The South’s Inner Civil War


Poverty, not disloyalty, this officer believed, produced most desertions. But in many parts of the upcountry, the two became intimately interrelated. In the hill counties and piney woods of Mississippi, bands of deserters hid from Confederate authorities, and organizations like Choctaw County’s Loyal League worked, said one contemporary observer, to “break up the war by advising desertion, robbing the families of those who remained in the army, and keeping the Federal authorities advised” of Confederate military movements. Northern Alabama, generally enthusiastic about the Confederacy in 1861, was the scene two years later of widespread opposition to conscription and the war. “The condition of things in the mountain districts,” wrote John A. Campbell, the South’s assistant secretary of war, “menaces the existence of the Confederacy as fatally as … the armies of the United States.”

Campbell’s fears were amply justified by events in Jones County, Mississippi. Although later claims that Jones “seceded” from the Confederacy appear to be exaggerated, disaffection became endemic in this piney woods county. Newton Knight, a strongly pro-Union subsistence farmer, was drafted early in the war and chose to serve as a hospital orderly rather than go into combat against the Union. When his wife wrote him that Confederate cavalry had seized his horse under the impressment law and was mistreating their neighbors, Knight deserted, returned home, and organized Unionists and deserters to “fight for their rights and the freedom of Jones County.” In response, Confederate troops seized and hanged one of Knight’s brothers, but the irregular force of Unionists subsequently fought a successful battle against a Confederate cavalry unit.


Outside of East Tennessee the most extensive antiwar organizing took place in western and central North Carolina, whose residents had largely supported the Confederacy in 1861. Here the secret Heroes of America, numbering perhaps ten thousand men, established an “underground railroad” to enable Unionists to escape to Federal lines. The Heroes originated in North Carolina’s Quaker Belt, a group of Piedmont counties whose Quaker and Moravian residents had long harbored pacifist and antislavery sentiments. Unionists in this region managed to elect “peace men” to the state legislature and a member of the Heroes as the local sheriff. By 1864 the organization had spread into the North Carolina mountains, had garnered considerable support among Raleigh artisans, and was even organizing in plantation areas (where there is some evidence of black involvement in its activities).

One of the Heroes’ key organizers was Dr. John Lewis Johnson, a Philadelphia-born druggist and physician. After serving in the Confederate army early in the war and being captured—probably deliberately—he returned home to form bands of Union sympathizers. In 1864 he fled to the North, whereupon his wife was arrested and jailed in Richmond, resulting in the death of their infant son. For the remainder of the war, Johnson lived in Cincinnati with another son, who had deserted from the Confederate army.

North Carolina’s Confederate governor Zebulon Vance dismissed the Heroes of America as “altogether a low and insignificant concern.” But by 1864 the organization was engaged in espionage, promoting desertion, and helping escaped Federal prisoners reach Tennessee and Kentucky. It was also deeply involved in William W. Hoiden’s 1864 race for governor as a peace candidate. Hoiden was decisively defeated, but in Heroes’ strongholds like Raleigh he polled nearly half the vote.

Most of all, the Heroes of America helped galvanize the class resentments rising to the surface of Southern life. Alexander H. Jones, a Hendersonville newspaper editor and leader of the Heroes, pointedly expressed their views: “This great national strife originated with men and measures that were … opposed to a democratic form of government.… The fact is, these bombastic, high-falutin aristocratic fools have been in the habit of driving negroes and poor helpless white people until they think … that they themselves are superior; [and] hate, deride and suspicion the poor.”

As early as 1862 Joshua B. Moore, a North Alabama slaveholder, predicted that Southerners without a direct stake in slavery “are not going to fight through a long war to save it—never. They will tire of it and quit.” Moore was only half right. Nonslaveholding yeomen supplied the bulk of Confederate soldiers as well as the majority of deserters and draft resisters. But there is no question that the war was a disaster for the upcountry South. Lying at the war’s strategic crossroads, portions of upcountry Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi were laid waste by the march of opposing armies. In other areas marauding bands of deserters plundered the farms and workshops of Confederate sympathizers, driving off livestock and destroying crops, while Confederate troops and vigilantes routed Union families from their homes. Kinship ties were shredded as brother fought brother and neighbor battled neighbor not only on Civil War battlefields but in what one contemporary called the South’s “vulgar internecine warfare.”