Texas and Unionism

This entry is part 13 of 14 in the series The Divided States of the South

Sam HoustonTexas was unique among the Southern states when it came to secession from the Union. Most Texans saw the many benefits of remaining in the Union and in the 1850’s were anti-secessionists. Some historians believe that as many as one-third of Texas’ population remained neutral after secession and that another third supported the Union.

Being in a union of many states provided Texas  with the United States Army which gave the state the twin benefits of adequate protection from the Indians and a good market for surplus labor and crops.  It also gave Texas a wider area in which to sell their produce and other products. They also viewed the Union as a surer defender of slavery and economic growth than a smaller nation composed of southern states.

By 1860 the population of the state was splintered between a small group of secessionists, a much larger group of Whigs and citizens from the Upper South and the German culture. The last three groups were unwilling as yet to listen to any arguments for secession. A final group of about the same size as the ardent secessionists was unwilling to listen to any practical argument for secession.

Slavery was the single most troubling problem for Texas Unionists in the 1850’s. Texans viewed their slaves as essential to economic prosperity. In the 1850’s Texas was labor poor but land rich. Texans realized that the most efficient and profitable cultivation of cotton required the use of organized gangs of labor working large units of land. Slavery provided that labor, and it also separated the white and black races.

Whites generally considered themselves superior to blacks and thought that any mixing of the two races would debase the whites. Besides, the law sanctioned the institution of slavery. Thus criticism of slavery threatened two of the pragmatic props of Unionism, economic development and social stability. Reverence for law was closely coupled with reverence for the Union. Meanwhile, many northerners disregarded the fugitive slave law, supported slave insurrections, and talked about the abolition of slavery. Southerners saw this as a threat to own and exchange all forms of property.

With the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 the growth of a near-hysterical secession movement in the lower South led the large center group of Democrats and former residents of the lower South to swing toward secession. Eventually the other large center group of Whigs and Germans or former upper South residents either kept quiet or accepted secession with the passage of the Secession Referendum of February 23, 1861. Many members of this group fought for the Confederacy.

Perhaps the most prominent Unionist was Sam Houston who was adamantly opposed to destroying the Union.  He had been elected governor of Texas in 1859 despite campaigning vigorously against secession.  He had worked for years after Texas won its independence from Mexico to secure statehood for Texas, and after the Secession Convention voted to secede on February 1, 1861, he refused to sign the loyalty oath to the Confederacy.  He was removed from office on March 6, and returned to his home in Huntsville where he died in July 1863.

For the most dedicated supporters of the Union, however, secession presented serious problems. Most tried to keep quiet, but others openly condemned the states’ actions and left their homes to fight for the Union. The institution of the draft in the summer of 1862 forced many more who had attempted to wait out the war in peace to flee their homes. Some wound up in the Union Army. Others lived in the back country of the state until the war was over.

Most German immigrants, however were apathetic to slavery. A vocal minority of them was actively antagonistic to the institution of slavery. These antagonistic Germans included liberal and republican-minded Germans known as Achtundvierziger or Forty-Eighters. Many Forty-Eighters supported federal authority and opposed slavery. Most Anglo Texans found this to be an affront to a legal institution. German opposition to slavery led to an animosity between the two groups throughout the 1850’s. These disputes were magnified by Texas secession from the United States in March 1861 and the start of the American Civil War on April 12, 1861.

As might be expected, the obstinate Unionists were persecuted by the majority. Several accused Unionists were hanged at Gainesville in October 1862. Although the majority of Germans either were neutral or supported the Confederacy, Germans in the western counties often remained loyal to the Union. A band of Germans fleeing the draft was massacred along the Nueces River in August 1862.

Others simply left or were forced to leave the state as reported in the Austin State Gazette “We learn from Capt. Harrison that the men in Northern Texas who have been opposing the action of Texas in favor of the South, and who have had secret complicity with the Black Republicans, are now leaving the state.  Some one hundred and twenty wagons were seen wending their way to the North.” 

Some of these men later joined the Union army; it is estimated that 2,000 Texans did so. Edmund Jackson Davis, a south Texas judge, led the Union’s First Texas Cavalry, which fought in south Texas early in the war. A second Texas Union cavalry regiment was led by John L. Haynes, a former state legislator from Rio Grande City, composed primarily of Mexicans. Both units would fight later in the war in Louisiana.

Groups such as the Peace Party or the Loyal League were organized to actively undermine the Confederacy in Texas through spying, resisting the draft, and deserting from the Confederate army during battle. The San Antonio area had a large share of Union sympathizers who celebrated Confederate defeats and attempted to discredit the Confederate economy by overcharging when Confederate money was used for purchases. Pro-Union Germans in the city published broadsides calling for a Unionist revolt, the death of civic leaders, and the hanging and burning of secessionists.

Terrorism and violence occurred on both sides, resulting in destruction of property and numerous deaths. Organizations such as the Knights of the Golden Circle took actions against individuals and businesses that openly supported the Union. Treason charges were trumped up against Unionists who had “something to say on all passing events” or because of their ability to “create discontent and dissatisfaction” or for being “active in speaking his mind…” Unionists from the Hill Country began physically attacking secessionists and killed one Confederate spy.

To some degree Unionism persisted in the minds of all but the most doctrinaire secessionists. It was not something that could be turned on or off. It rose and fell in the hearts and minds of most, but it seldom vanished entirely. A twinge of feeling for the nation of George Washington and Andrew Jackson, a fond remembrance of the prosperity partially engendered by belonging to the Union, made it difficult for Confederate nationalism to develop and made it easier for most to give up the war effort. Rejoining the Union in 1865 was for the majority a relatively painless process because Unionism never totally died.


Series Navigation<< Louisiana Unionism and Ben ButlerSouth Carolina Unionists >>

Leave a Reply