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The South’s Inner Civil War
The more fiercely the Confederacy fought for its independence, the more bitterly divided it became. To fully understand the vast changes the war unleashed on the country, you must first understand the plight of the Southerners who didn’t want secession.
March 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 2
Americans tend to think of the Civil War as a titanic struggle between two regions of the country, one united in commitment to the Union, the other equally devoted to its own nationhood. Yet neither North nor South was truly unified. Lincoln was constantly beset by draft resistance, peace sentiment, and resentment of the immense economic changes unleashed by the war. Internal dissent was, if anything, even more widespread in the wartime South. Not only did the four million slaves identify with the Union cause, but large numbers of white Southerners came to believe that they had more to lose from a continuation of the war than from a Northern victory. Indeed, scholars today consider the erosion of the will to fight as important a cause of Confederate defeat as the South’s inferiority in manpower and industrial resources. Even as it waged a desperate struggle for independence, the Confederacy was increasingly divided against itself.
This was a matter of conflict more than simple warweariness. The South’s inner civil war reflected how wartime events and Confederate policies eventually reacted upon the region’s distinctive social and political structure. Like a massive earthquake, the Civil War and the destruction of slavery permanently altered the landscape of Southern life, exposing and widening fault lines that had lain barely visible just beneath the surface. The most profound revolution, of course, was the destruction of slavery. But white society after the war was transformed no less fully than black.
From the earliest days of settlement, there had never been a single white South. In 1860 a majority of white Southerners lived not in the plantation belt but in the upcountry, an area of small farmers and herdsmen who owned few slaves or none at all. Self-sufficiency remained the primary goal of these farm families, a large majority of whom owned their land. Henry Warren, a Northerner who settled in Leake County in Mississippi’s hill country after the war, recalled white families attending church “dressed in homespun cloth, the product of the spinning wheel and hand loom, with which so many of the log cabins of that section were at that time equipped.” This economic order, far removed from the lavish world of the great planters, gave rise to a distinctive subculture that celebrated mutuality, egalitarianism (for whites), and proud independence. But so long as slavery and planter rule did not interfere with the yeomanry’s self-sufficient agriculture and local independence, the latent class conflict among whites failed to find coherent expression.
It was in the secession crisis and subsequent Civil War that upcountry yeomen discovered themselves as a political class. The elections for delegates to secession conventions in the winter of 1860-61 produced massive repudiations of disunion in yeoman areas. Once the war had begun, most of the South’s white population rallied to the Confederate cause. But from the outset disloyalty was rife in the Southern mountains. Virginia’s western counties seceded from the Old Dominion in 1861 and two years later reentered the Union as a separate state.
In East Tennessee, long conscious of its remoteness from the rest of the state, supporters of the Confederacy formed a small minority. This mountainous area contained a quarter of the state’s population but had long been overshadowed economically and politically by the wealthier, slave-owning counties to the west. A majority of Tennessee’s whites opposed secession, although once war had begun a popular referendum supported joining the Confederacy. But East Tennessee still voted, by a two-to-one margin, to remain within the Union. Indeed, a convention of mountain Unionists declared the state’s secession null and void and “not binding” on “loyal citizens.” The delegates called for the region’s secession from the state (an idea dating back to the proposed state of Franklin in the 1780s). Andrew Johnson, who had grown to manhood there, was the only United States senator from a seceding state to remain at his post in Washington once the war had begun, and in August 1861 East Tennessee voters elected three Unionists to represent them in the federal Congress.
Many refugees who made their way through the mountains to safety later returned as Union soldiers.
Meanwhile, almost every county in the region saw Unionist military companies established to disrupt the Confederate war effort. In July 1861 the local political leader William B. Carter traveled to Washington, where he proposed to President Lincoln that Unionists try to cut East Tennessee off from the rest of the Confederacy by burning railroad bridges. Carter later claimed that Gen. George B. McClellan promised that once this had been done, a Federal army would liberate the area.