Research Exercise: What Percentage of Southerners Supported the Confederacy?

Here’s a research exercise that should engage some people (including a certain mathematician who reads this blog frequently):

What percentage of southerners supported the Confederacy?

For purposes of this exercise, we hold to the following definitions:

1.  “The South” is defined as the fifteen slave states of the 1860 census. We are not including New Jersey or points west (that would make this too easy to define the Confederacy as a minority movement). Nor will we count the Indian Territory later known as Oklahoma.

2.  All people counted in the 1860 census–free and enslaved–regardless of race or color, are defined as southerners. Recall that the three major categories are whites, free blacks, and enslaved people.

Left to you is to offer an estimation (complete with justification) of the number of southern whites who stayed loyal to the Union.

Show your work so that we may follow your reasoning. Let’s allow until next Monday as the deadline for solutions.

29 thoughts on “Research Exercise: What Percentage of Southerners Supported the Confederacy?

  1. rortensie May 5, 2015 / 4:40 am

    I’m going to guess right now at 13-percent supported the Confederacy until I get home this evening to look through my notes.

    I believe it is in Bruce Levine’s “The Fall of the House of Dixie” (but could be wrong) that he points out how representatives of non-slaveholders in South Carolina (?), once in the presence of slaveholders, conformed to their views instead of their constituents.

  2. Henry May 5, 2015 / 7:32 am

    One starting point is to look at the secession referrenda in Virginia, Tennessee, and Texas. Voting was limited to white males at that time, but it’s the closest thing we have to a direct proxy for white households in those states. It’s at least a starting point to capture the percentages of white political opinion for or against. We can probably assume that black political opinion would have been firmly against.

    Tennessee: 104913 Yes/47238 No
    Texas: 46153 Yes/14747 No
    Virginia: 132201 Yes/37451 No

    • neukomment May 5, 2015 / 8:47 am

      So how do we determine what percentage of “yes” votes were cast under threat and intimidation to hew “party line”, and how many “no” votes were not cast due to threat and intimidation? I agree the referenda is a starting point, but am not so sure how we can get a measure on the intimidation factor and its impact on the vote. In various CW blogs, I have read accounts of the voting and the intimidation and threats. Has anyone done a study on that? Other than asking these questions, I am not knowledgable enough to offer an informed opinion on the main question, but am very interested in what answers may be offered.

      • Brooks D. Simpson May 5, 2015 / 3:40 pm

        You develop your own definitions. Historians always work with incomplete information.

    • Brooks D. Simpson May 6, 2015 / 9:24 pm

      The Virginia case, however, is post-Sumter. So is the Tennessee case. I happen to think that’s a more useful measure for the upper South, in that it maximizes Confederate estimates.

  3. Leo May 5, 2015 / 8:36 am

    How will the coercion of some Mississippi secession delegates be factored? I do not have the information at hand, but I do recall reading that many northeast counties and the coastal counties, including Jones County, chose pro-union delegates to the state convention. Many of these were threatened at the convention if they did not change their votes. I also believe much of North Alabama and East Tennessee was pro-union.

    In any event, given the parameters, my best guess is the majority of Southerners (black/white & free/slave) would have voted to stay in the union. Based on nothing more than the anecdotal data I have scanned so far with a slight majority to even number of whites voting for secession. How enslaved blacks would have voted is interesting since they would have likely remained enslaved had the south remained in the union.

    This is all definitely over my pay-grade, so I will defer to those more knowledgeable and skilled in such matters. I am looking forward to reading the results.

  4. James F. Epperson May 5, 2015 / 9:31 am

    I have some ideas, but all my sources are at home and I’m at work. I’ll post something tonight.

  5. John Foskett May 5, 2015 / 2:53 pm

    A question from one of the students (who can’t avoid playing lawyer): at what point – Spring 1861 or after the War was underway?

    • Brooks D. Simpson May 5, 2015 / 3:31 pm

      I’d say that support for secession isn’t quite the same thing as support for the Confederacy. Minds changed in April 1861. So I’d go with a later date.

      • SF Walker May 5, 2015 / 4:20 pm

        I think another thing to consider is the fact that Southern support for the Union increased as the war dragged on and the Confederacy’s fortunes faded. This was evidenced by the appearance of pro-Union (or at least anti-war) organizations in the Confederacy such as the Heroes of America and the Peace Society.

        • Brooks D. Simpson May 5, 2015 / 4:30 pm

          We can consider it, but let’s go for mid-1861 as probably the quantitative high point of pro-CSA support. Intensity of support and erosion of support’s a different matter. I’d like to give the Confederate heritage supporters the benefit of the doubt by maximizing the number. My calculations suggest it still falls below 50%.

          • SF Walker May 5, 2015 / 5:17 pm

            I wouldn’t be surprised if support for the CSA was below 50% in mid-’61; I also question the accuracy of the results of the popular vote on secession in the places where one was held. As in Kansas during the 1850s, I’m sure that plenty of illegal ballots were cast, in addition to the intimidation factor.

