An opportunity for clarity… the difficulties in telling the story of Southern Unionism

Posted on April 30, 2011 by


As a follow-up to this morning’s post, I thought I’d bring to light some quotes that speak to the contrary. While Strother, after talking with a few folks from the Jefferson and Berkeley militia units, noted what he found to be an opinion circulating within that group (and one that he found to his liking), that’s not to say that the every soldier under arms in the Virginia militia felt that way. I’ll get to the quotes in a bit, but this seems like a good point to pause, and to make clearer, perhaps, what I’m not suggesting with the story of Southern Unionists.

In the process of filling a void that has been long overdue in filling, the telling of the Southern Unionist story may seem to some, projecting something in terms of absolutes, or, if not that, suggesting a very watered-down story of Southern support behind the Confederacy. I prefer not to think of Southerners, whether they embraced the Confederacy or not, under definitions that are so static/unbending. Rather than absolutes, I prefer a much more flexible range of possibilities, based on a wide variety of first-hand accounts of what it was like, for them, then. As for the watered-down support for the Confederacy, yes, Unionism played a factor, but it wasn’t the sole reason for watered-down support for the Confederacy from among the Southern populace… nor did a common distrust of the North form the foundation of support for the Confederacy, from among the same… but that’s really another topic for another day.

Despite my efforts to tell how many Southern Unionists started out in the most simple form (a Southerner who preferred not to side with secession, and still embraced the Union), based on comments here and elsewhere, I don’t think that all who have read my posts have fully appreciated the fact that, from that basic foundation, there sprouted many branches (some even leading to an eventual belief in secession). No, this isn’t me developing a “strawman”. Just as one example, a couple of years ago, and not too terribly long after blogging for about a year, I found it particularly curious to see that someone had moved along after reading something I had written, under the impression that, more or less… if I was to be believed, “then there would be virtually nobody in the South who really embraced the Confederacy”. Of course, that’s absurd and couldn’t be more distant from the truth, and that’s not at all what I’m saying.

What I mean is… well, here we go again… take “the South = the Confederacy” thing. Not only a pitch in absolute terms, but monolithic… and very inaccurate. Without going into it all over again, the story of the Civil War era South was complex (yes, I use that word a lot), and, frankly, is incredibly difficult to put together in one simple package.

Now, even if we were to narrow down to the Confederate story, alone… that story is far more diverse and complex than some are willing to admit (and/or, perhaps it’s just that some people don’t have a broad understanding of what that story was, and can’t fully appreciate the complexities). As such, I find it incredibly odd that some folks wish to celebrate a Confederate history and heritage month, and yet, the celebration is so incredibly narrow in scope, that not only does it really tells us very little about what it meant to be a Confederate, but presents the Confederacy as some Utopia, without flaw; “perfection challenged”.

The same goes for the story of Southern Unionists… quite diverse and complex, especially when we begin to understand the many different paths. To be honest, under the light of our modern sense of morals, some Southern Unionists can look rather unappealing to us, in their effort to insure the preservation of slavery by embracing the Union (and knowing, full well, that secession would only expedite the termination of slavery). On the other hand, other Southern Unionists, who were against slavery (yes, they did exist), might have just the opposite impact on our sensibilities.

So, to be clear, no, I’m not suggesting a a dominance of Southern Unionists within the Civil War era Southern populace. Were there a lot of them? Well, that too is another post on the horizon. What I am trying to do, rather, is to make an effort to bring to light the fact that not everyone in the South thought the same way. Like it or not, the story of Southern Unionists presents a greater range of stories from the Civil War South, and… that’s not really such a bad thing when we consider that it also signals something significant in a free-thinking people, as opposed to a population of lemmings willing to jump off the cliff, all together, behind a Southern Confederacy.*

Those quotes showing opposite trends among Virginia militia at Harper’s Ferry, in April 1861… coming up, in a bit…

*… and, yes, I know, the lemmings jumping off cliffs en masse thing is yet another myth…