Were some Union soldiers fighting to preserve slavery?(!)

Posted on February 19, 2011 by


Yes, you read that correctly. Give me a little time, and I’ll set the stage…

As many who follow this blog know, one of my favorite areas of study is western Maryland… most especially, the Clear Spring and Conococheague Districts in Washington County. Likewise, I spend a good deal of time researching the men from this area who were members of Col. Henry Cole’s 1st Potomac Home Brigade Cavalry (US). As most of the men in Co. B were from these two districts, and considering the fact that this area was, indeed, south of the Mason-Dixon Line, many of the men could be classified as Southerners. Even C. Armour Newcomer, author of the only standing history of Cole’s Cavalry, considered himself Southern (though not a Washington Countian, but native of Baltimore, and member of Co. A).

Although connected by ties of birth and blood with the South, I loved my country and flag better than my State or section.

Being culturally Southern, and being in support of Union, the label “Southern Unionist”, therefore, seems only fitting for these people.

Still, in that there were several “tiers” of Southern Unionists, I need to be clear. While some Southern Unionists were, without a doubt, unconditional Unionists, there were a good number, even among the unconditionalists, who continued to embrace the institution of slavery. There was, at least at the early point in the war, no need to draw a line between the two – slaveholder and Unionist. In fact, it appears that some of these slaveholding, unconditional Unionists clung to the Union even tighter, thinking that following the Union, not secession, was the best way to preserve the peculiar institution.

So, this gets me to the point where I can explain a little about the reasoning behind the title of this post…

This has all been in the back of my head for sometime, but tonight, I sat down, for just a little while, to tap into the 1860 slave schedules for Clear Spring… and, I was not disappointed at my findings. On the first page (there are only three pages for Clear Spring) I selected (page 2), I found Mr. Henry Firey. Henry was born about 1795, and was still kicking in 1860. Not only was he kicking, but he was also the owner of seven slaves (ranking third in most slaves held by anyone, at that time, in that district).

Firey/Fiery Family Monument, St. Pauls Lutheran Church Cemetery, Clear Spring, Md.

Yes, I know, Henry was too old to fight… but he did have sons who merit further attention.

One son, William F. Firey, was the captain of Company B of Cole’s Cavalry (1st Potomac Home Brigade Cavalry).

Another son, Lewis P. Firey, carried huge anti-secessionist sentiments, and not only played a powerful part in securing a strong following for Bell and the Constitutional Union party in Clear Spring, but was a lion for the early Union war effort in the district. When the 1st Potomac Home Brigade Infantry formed, Lewis was initially on the books as a major and enrolling officer, but declined further service once he was tapped for a spot in the wartime Maryland legislature.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Believe me, I know all too well that sons did not necessarily carry-over the sentiments of their fathers. I’ve encountered this on more than one occasion in the Shenandoah Valley… some fathers being devout Unionists, while sons were Confederates… sometimes even Confederate officers. But, we’re left to wonder just what that relationship was between the sons and their father’s slaves, and how, and if, it had any influence on their decisions in 1861, and even into 1862. Were they ashamed, was it simply part of life as they understood it, or were they men of action, doing what they did, in part, with the hope of seeing the continuance of slavery?

I think it merits further thought and discussion… and, of course, research.