The Divided States of the South

This entry is part 1 of 14 in the series The Divided States of the South

Tennessee Union SoldierThe people of the Southern Confederacy were for the most part loyal to their secessionist government but there were significant Unionist minorities in each and every state. As the Union Army reoccupied portions of southern states the Unionist supporters made themselves evident both by joining the Union Army and participating in the civilian governments. These people are also referred to as Southern Loyalists, Union Loyalists, and Lincoln Loyalists.

From the very start of the Secession Crisis in 1860 most southern states had significant minorities of Unionists who were for the most part non-slaveholders. In fact, only about 26% of Southern families throughout the South owned slaves. The highest percentages, ranging from 34% to 49%, were in Florida, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Mississippi.

Many Southern families had from one to four slaves while the number of those who held 100+ slaves numbered a mere 2,265. Most people were either yeoman farmers with few or no slaves or were engaged in trades or were merchants. For them slavery was not a part of their lives. Most of the pro-Union South came from this group.

A little known fact is that the Union Army raised regiments of both white and African-Americans in every state of the Southern Confederacy. Most of these units were second-rate due to a lack of training and experience but they did free more experienced units for combat.

The term Southern Unionist, and its variations, incorporate a spectrum of beliefs and actions. Some, such as Texas governor Sam Houston, were vocal in their support of Southern interests, but believed that those interests could best be maintained by remaining in the Union as it existed.

Some Unionists opposed secession, but afterwards either actively served and fought with the Confederate armies, or supported the Confederacy in other ways. Others refused to fight, went North or stayed North to enlist in the Union Armies, or fought informally as partisans in the South. Some remained in the South and tried to stay neutral. 

Many southern soldiers remained loyal when their states seceded; 40% of Virginian officers in the United States military, for example, stayed with the Union. During the war, many Southern Unionists went North and joined the Union armies.

Others joined when Union armies entered their hometowns in Tennessee, Virginia, Arkansas, Louisiana and elsewhere. Over 100,000 Southern Unionists served in the Union Army during the Civil War, and every Southern state, except South Carolina, raised at least a battalion of white soldiers. South Carolina did raise five regiments of African-Americans.

A study of Southern Unionists in Alabama who continued to support the Union during the war found that they were typically “old fashioned” or “Jackson” conservative Democrats, or former Whigs, who viewed the federal government as worthy of defending because it had provided economic and political security.

They saw secession as dangerous, illegitimate, and contrary to the intentions of the Founding Fathers, and believed that the Confederacy could not improve on the United States government.

The desire for security was a motivation for Unionist slaveholders, who feared that secession would cause a conflict that would result in the loss of their slaves; however, some stated that they would rather give up slavery than dissolve the union.

The Southern ideals of honor, family, and duty were as important to Unionists as to their pro-secession neighbors. They believed, however, that rebelling against the United States, which many of their ancestors had fought for in 1776 and 1812, was the unmanly and dishonorable act.

Southern Unionists were extensively used as anti-guerrilla forces and as occupation troops in areas of the Confederacy occupied by the UnionUlysses S. Grant noted “We had many regiments of brave and loyal men who volunteered under great difficulty from the twelve million belonging to the South.”

Over the next several weeks we’ll be taking a look at the divided states of the South and the impact this had on the war.

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