Black Confederates and White Southern Unionists

For all of the discussion concerning the presence or absence of African Americans in the armies of the Confederacy and the debate over whether they served as soldiers, most people understand that what is really at stake is a discussion over slavery and the Civil War.  The underlying assumption of many advocates of the Black Confederate Myth (BCM) is that if you can prove that some blacks fought for the Confederacy, then the war wasn’t about slavery at all; that southerners (regardless of race) were fighting for their homeland against an invading horde of Yankees who were determined to subjugate them; and that by joining the ranks of the Confederate army and “serving” the Confederacy, blacks were saying that they loved their fellow white southerners and saw slaveholders as largely kindly folk who cared for their entire family, slave and free, and that means that white Confederates (and southerners) really aren’t racist after all.

That’s what this debate is all about.  It’s all about decoupling the Confederacy from the defense of slavery, a theme that also motivates discussions about the personal interactions of Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant with slavery (if Grant once owned a slave, so the argument goes, then the war could not have been about slavery, a claim bolsters by fabricating evidence and continuing to cite long-discredited tales of what Grant supposedly said about slavery … something also done with Lee).  Even today we see some white southerners deplore the evils of slavery in the abstract, but seem intent on blaming anyone but slaveholders for being part of that evil, and sometimes the claim’s made that blacks were well-treated under slavery because their masters loved and respected them, and so enslaved blacks were happy and faithful (how this fits in with the Fugitive Slave Act and other matters seems to be overlooked, but then historical accuracy’s not the strong suit with this crowd).

In short, it’s about people living today who identify themselves as Confederates (as in “we lost”); it’s about what those people need to believe, and not about history at all.  It’s a fabricated heritage, not history.  It’s comfort heritage (maybe that’s why they call it “Southern Comfort”) embraced by Confederate Romantics.

Now, there are plenty of ways to counter these arguments and undermine the assumptions of the BCM crowd, many of which involve the actual analysis of evidence, a practice where many advocates of the BCM are sorely lacking.  One can ask, for example, whether more enslaved blacks served as soldiers in the armies of the United States between 1861 and 1865 as opposed to how many enslaved black Confederate soldiers there were; one can ask why someone as exalted as Robert E. Lee did not know that there were substantial numbers of black Confederate soldiers in his own army; and so on.  But there’s also a way to flip the logic of BCM advocates on its side in order to ask the same questions about the Confederacy and its relation to the South.

I present for your consideration the case of the white southern Unionist.

Unlike black Confederate soldiers, it’s easy to document the presence of white southern Unionists, including those who served in the military as soldiers fighting for the United States.  One such white southern Unionist was elected vice president in 1864.  Others died alongside their black comrades at Fort Pillow.  I think it’s safe to say that most people would recognize that there were far more white southern Unionists than black Confederate soldiers.  So what do white southern Unionists tell us about the Confederacy, the South, slavery, and the war?

Well, first, the presence of southern white Unionists tells us that the white South and the Confederacy are two separate and distinct things.  Not all white southerners, even in states that seceded, supported the Confederacy, and in various areas there was a rather active opposition to secession and the Confederate war effort.  Yet these people were just as southern as their Confederate counterparts.  People who claim that they are honoring southern heritage but deny the presence or importance of white southern Unionists or a divided white South are simply engaging in a massive coverup of historical truth.

Second, many white southern Unionists still favored the protection of slavery and shared in the racial prejudices of the time (for the latter, see the case of Andrew Johnson).  Indeed, it was the failure of white southern Unionists to take steps to reestablish loyal governments in areas occupied by US military forces in 1861 and 1862, in good part because of their concern about the fate of slavery, that moved Lincoln along the path to emancipation.  Even in states that did not join the Confederacy this was a struggle: while Missouri and Maryland ended slavery during the war, Kentucky and Delaware dragged their heels, which helps to account for the importance of the Thirteenth Amendment in eradicating slavery across the board.  A good number of white southern Unionists correctly perceived that the Confederacy was established to protect slavery, and they opposed secession and war because they felt such acts would endanger slavery, as they did.  Other white southern Unionists were far less supportive of slavery, not because of a belief in black equality, but for reasons of class and region.  One need only look at the struggles in Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina, to name but three Confederate states, to see that white southerners were divided over the best way to protect slavery or the degree to which they wanted to protect an institution which empowered some whites while harming other whites who had far less stake in the system or who saw its disadvantages.

And, of course, if the Confederacy was simply an exercise in freedom from government oppression and self-determination — both notions belied by the defense of slavery — then we might look at how the Confederates treated white southern Unionists.  Did the Confederacy accept what is often styled the secession of West Virginia?  Did they embrace dissent within the Confederacy?  Did they honor the demands of East Tennesseans for self-determination?  Not quite.

In short, one could use the easily documented presence of white southern Unionists to tell us much about the South, slavery, secession, the Confederacy, and the Civil War.  People like Robert Moore have been doing that for some time on the internet, because they don’t want that history to be forgotten.  Historians such as William Freehling have reminded us that the Civil War South was a divided South.  The understanding of southern history that emerges from that inquiry suggests that the Confederate flag is a symbol of oppression to southern whites as well as to others, because of what white southern Unionists had to endure.  You can’t understand the story of the South unless you understand the story of white southern Unionists; or, to employ a certain turn of phrase. when you eliminate the white southern Unionist, you’ve eliminated the history of the South.