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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
No one knows how many Southerners perished in this internal civil war. Atrocities were committed by both sides, but since the bulk of the upcountry remained within Confederate lines, Unionists suffered more severely. After April 1862, when President Davis declared martial law in East Tennessee and suspended the writ of habeas corpus, thousands of Unionists saw their property seized. In Shelton Laurel, a remote valley in Appalachian North Carolina, Confederate soldiers in January 1863 murdered thirteen Unionist prisoners in cold blood. Solomon Jones, the “Union patriarch” of the South Carolina mountains, was driven from his farm, forced to live in the woods, and eventually jailed by Confederate authorities. Throughout the upcountry Unionists abandoned their homes to hide from the conscription officers and Confederate sheriffs who hunted them, as they had once hunted runaway slaves, with bloodhounds; some found refuge in the very mountain caves that had once sheltered fugitives from bondage.
For Southerners loyal to the Union, the war left deep scars. Long after the end of fighting, bitter memories of persecution would remain, and tales would be told and retold of the fortitude and suffering of Union families. “We could fill a book with facts of wrongs done to our people … ,” an Alabama Unionist told a congressional committee in 1866. “You have no idea of the strength of principle and devotion these people exhibited towards the national government.” A Mississippi Unionist later recalled how the office of James M. Jones, editor of the Corinth Republican, “was surrounded by the infuriated rebels, his paper was suppressed, his person threatened with violence, he was broken up and ruined forever, all for advocating the Union of our fathers.” Jones later fled the state and enlisted in the Union army (one of only five hundred white Mississippians to do so). A Tennessean told a similar story: “They were driven from their homes … persecuted like wild beasts by the rebel authorities, and hunted down in the mountains; they were hanged on the gallows, shot down and robbed. … Perhaps no people on the face of the earth were ever more persecuted than were the loyal people of East Tennessee.”
Poverty descended on families with men in the army. Food riots broke out in Virginia and North Carolina.
Thus the war permanently redrew the economic and political map of the white South. Military devastation and the Confederacy’s economic policies plunged much of the upcountry into poverty, thereby threatening the yeomanry’s economic independence and opening the door to the postwar spread of cotton cultivation and tenant farming. Yeoman disaffection shattered the political hegemony of the planters, separating “the lower and uneducated class,” according to one Georgia planter, “from the more wealthy and more enlightened portion of our population.”
The war ended the upcountry’s isolation, weakened its localism, and awakened its political self-consciousness. Out of the Union opposition would come many of the most prominent white Republican leaders of Reconstruction. Edward Degener, a German-born San Antonio grocer who had seen his two sons executed for treason by the Confederacy, served as a Republican congressman after the war. The party’s Reconstruction Southern governors would include Edmund J. Davis, who during the war raised the 1st Texas Cavalry for the Union Army; William W. Holden, the unsuccessful “peace” candidate of 1864; William H. Smith and David P. Lewis, organizers of a Peace Society in Confederate Alabama; and William G. Brownlow, a circuit-riding Methodist preacher and Knoxville, Tennessee, editor.
Perhaps more than any other individual, Brownlow personified the changes wrought by the Civil War and the bitter hatred of “rebels” so pervasive among Southern Unionists. Before 1860 he had been an avid defender of slavery. The peculiar institution, he declared, would not be abolished until “the angel Gabriel sounds the last loud trump of God.” (His newspaper also called Harriet Beecher Stowe a “deliberate liar” for her portrayal of slavery in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, adding that she was “as ugly as Original sin” to boot.)
With secession, Brownlow turned his caustic pen against the Confederacy. In October 1861 he was arrested and sent North, and his paper was closed. He returned to Knoxville two years later, when Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside occupied the city. Now he was a firm defender of emancipation and an advocate of reprisals against pro-Confederate Southerners. He would, Brownlow wrote in 1864, arm “every wolf, panther, catamount, and bear in the mountains of America … every rattlesnake and crocodile … every devil in Hell, and turn them loose upon the Confederacy” in order to win the war.
The South’s inner civil war not only helped weaken the Confederate war effort but bequeathed to Reconstruction explosive political issues, unresolved questions, and broad opportunities for change. The disaffected regions would embrace the Republican party after the Civil War; some remained strongholds well into the twentieth century. The war experience goes a long way toward explaining the strength of Republican voting in parts of the Reconstruction upcountry. To these “scalawags” the party represented, first and foremost, the inheritor of wartime Unionism.