What Motivated Southern White Unionists?

Earlier this week I asked about why white northerners chose to resist secession and go to war.  Kevin Levin took that post and ran with it, asking readers to extend their analysis southward to residents of states that declared for the Confederacy.  Let’s focus for a moment on that question, especially because it does say something about the connections between slavery, racial attitudes, and allegiance that complicates matters … as in the case of Andrew Johnson, who saw nothing wrong with slavery (as opposed to rich Whig slaveholders), was a bitter racist, and yet stood out as a unionist who braved danger in pursuit of his position.

That’s right, I said something positive about Andrew Johnson.

So what motivated white southern unionists to decide and act as they did?

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16 thoughts on “What Motivated Southern White Unionists?

  1. If memory serves, that area was populated by the same Scots-Irish Tories who opposed the American Revolution, so it is not really surprising that opinion on secession would be divided there.

    The best explanation of this that I have seen can be found in Colin Woodward’s American Nations. He argues that the Scots-Irish fought themselves and divided on whoever was perceived to be the greater local threat to their liberty.

    So, in the American Revolution they fought to usurp control of Pennsylvania from the Quakers in Philadelphia, whereas in North Carolina and parts of the South Carolina they fought on the British side because they opposed the Deep South planter oligarchy.

    During the War Between the States, there was a lot of sympathy for the Confederacy in the Copperhead strongholds in the Lower Midwest, whereas Winston County seceded from Alabama and East Tennessee was a big unionist stronghold.

  2. Some of them did it to protect their interests Brooks. That said, some of them might have done it because they thought the Federal Government would protect their right to own slaves. Based on the research I conducted on East Tennessee and North Georgia during the Civil War, I think it really boils down to the commercial interests of the given community and individuals. That is why the majority of East Tennessee voted to remain in the Union. Knoxville however, voted in large majority for secession. BUT, Knoxville was economically tied to the agricultural South due to the tremendous importance of the railroad that ran through the city. The rest of East Tennessee did not have that railroad tie to Southern economics and remained Appalachian yeoman farmers. Given that a number of those individuals had their land thanks to land grants after the Revolutionary war, the “mountaineers” remained fairly loyal. At certain times these people became dissatisfied with the way the Federal government conducted operations in and around East Tennessee. This never caused them to turn to the Confederacy. In part because of Confederate violence towards them but also because it simply was not in their best interest.

  3. You really can’t put this “under glass”. It’s much more dynamic that defining it by Scots-Irish roots, especially when we narrow our scope of study to specific regions, such as in the Shenandoah Valley. There, those with Scots-Irish roots may have had a strong footing in the southern end of the Valley, but not in the central portion. Additionally, the northern end was different still. The motivations behind Southern Unionists varied.

  4. At the risk of being pithy and uttering a cliche, sometimes the devil you know is better than the one you don’t. Kentuckians felt that their interests could be better protected within the Union than without.

  5. For the soldiers of the Department of West Virginia thee was a strong anti-lowland feeling toward Richmond which had been going on for some decades. It was mostly about under representation in the House of Delegates. Also the tendency of most of the population centers of the state were linked more towards Pennsylvania, Ohio and Kentucky…states with attitudes which were strongly pro-Union (though Kent Masterson Brown does say Kentucky succeeded AFTER the war!). The Unconditional Unionist Party also had a strong feeling in the state.

    Montani Semper Liberi!

    • “It was mostly about under representation in the House of Delegates.”

      That’s the way I’ve always figured it. The Three-Fifths clause of the US Constitution was also applied at the state level in VA as well as a few other southern states (which others in particular I’m not sure right now), which led to legislation at that level that was heavily weighted towards the interests of the plantation class.

  6. A significant segment of local populations in Texas and New Orleans that opposed secession were immigrants. The Texas German case is well-known, but in New Orleans, both Irish and German immigrants made up a large core of the local troops recruited by the Union after the city was captured. Also, in Missouri, a majority of the armed force that kept the state in the Union was from the German community in St. Louis.

    For the New Orleans immigrants, the association of the new Confederate regime with the old politicians of the Know Nothing movement may have been enough to sway opinions, but in Missouri and Texas the German immigrants seem to have strongly opposed slavery.

        • In the 1856 election, Know Nothing presidential candidate Millard Fillmore got 11 percent of the vote in the free states v 40 percent in the future Confederacy. The only state he carried was Maryland.

