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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
Carter’s plan proved to be a disaster for East Tennessee Unionists. Four bridges were in fact burned, but others proved too heavily guarded. In one case Unionists overpowered the Confederate guards only to discover that they had misplaced their matches. And it was a Confederate army, not a Union one, that invaded East Tennessee in force after these incidents. Several men were seized and summarily executed, and hundreds of Unionists were thrown in jail. The result was a massive flight of male citizens from the region. Many who made their way through the mountains to safety subsequently returned as members of the Union army. Felix A. Reeve, for example, one of the earliest exiles, reentered East Tennessee in 1863 at the head of the 8th Regiment of Tennessee Infantry. All told, some thirty-one thousand white Tennesseans eventually joined the Union army. Tennessee was one of the few Southern states from which more whites than blacks enlisted to fight for the Union.
Throughout the war East Tennessee remained the most conspicuous example of discontent within the Confederacy. But other mountain counties also rejected secession from the outset. One citizen of Winston County in the northern Alabama hill country believed yeomen had no business fighting for a planter-dominated Confederacy: “all tha want is to git you … to fight for their infurnal negroes and after you do their fightin’ you may kiss their hine parts for o tha care.” On July 4, 1861, a convention of three thousand residents voted to take Winston out of the Confederacy; if a state could withdraw from the Union, they declared, a county had the same right to secede from a state. Unionists here carried local elections and formed volunteer military bands that resisted Confederate enlistment officers and sought to protect local families from harassment by secessionists.
Georgia’s mountainous Rabun County was “almost a unit against secession.” As one local resident recalled in 1865, “You cannot find a people who were more averse to secession than were the people of our county. … I canvassed the county in 1860–61 myself and I know that there were not exceeding twenty men in this county who were in favor of secession.” Secret Union organizations also flourished in the Ozark Mountains of northern Arkansas. More than one hundred members of the Peace and Constitutional Society were arrested late in 1861 and given the choice of jail or enlisting in the Confederate army. As in East Tennessee, many residents fled, and more than eight thousand men eventually served in Union regiments.
Discontent developed more slowly outside the mountains. It was not simply devotion to the Union but the impact of the war and the consequences of Confederate policies that awakened peace sentiment and social conflict. In any society war demands sacrifice, and public support often rests on the conviction that sacrifice is equitably shared. But the Confederate government increasingly molded its policies in the interest of the planters.
Within the South the most crucial development of the early years of the war was the disintegration of slavery. War, it has been said, is the midwife of revolution, and whatever politicians and military commanders might decree, slaves saw the conflict as heralding the end of bondage. Three years into the conflict Gen. William T. Sherman encountered a black Georgian who summed up the slaves’ understanding of the war from its outset: “He said … he had been looking for the ‘angel of the Lord’ ever since he was knee-high, and, though we professed to be fighting for the Union, he supposed that slavery was the cause, and that our success was to be his freedom.” On the basis of this conviction, the slaves took actions that not only propelled the reluctant North down the road to emancipation but severely exacerbated the latent class conflict within the white South.
As the Union army occupied territory on the periphery of the Confederacy, first in Virginia, then in Tennessee, Louisiana, and elsewhere, slaves by the thousands headed for the Union lines. Long before the Emancipation Proclamation slaves grasped that the presence of occupying troops destroyed the coercive power of both the individual master and the slaveholding community. On Magnolia Plantation in Louisiana, for example, the arrival of the Union army in 1862 sparked a work stoppage and worse. “We have a terrible state of affairs here,” reported one planter. “Negroes refusing to work. … The negroes have erected a gallows in the quarters and [say] they must drive their master … off the plantation hang their master etc. and that then they will be free.”
Impressment of horses and oxen made it difficult for families to plow fields or transport crops to market.
Even in the heart of the Confederacy, far from Federal troops, the conflict undermined the South’s “peculiar institution.” Their “grapevine telegraph” kept many slaves remarkably well informed about the war’s progress. And the drain of white men into military service left plantations under the control of planters’ wives and elderly and infirm men, whose authority slaves increasingly felt able to challenge. Reports of “demoralized” and “insubordinate” behavior multiplied throughout the South. Slavery, Confederate Vice-President Alexander H. Stephens proudly affirmed, was the cornerstone of the Confederacy. Accordingly, slavery’s disintegration compelled the Confederate government to take steps to save the institution, and these policies, in turn, sundered white society.