Southern Unionists as traitors to the Confederacy?

Posted on June 11, 2008 by


Recently, I read something about somebody portraying Gen. George H. Thomas at living histories and some people referring to him as a traitor to his own people. Really, I find that a very odd statement to make regarding people of the South who preferred to remain loyal to the United States. While it’s true that a sense of sectionalism grew rapidly over the course of the years leading up to 1860, even after South Carolina’s decision to secede, Unionism held rather well in the upper South (as an example, it was condemned by several newspapers in Virginia), at least up until Lincoln’s call for troops. However, even after the call for troops, for those who felt no ties with the lower South (even after the families having lived, say, in Virginia, for generations) and took no “insult” to the idea of Federal troops moving through Virginia to suppress the rebellion in the deep South, really, why should they have followed those who felt it best to take the leap toward secession? Rather, I agree with John C. Inscoe’s statement in Enemies of the Country that these people simply “found themselves living in a new nation to which they chose not to give allegiance.” They weren’t, by definition, “traitors,” but were stuck in a very awkward situation. The land on which many of them lived had probably been in the family for years, and, deep in their hearts, many probably thought (or held the strongest hopes) that the storm would pass. Why then, should they leave THEIR land? Why should they relocate simply because they were at the odds with (what appeared to be… at least on paper) the popular sentiment?

I personally think that David Hunter Strother (a native of the area of Berkeley and Morgan County, Virginia (now West Virginia) summarized the feelings of Southern Unionist best when he stated that he “felt like a sane man in a mad house.” In his article for Inscoe’s volume about Southern Unionists, Jonathan M. Berkey (“Fighting the Devil with Fire: David Hunter Strother’s Private Civil War”) wrote that Strother “associated disunion with passionate individuals” and that this passionate fanatacism [found in the "secesh"] was the result of a degradation of the Southern people into what Strother saw as “a howling democracy, as a gentlemanly drinker degrades into a bestial sot.” After Virginia troops seized Harpers Ferry (one of the finest examples of chaos and anarchy in Virginia’s history as a Confederate state and certainly worthy of another blog entry), and Strother observed the Virginia flag flying over the arsenal, Berkey noted that Strother “mused, ‘Yesterday I was a citizen of the great American republic… To-day, what am I? A citizen of Virginia… What could she ever hope to be bit a worthless fragment of the broken vase?’”

Where, therefore, in such a statement, as a Southern Unionist, is the treachery? Clearly, as Insoce points out, those who opposed the chaotic nature of secession were soon to be “made one part of a self-conscious minority viewed with suspicion and hostility” as they “threatened the new republic and its cause.” This I can understand. However, to call Southern Unionists “traitors” is more along the lines of nothing more than name-calling in order to make a stronger point.

It goes to show that some people don’t understand the defintion of traitor, let alone the true history behind the American Civil War.

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