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Re: Questions and Answers about Unionism in the South
Posted by: Margaret Storey (ID *****8742) Date: April 04, 2003 at 09:36:52
In Reply to: Questions and Answers about Unionism in the South by Don Umphrey of 780

Hello, Don and others on the list,

My apologies for not responding more quickly, but I was teaching yesterday and wanted to be able to devote some time to my answer.

In reply to your first question, the title of my book is (for now!), Loyalty and Loss: Alabama's Unionists in the Civil War and Reconstruction. It will be published sometime next year by Lousiana State University Press. I also have a recently-published article in the Journal of Southern History ("Civil War Unionists and the Political Culture of Loyalty in Alabama, 1860-1861," The Journal of Southern History, Volume LXIX, No. 1, February 2003: 71-106) in which I discuss some of my major arguments regarding the role of economic class in prompting unionism.

In my work (which, as some of you are aware, relies heavily on the allowed claims of the Southern Claims Commission Papers) I have found that a single explanation for unionism in Alabama is unsatisfactory. Though it is clearly the case that some unionists were deeply distrustful of the slaveowning elite in their state and adopted a unionist stance as a consequence, there is too much economic diversity among the men and women I studied to support the idea that all unionists were poor, much less that they all supported the Union because they were poor. For every poor unionist, it seemed to me, there was an equally poor Confederate neighbor who saw these issues differently--my question has been, how can we understand the political culture and ideas of these folks more broadly and include a range of motivating factors in our explanations of why they did what they did.

When I correlated the identities of unionists in the SCC papers with the census, I found that most of the claimants were what we might call "middling farmers"--they owned small amounts of real estate, generally had some personal wealth, and usually had large families. (The statistics for these things can be seen in the JSH article, by the way.) Less common were those who were very poor or very rich. There is some bias in the claims where poor people are concerned, however: if you had little in the first place, you had little to lose to the Union Army, and therefore nothing to claim. You fall out of the record in this way. Nonetheless, the claims still contain goodly numbers of people who were far from well-to-do. In this, they looked like the majority of white Southerners in 1860.

In addition, there were a small number of slaveholders in this group. Most of them, however, were small slaveholders, men and women who owned fewer than 5 slaves and who have much more in common culturally and politically with the nonslaveholders than with the Black Belt planters. There were, however, a scattered representation of those owning over 10 slaves--more than one might assume at first.

Importantly--and this is where I think my work can help to explain what appears to be a contradiction, but is really a question of nuance--these slaveholding and wealth patterns really differ by geography. In the Tennessee Valley counties of North Alabama, for instance, we see much higher rates of slaveholding and generally higher wealth among unionists. Moreover, we see that slaveholders represent a larger proportion of the total SCC allowed claimants than they did in the adult white population as a whole. In the hill country counties, however, the pattern is different: people are far less likely to own slaves and are, generally, poorer overall. Other than this, these differences seem to mirror what was a real demographic difference between the Valley and hill country--North Alabama's diversity was reflected in the unionist population.

(One of the things to muddy the water here is that disaffection with the Confederacy clearly developed quickly during the war among those most hard hit by the privations of war, largely in the hill country. I think it is important to distinguish between those who saw themselves as unionists from the beginning and those who came around to the cause--but not because one position was better than the other. Instead, I think that the positions represented distinct ways of understanding the relationship between self, family, local, and national interests. This is something that is a challenge for historians to address, so I wanted to try to isolate one group's way of grappling with these questions.)

For me, one of the most important consequences of understanding the breadth of socio-economic background among these folks is simply that I could then move away from seeing them as automatonic reactors to their "class" and begin to examine the ways that other social relations--between kin and neighbors, employees and employers, masters and slaves--could influence and shape the ways that these loyalists made and then defended their decisions to stand by the Union. I argue that rather than seeing unionists as opposing the South--or as standing as anomalies in Southern life and values--that it is better to conceptualize them as coming to their positions through an adherence to southern social relations and a deep-seated desire to protect their right to stay in the South. In this sense, I see them as conservative people. Most simply were not willing to risk traditional political ties to the nation, family ties, ties to place and people, for the experiment offered by the Confederacy.

Nonetheless, what began as a conservative point of view was quickly "radicalized" by events happening around unionists--their stand made them alien to their pro-Confederate neighbors and prompted community reactions that isolated them in profound ways. This experience--which challenged unionists' honor and safety, and that of their families--prompted defiance and further entrenchment. Once the war started, and especially once conscription began, these men and women were simply treated as outlaws. My contention is that this wartime experience of persecution made unionists into much more radical people than they had been in 1860--and the measures that they supported during Reconstruction (land redistribution, barring of former Confederates from the franchise, making the iron-clad oath requisite for holding any political office) illustrates this determination to see that traitors were punished monetarily and politically, and were never allowed to had the upper hand again. More than any other group of Republicans, including African-Americans, these folks were really dubious about the idea of reconciling with former rebels in the post-war period.

This last finding represents the "loss" in the book's title--though they "won" the war, they did so at great sacrifice and, ultimately, were unable to dominate the "peace." Their version of the war's events, as well, were deeply submerged in the growing Lost Cause mythology of the Confederacy in the late nineteenth century, which represents yet another loss for them.

Well--I have gone on far too long! Please forgive me. It is hard to explain some of the things quickly, though. I hope that those who are interested will read the article in the JSH, because I really go into detail there about the many factors shaping unionists' decision in 1860-61.

Best wishes,

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