnings. No man knew whom to trust, and gloomy suspicions even of his friends settled upon every man’s heart.”
The devastation in northern Alabama both to lives and property would take tears to repair. The tumultuous process of reconstruction began in a region still divided by war.