The South Needs to Commemorate Its Southern Unionists

In the past years, months, and particularly in the past few days in the wake of the violence at Charlottesville, debates have swirled around the removal of Confederate monuments. These removals are occurring at a heightened pace. I won’t linger too long on my thoughts on these removals. To put it simply, I don’t have a problem with Confederate monuments coming down (a sentiment I've expressed previously). In fact, I’m glad the nation is reevaluating its very flawed understanding of the Confederacy within public memory and challenging the assumption that the Confederacy deserves to be honored.

With that said, I want to set aside the issue of monument destruction and instead advocate the we raise more monuments celebrating Civil War Southerners, forgotten in public memory and yet deeply deserving of a place of honor in Southern communities, parks, and courthouse lawns: Southern Unionists.

 in this Harper's Weekly Illustration, Unionists in East Tennessee Swear Fealty to the Union Flag in 1862. Over 30,000 Tennesseans fought in the Union Army during the Civil War.

in this Harper's Weekly Illustration, Unionists in East Tennessee Swear Fealty to the Union Flag in 1862. Over 30,000 Tennesseans fought in the Union Army during the Civil War.

After all, nearly 100,000 white Southern Unionists enlisted in the Union Army and fought to preserve their nation. Every Confederate state except for South Carolina (...of course) provided at least one regiment of white Southern soldiers for the Union Army. These white Southern Unionists fought not only for national preservation, but they did so despite the fact that by the war’s latter years the Union Army was undeniably an agent of emancipation and social change in the South.

Similarly, nearly 180,000 African-Americans served in United States Colored Troops (USCT) regiments. Many, if not most, of these soldiers hailed from the South; plenty were runaway slaves. Noting that some USCT regiments hailed from the North, I think it's fair to suggest that roughly a quarter of a million Union soldiers were Southern Unionists, white and black alike. These numbers don’t even account for the tens of thousands of white Southerners from slave-holding border states and territories that didn’t secede (Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, parts of Indian Territory) who enlisted in the Union Army. They also don’t take into consideration the plethora of “peace societies” and “Union Leagues” that existed throughout the Confederate South, undermining Rebel authority and keeping faith in the Union alive. Many Southerners, it seems, understood that their future remained brightest by remaining part of the United States.

What inspired Southern white men to remain loyal to the United States flag? In 1863, Lt. Colonel Albert Webb of the First Arkansas Cavalry (Union) penned an insightful, if a bit romantic, tribute regarding the roots for his troopers’ patriotism in the secession crisis of 1861:

"There was, here and there, however, an oasis in this desert of public opinion, now and then a surging of the popular wave, that betokened a living and abiding faith in the Government. Not every man could be made to believe that the present war was one of aggression and subjugation. Many discovered its true object, the perpetuation of the Union as it was when the war broke out, and under the protection of which they had gathered what of substance they possessed.

 tHE GUIDON OF THE fIRST aRKANSAS cAVALRY (U.S.), the "Mountain Feds"

tHE GUIDON OF THE fIRST aRKANSAS cAVALRY (U.S.), the "Mountain Feds"

Poverty and rebellion were not always nursed by the same firelight. The old frontiersman, sitting musingly in his chimney corner, on the slope of a mountain spur, could not see wherein the election of Abraham Lincoln had injured him. The slow course of an uncertain mail, or the garrulous tongue of a neighbor, had told him what “Old Abe” said on the steps of the Capitol, and he was simple enough, a many thought, to believe him.

He had prospered in his way, and though poor, it was true, could hunt without fear, and eat his corn bread and bacon in quiet. His more ambitious neighbor in the valley below could not discover any power in secession to render his crops more abundant than they had been.

The fear of negro equality had never disturbed him, and he was very certain that the Government of the United States had thus far permitted him to be the architect of his own fortunes. His sturdy common sense told him that a Revolution ‘was the very last resource of the thinking and the good,’ and he could neither see, hear, no read of those signs of material decay that always forebode the downfall of a nation.

Thus thought the Union men of the Border, and though far removed from the great heart of American political life, they nevertheless felt its pulsations, and gave a prompt response to the enthusiasm of their brethren in the East. And now came the veritable ‘tug of war.’"

In Webb’s account, drawn from interviews with his men in the First Arkansas, Southern Unionists credited the United States as the source of their humble prosperity and their individual freedom. They took Abraham Lincoln’s promises that slavery would not be disturbed at his word, and the issue of slavery was of limited importance to frontier Arkansas Unionists anyways. Albeit a solitary piece of evidence, Webb's account nevertheless suggests that patriotism and upholding constitutional democracy were important motivators for white Southerners who continued to support Old Glory.

It is much easier, of course, to surmise why African-Americans joined the Union cause. Having endured lifetimes of slavery and racism, Southern slaves leapt at the chance to escape their masters’ clutches and bring down the Confederacy. Samuel Cabble, a former slave who enlisted in the famed 54th Massachusetts Infantry, wrote to his wife in 1863:

 An Unidentified Union USCT Soldier Poses with his family for a photograph

An Unidentified Union USCT Soldier Poses with his family for a photograph

"Dear Wife i have enlisted in the army i am now in the state of Massachusetts...though great is the present national dificulties yet i look forward to a brighter day When i shall have the opertunity of seeing you in the full enjoyment of fredom i would like to no if you are still in slavery if you are it will not be long before we shall have crushed the system that now opreses you for in the course of three months you shall have your liberty. great is the outpouring of the colered peopl that is now rallying with the hearts of lions against that very curse that has seperated you an me yet we shall meet again and oh what a happy time that will be when this ungodly rebellion shall be put down and the curses of our land is trampled under our feet..."

