Defining Southern Unionists… one part of what might end up a multi-part examination

Posted on February 19, 2012 by

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On and off, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about this lately.

First, I wonder just how many people have a one-dimensional, stereotype definition of Southern Unionists. Is it common to see them simply as Southerners who refused to release their embrace of the Union? Maybe folks also see them as Southerners who embraced Lincoln and/or affiliated principles with, say, abolition.

If so, well… you would be both right and wrong. There’s a little factual information in all angles of it, as jumbled as it all becomes like some disastrous mess of tangled wires, but Southern Unionists… just as much as Southerners who wore Confederate uniforms… need to be understood as much more complex than one-dimensional. It is not as some make it out to be… that all who were Confederates were screaming Yankee-hating, advocates of secession and the new Confederacy… and that all who were Southern Unionists were simply scalawags. I don’t think either set would appreciate the dumbing-down of who they were.

James A. Baggett looked at Southern Unionists from a political angle, from their support/lack of support for secession, and from the level of support they maintained for the Union during the war. You can catch a glimpse of this on the Wikipedia page for “Southern Unionist”.

I like the thought of breaking Southern Unionism into layers, but I think more layers existed. Perhaps a classification/sub-classification system would address this better than a 1-7 Baggett Southern Unionist grading system. Among Southern Unionists, there were, for example, those who were Southern-born and those who were Northern-born and lived in the South. There were also those who were Southern-born and had relocated to the North prior to the war… and during the war. Did not these, along with other factors not addressed, have bearing on Southern Unionism? For that matter, what of the waxing and waning of sentiments among Southerners in the war? Sentiments were not always static, and could be impacted by the actions of other (although, there were those Southerners who appear to have been quite static, despite the depredations experienced, even at the hands of those they supported… Confederate and Union).

I could go on, but… that will come with time.

Of course, having cited the Wikipedia page for Southern Unionist (admittedly, a dangerous thing to do), I have to warn readers that the effort made on that page to show numbers of Southern Unionists from the respective states isn’t considering all of the historiography over the years. Richard Nelson Current did that in Lincoln’s Loyalists, yet, I’m also finding myself taking a second look at his work as well, and am not always in agreement. I think, for example, that Current was too quick at dismissing the significance of numbers of Southerners who had relocated to the North, prior to the war, and joined the Union army. I’ve approached this before. The greatest problem that one has with this, however, is that the incredible amount of time it would take to sift through the enlistment records of Union regiments to find those Southerners. I only know that through my work, I’ve encountered this line of Southern Unionists rather frequently, the most recent example being with the Madison County, Virginia – born Nicholsons, who relocated to Doddridge County and donned Union blue.

It’s not that I think Baggett and Nelson were wrong, but that our look at Southern Unionists continues to improve with available materials, and continued study.

In the coming year, as the dust of my move settles, I hope to start tapping into this with a great deal more vigor. There’s more here, and I’d like to continue what I started in my masters thesis that I completed in 2007.

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