John Albert Racer of Page County… Southern Unionist?

Posted on September 2, 2012 by


A friend of mine asked me if I thought his ancestor (John Albert Racer) might have been a Southern Unionist. He has a hunch he was, plus, there’s some pretty interesting stuff surrounding this fellow’s life in the war.

For one, there’s a pretty cool story that comes out of Page County, about one of his sons… who was probably no more than 4 or 5 year old at the time… who received a 5-cent piece from a Union soldier.

Mr. Joe Racer, east of town, has a 5-cent piece which was given him by a Federal soldier while seated on the soldier’s lap during the stormy days of the sixties. Though a very young member of the infantry at that time, Joe’s recollection of the presentation is as clear as the noon day.

There’s a lot that can be assumed about this little piece, so… let’s add a little more to see if we can narrow down the scope of possibilities.

Who was Joseph H. “Joe” Racer‘s (1858-1932) father and where was he at about this same time?

In fact, Joe Racer’s father was a member of Co. H, 33rd Virginia Infantry… yes, of the Stonewall Brigade.

So, was a Confederate soldier’s son being nice to a Yankee, or vice versa!?

Well, let’s narrow things down a bit more, taking some time to look into John Albert Racer’s service record…

Racer enlisted on April 2, 1862.

Volunteer or conscript?

We don’t know, but keep this in mind… he enlisted after the first Confederate Conscription Act was put into play. What might throw folks off initially was that he was listed as a 4th corporal by August 1862.

With that added responsibility, might it be an indication that he showed a little more zeal for the Confederacy than what might have been expected in a conscript?

Don’t be so sure…

In that entry about him being a 4th corporal, he was also listed as being on detached service.

This is where a family story comes into play… the Racer family knows that he made shoes… but for whom? It’s likely that he made shoes for the Confederate army and that is why he was detached.

Ah, but then we see, in October, that he was absent “having taken the oath of allegiance to the United States”. Additionally, in the December muster roll, he is listed as having deserted, August 1, 1862.

One of the index cards from John Albert Racer’s service record, listed him as having deserted.

That August date fits in place quite well, because Page County was occupied by Federal troops at that time, and if you recall, those troops were enforcing orders from Gen. John Pope

Such as are willing to take the oath of allegiance to the United States and will furnish sufficient security for its observance shall be permitted to remain at their homes and pursue in good faith their accustomed avocations.

But does that really mean anything? Especially, considering the alternative…

Those who refuse shall be conducted South beyond the extreme pickets of this army, and be notified that if found again anywhere within our lines or at any point in rear they will be considered spies, and subjected to the extreme rigor of military law.

… wouldn’t it be easier to take the oath?

A close-up from another index card in Racer’s file, indicating that he took the oath.

Yes, but, there’s more.

You see… this same John Albert Racer was also a Southern Loyalist applicant.

Was it just another case of a Southerner (of the previous Confederate-leaning variety) trying to sneak under the radar and grab a little Federal money in postwar years?

Hard to say, but, let’s consider some of those other things, previously mentioned… listed as a deserter… took the oath of allegiance… family story of “fraternization” with Union soldiers… and then, the Southern Loyalist application.

Regretfully, as I mentioned last week, Racer’s claims file is empty, so we have no details regarding his testimony, or that of others in support of his claim. We do, however, know that his claim was disallowed. Then again, I can name a number of disallowed claims that, in my opinion, show some very heavy evidence that they should have been granted. Additionally, keep in mind, Racer’s claim was disallowed, and not barred.

Let’s throw in one last item.

The Racer family became quite active in the Dunker/Brethren Church. John Albert Racer became a Brethren Elder in 1878, and another son, John Abram Racer (1852-1945), followed in 1883. Was the family part of the Dunker congregation that had been growing in Page County, since 1850? Perhaps. That might also explain John Albert Racer’s aversion to service with the Confederacy.

The Racer family, ca. late 1880s/early 1890s. Note, “Joe” Racer is in the back, second from the right. John Albert Racer is in the front, on the left, next to this wife. I’m guessing that’s John Abram Racer standing right behind his father.

In the end, we still don’t have a definite answer, but I’d say the evidence is there to prove that, yes… it seems likely that John Albert Racer may have been a Southern Unionist, perhaps influenced by religion.

And… one last thing… in his obituary, there was no romantic reflection on his days as a Confederate  soldier… and, did you notice… there is also no service record past the December 1862 entry. He didn’t return to the Confederate army… either voluntarily or by force.

*The questions above in italics reflect me playing “devil’s advocate”… something necessary in trying to figure out how solid an argument might be.