            This is a very interesting exercise; I’m motivated to do some digging into this. Unfortunately I never was able to get a spot in the single course on historical research methods that was offered at my college when I was a student, so I had to settle for my bachelor’s in history without it. I’m sure we’d all be open to any tips a professional historian could offer in what kinds of sources to investigate–and what a good starting point would be.

          • Brooks D. Simpson May 6, 2015 / 9:29 pm

            Start with the raw census records, then figure that in the original seven Confederate states, support for the CSA was strong. However, recall Unionist enclaves in north Alabama and in parts of New Orleans. Understand that it was more likely for free blacks to support the Confederacy out of self-interest, but even that number is a small percentage; white unionist support increases in the four other states to join the CSA after April 1861 (especially western Virginia and East Tennessee) and that the border states that remain, with the exception of Delaware, are fairly evenly split when i comes to whites.

  6. James F. Epperson May 5, 2015 / 5:09 pm

    OK, I think I heard my name called …

    Actually, my status as a mathematician doesn’t really mean much here.  I doubt there will be much of the calculus involved 🙂 What is really needed is a demographer or statistician, but I’ll do my best.

    I’ve organized this as a sequence of estimates of increasing complexity and (I hope) accuracy.  I have tried to be conservative, in that I looked to create an estimate that would, if anything, understate the extent of Unionist sentiment in the South.

    Sources: Census data from EB Long’s Civil War Day by Day; enlistment data from Dyer’s Compendium. Dyer gives no figure for the lone battalion of Unionist Georgia troops, so I took 200. That is a guess as to how many men might have been in a battalion.

    The simplest estimate is to assume that all the whites supported the Confederacy, and all the blacks supported the Union.  This gives us that 67% of the people in the South supported the Confederacy, but we all know that it is not that simple, especially regarding the Border States.
    We know that (white) Union regiments were formed in every Southern state except for SC. Using those enlistments and the average family size for the respective states, we get a total of 1,668,685 white Unionists in the South. If we again assume that all of the blacks supported the Union (almost surely not true), we now get that 52.9% of the South supported the Confederacy.

    That is probably a fairly accurate estimate insofar as the white population is concerned, but now we need to consider the black population, and here I am shooting in the dark. There probably were some blacks, especially in LA, who genuinely supported the Confederacy, but I have no basis for an estimate other than my gut feeling which is based on my many years of reading on the Civil War. (We also need to understand and appreciate that all of these estimates would vary over the course of the war.) So, pulling some numbers out of the air, I’m going to say that 20% of Louisiana free blacks supported the Confederacy, and 1% of all other blacks. At the same time, I am going to say that 90% of the total population of Delaware supported the Union—I find no basis for significant Confederate sympathy in Delaware. This gives me a final estimate of 53% support for the Confederacy in the South. I strongly suspect the amount of Unionist sympathy, especially in the Border states, is under-counted. This analysis would not account for any Unionist men beyond military age or who had no opportunity (due to, say, geography) to enlist. It does not count people like Rebecca Wright, a young Unionist in Winchester, Virginia whose information was critical to Sheridan’s victory at Third Winchester.

    • Brooks D. Simpson May 5, 2015 / 8:34 pm

      West Virginia? I am willing to say that the border states were split evenly for purposes of the exercise.

      • James F. Epperson May 6, 2015 / 5:17 am

        Since the 1860 Census was before West Virginia existed, I lumped West Virginia in with Virginia. There were large pockets of Unionism in “old Virginia” as well as large pockets of Confederate support in what became West Virginia.

        • John Foskett May 6, 2015 / 10:18 am

          Folks can go at this any way they want, but it strikes me that the exercise has more meaning if we do the following: (1) As our host suggests, use the July 1861 reference point (I’d go second half of ’61); (2) Exclude the black “vote”.The vast majority were enslaved and thus had no choice in the matter anyway. The small number of “freeds” may have had a modicum of choice but not a truckload. The real meaning of the exercise would focus on whites, who did have a choice. (3) Exclude the Border States. I’m not sure how many would identify as “Southern” and, again getting to import, the real meaning would seem to be in the 11 States which actually pulled the trigger. That’s where the “Southern Heritage” focus is, etc.

          • Brooks D. Simpson May 6, 2015 / 9:31 pm

            I would not exclude the blacks from the definition of southerner. Again, Confederate heritage and southern heritage are two different things. Frederick Douglass is part of southern heritage, as is Nat Turner, but neither are part of Confederate heritage. Chastain doesn’t get that.

        • James F. Epperson May 6, 2015 / 11:56 am

          I’ll post a variant of my estimate using your 50-50 split for MO, KY, and MD tonight. I expect that will make a big change in things.