For the 180,000 black Union soldiers like Cabble, the Civil War represented a literal opportunity to free their kinsmen, their friends, and their families. They understood that slavery's fate hinged on the war's outcome, and they fought "with the hearts of lions" to end the conflict. If slavery was a secondary issue for many white Southern Unionists, it was the issue that drove African-Americans to the Union banner.

Thus, despite the secession of eleven Southern states to the Confederacy, hundreds of thousands of Southerners ultimately fought for the United States. Southern Unionists and/or USCTs were present at Antietam and Gettysburg, Vicksburg and Nashville, Prairie Grove and Honey Springs. They were often instrumental in counter-insurgency operations and garrison duty. They helped liberate their communities from Confederate rule they saw as unwarranted, unjust, and illegal. Some prominent Southern Unionists--such as George Henry Thomas of Virginia--proved themselves to be superb commanders on the battlefield. In short, Southern Unionists were vital in helping the defeat the Confederacy and preserve the United States.

Yet in spite of their contributions on the battlefield, these particular Southern Civil War combatants have been largely forgotten by the South that produced them. This is no coincidence.

 A rare Southern Monument to the 2nd USCT REgiment in Fort Myers, Florida. Only a handful of similar monuments exist in the South.

A rare Southern Monument to the 2nd USCT REgiment in Fort Myers, Florida. Only a handful of similar monuments exist in the South.

Historians have shown time and time again, in books, articles, and online, that many Confederate monuments were raised not only to remember Confederate soldiers, but also to reinforce white supremacy. Some monuments were very specifically raised to intimidate local African-American communities into subservience. While the construction of Confederate monuments often contained powerful white supremacist undertones, the absence of monuments to Southern Unionists and Southern African-Americans soldiers likewise speaks volumes about the political and racial priorities and memories of the South. Southerners effectively disowned these groups of soldiers, rejecting their loyalty to the United States and their willingness to fight to end slavery as something akin to treason. This shouldn’t surprise us much, either. Historians have also shown how Southern states with convoluted connections to the Confederacy, such as Kentucky, often overemphasized their Confederate roots after the Civil War (the work of Anne Marshall comes to mind).

Moreover, these Southern Unionists and rebellious blacks speak to the disunity of the South during the war: they complicate and challenge the façade of a united Confederacy. The fact that Union armies marching across the South were aided and abetted by Southern Unionists, and Union ranks bolstered with white and black regiments full of Southerners, pierces the monolith of Confederate nationalism. If these Union soldiers diversify the Civil War South, however, they also diversify its legacy, providing models of patriotism and sacrifice around which modern Southerners can take pride. Put Southern Unionists on marble pedestals.

The historical amnesia of the South regarding its black and white Union soldiers should be rectified. By choosing to selectively remember and honor Confederate soldiers while simultaneously ignoring the many Southerners who fought for the Union, Southerners send a clear message that loyalty to region, protection of white supremacy, and veneration of the Confederacy are the only legacies of the Civil War worth remembering. If Confederate monuments continue to be torn down, new ones should go up, celebrating those Southerners--black and white--who remained loyal to the Union and brought about “a new birth of freedom.”

Zac Cowsert currently studies 19th-century U.S. history as a doctoral student at West Virginia University, where he also received his master's degree.  He earned his bachelor's degree in history and political science at Centenary College of Louisiana, a small liberal-arts college in Shreveport.  Zac's research focuses on the involvement and experiences of the Five Tribes of Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) during the American Civil War. He has worked for the National Park Service at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park. ©

Further Reading & Sources:

Charles C. Anderson. Fighting by Southern Federals. New York: Neale Publishing Co., 1912.

James Alex Baggett. The Scalawags: Southern Dissenters in the Civil War and Reconstruction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003.

A.W. Bishop. Loyalty on the Frontier: Sketches of Union Men of the South-West with Incidents and Adventures in Rebellion on the Border. 1863. Reprint. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2003.

Karen L. Cox. Dixie's Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Southern Culture. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003.

Richard Nelson Current. Lincoln's Loyalists: Union Soldiers from the Confederacy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Gaines M. Foster. Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

William W. Freehling. The South Vs. the South: How Anti-Confederate Southerners Shaped the Course of the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Caroline E. Janney. Burying the Dead but Not the Past: Ladies' Memorial Associations and the Lost Cause. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.

"Monuments to the United States Colored Troops: The List." Jubilo! The Emancipation Century [blog]. Online.

Anne E. Marshall. Creating a Confederate Kentucky: The Lost Cause and Civil War Memory in a Border State. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.

Cynthia Mills and Pamela H. Simpson, eds. Monuments to the Lost Cause: Women, Art, and the Landscapes of Southern Memory. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2003.

Kirk Savage. Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth Century America. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.

United States National Archives. "Letter from Samuel Cabble to His Wife and Mother." Record Group 94: Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1762-1984. Online.