          While New England was the wellspring of Know Nothingism, the doctrine was strong in many parts of the South and weakest in what is now the Midwest.

        • This is true about the Know-Nothings political success in New Orleans, but the Confederate regime was a regime of pro-slavery Democrats and not Know-Nothings. In Louisiana it was state-wide elected pro-slavery Democrats, like John Slidell, and local pro-slavery Democrats, like PGT Beauregard, who tried to reign in the politics and political violence of the New Orleans Know-Nothings.

          The Know-Nothing party in New Orleans also supported the Constitutional Unionist John C. Bell in the election of 1860. Bell won a majority of the vote in New Orleans in that election.

          And as you know plenty of Irish also fought in New Orleans raised Confederate regiments. Most German immigrants, however, don’t seemed to have supported secession at all or as much.

          New Orleans and Louisiana politics was complicated, to say the least. Know Nothings in New Orleans even reached out to Creoles and immigrants on some issues. There was a Creole congressman from New Orleans elected on a Know-Nothing ticket who remained in Washington as a Unionist after secession. There was even a leading anti-Know Nothing German leader in New Orleans who supported John C. Bell in the 1860 election.

          It was a political Sodom as someone called it.

          • The immigration stances of Confederate leaders generally was fairly irrelevant. In 1860, the only southern state with a large immigrant population was Louisiana with 11 percent. South Carolina had 2 percent foreign-born and Georgia had 1 percent.

            By contrast, these were the foreign-born shares of some Northern states:

            Wisconsin- 35%
            Minnesota- 34%
            New York- 26%
            Massachusetts- 21%
            Rhode Island- 21%
            Michigan- 20%
            Illinois- 19%
            New Jersey-18%
            Connecticut- 17%
            Iowa- 16%
            Pennsylvania- 14%
            Missouri- 14%

            In the South, only Louisiana “counted” in terms of recruitment of immigrants into the Confederate army, and both German and Irish immigrants resisted recruitment there in spite of the notoriety of some predominantly Irish units from La.

            The tendency of Confederates to describe the Union armies as filled with “foreigners” could not have had a good impact on the morale of immigrant recruits.

            • Here is the Know Nothing share of the popular vote in selected states in the 1856 Presidential election:

              SOUTH
              Ala. 38%
              Ark. 32%
              Fla. 43%
              Georgia 42%
              Louisiana 48%
              North Carolina 43%
              Tenn. 43%
              Texas 33%
              Virginia 40%

              BORDER
              Del. 42%
              Kentucky 47%
              Maryland 54%
              Missouri 45%

              NORTH
              Conn. 3%
              Ill. 16%
              Ind. 9%
              Maine 3%
              Mass. 11%
              NY 21%

              Know Nothingism was quite potent in the South, and even more so in the Border States. Some of the worst anti-immigrant violence of the 1850s occurred in Kentucky and Louisiana. The myth that Southerners were less likely to hold prejudices against immigrants is simply unfounded, as the voting results show.

            • Yeah, the Louisiana regiments in Virginia apparently weren’t that popular with some of the other units in the Army of Northern Virginia. It may have had something to do with their foreign and Catholic elements.

              That said, my point is that the immigrants in New Orleans who were Unionist or just weren’t that willing to fight for Louisiana or the Confederacy may not have been primarily or only animated by Know-Nothing politics, bigotry and violence. Nativist Americans living in Louisiana also resisted recruitment. Louisiana barely passed its ordnance of secession in which very few immigrants even voted.

              The Know-Nothings in New Orleans actually moderated their politics while in office and reached out to immigrants; even pushed through public works projects which relied upon immigrant labor.

              The Confederate officer in charge of Forts Jackson and St. Philip, Johnson K. Duncan was an anti-Know Nothing in New Orleans before the war and had been part of the Vigilance Committee that tried to ensure a fair and violence free election in the 1858. Yet, the German artillerists that were under him mutinied. It must have been something other than Know-Nothingism.

              • “Louisiana barely passed its ordnance of secession in which very few immigrants even voted”
                Let me step back from this statement. First, I meant the election of delegates to the secession convention, and second the election barely gave a majority to Southern rights delegates over Cooperationists. Cooperationists weren’t against secession, just not unilateral or immediate secession. When the convention met, however, the Ordinance of Secession was passed overwhelmingly in favor of.

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