          • Bob Arrington May 6, 2015 / 5:14 pm

            I have to say that of all the border states West Virginia is a minefield. You cannot use the May 23, 1861 Virginia vote on secession, because sentiment radically shifted once the shooting started. Take Putnam County, almost on the Ohio River. The recorded vote was a 540 majority against secession, almost 4 to 1 against. And yet the county gave half its men to Virginia, and the same hold true in Cabell, Jackson and Wayne, all of which voted decidedly against secession but gave about half their men to Virginia. It is difficult, as Mark Neely said in “Southern Rights”, to find a full narrative account of what happened in West Virginia.

          • Brooks D. Simpson May 6, 2015 / 9:32 pm

            I’d have no problem going 50/50 in West Virginia.

  7. Cotton Boll Conspiracy May 6, 2015 / 9:52 am

    I have read several times that support in the 13 American Colonies for independence from Great Britain around the time the Declaration of Independence was signed ran approximately 33 percent for, 33 percent against and 33 percent undecided. I wouldn’t be surprised if the same percentage was true overall for support of the Confederacy (at least among whites) in the South in 1861. The undecided 33 percent were willing to shift their allegiance to whichever side appeared to have the upper hand. I think it’s safe to say that the vast majority of black Southerners did not support the Confederacy or, at a minimum, were indifferent.

    Therefore, less than half of all Southerners were likely dedicated supporters of the Confederacy, even though many non-supporters may have taken up arms because they felt the need to defend their homes, were coerced to do so, or for other reasons not having to do with outright support.

    • Jimmy Dick May 6, 2015 / 5:01 pm

      The 1/3 percentage stuff stems from John Adams who made the statement with absolutely nothing to go by. Like several other John Adams statements, it has grown over time until many historians have repeated it as the gospel truth. Upon some review it is clear that this is just an offhand remark by John Adams.

      The support for the Revolution waxed and waned throughout the conflict and some areas leaned one way more than the other, but by and large more than half the white Americans in the colonies backed the Patriot cause. Neutrality was not much of an option and as the conflict grew until it reached its flashpoint in 1775 those people sitting on the fence were pretty much forced into making a choice one way or the other.

      When the choice was forced on them, most of those who wanted to remain neutral sided with the Patriots although somewhat reluctantly. Anyone not on the Patriot side in areas which were mainly controlled by Patriots were disarmed and faced the ire of their neighbors. The Second Continental Congress passed a resolution in March of 1776 about this which you can read in the Journals of the Continental Congress.

      I have seen the numbers which say 40-45% were Patriots, but I think this is a bit low. I am inclined to say 50%, but it is an estimate which goes up and down depending on where and when during the war phase. There is no real way to determine the exact percentage, but the Continental Army had to be maintained even as wretchedly as it was. That required support from a significant number of people even taking into consideration forced support through coercion or confiscation. The lack of Loyalist success during the conflict has prompted many historians to think there were 20% or less on that side. Again, hard to judge.

      • Cotton Boll Conspiracy May 7, 2015 / 6:14 am

        Very interesting; thanks for the information.

        I do believe that in South Carolina, for example, the percentage of individuals supporting the loyalist cause was likely higher than 20 percent, given the depth and breadth of partisan-loyalist conflict that took place in the colony for a good bit of the war. However, I think South Carolina was the exception.

  8. James F. Epperson May 6, 2015 / 4:41 pm

    OK, following the suggestion of Brooks for the Border States I got that about 51.8% of “Southerners” supported the Confederacy, which means that 48.2% were Unionists. Mr. Foskett’s idea is easy to compute; that gave me a figure of 58.4% supporting the Confederacy and 41.6% as Unionists.

    • terry6400 May 7, 2015 / 9:14 pm

      That blows your “all about slavery bullshit” out of the water don’t it?

  9. terry6400 May 7, 2015 / 9:12 pm

    ALL your Yankee friends on your closed board agree with you. What’s the point?

    • Brooks D. Simpson May 7, 2015 / 10:02 pm

      You read this blog and contributed a series of comments, so clearly it’s not a closed board. It is a blog. People comment on it. Some comments are directed to spam because of the misbehavior or crudeness of the poster. You fall in that category. Ms. Chastain follows the same policy on her blog.

      It would be so much more interesting had you the ability to post under your real name. But I understand you may be too skeered to do that. Since you don’t care for the blog, I see no reason to entertain your rants. Take care.

  10. Brooks D. Simpson May 7, 2015 / 11:22 pm

    Over at, an attempt to answer this question quickly went astray into other areas, in ways I find amusing.

    Somehow someone has problems reading the question, which defines “southerner” as all people living in the South. I also asked about how one would go about determining the number of southern whites who were unionists, but someone thinks that’s confusing.

    That’s one way to duck the exercise. He could have come here and asked for clarification, but he’d rather complain as a way to avoid the exercise. Fail.

    Another fellow says I already have an answer. I note that he doesn’t.

    It’s so much easier to criticize historians than to try to practice historical research.

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