The South’s Inner Civil War

Myths of the Confederacy as a heroic “lost cause” and Reconstruction as a “tragic era” are oversimplified.

Their loyalty first to the Union and then to Republicanism did not, however, imply abolitionist sentiment during the war or a commitment to the rights of blacks thereafter, although they were perfectly willing to see slavery sacrificed to preserve the Union. Indeed, the black-white alliance within the Reconstruction Republican party was always fragile, especially as blacks aggressively pursued demands for a larger share of political offices and far-reaching civil rights legislation. Upcountry Unionism was essentially defensive, a response to the undermining of local autonomy and economic self-sufficiency rather than a coherent program for the social reconstruction of the South. Its basis, the Northern reporter Sidney Andrews discovered in the fall of 1865, was “hatred of those who went into the Rebellion” and of “a certain ruling class” that had brought upon the region the devastating impact of war.

Although recent writing has made Civil War scholars aware of the extent of disaffection in the Confederacy, the South’s inner civil war remains largely unknown to most Americans. Perhaps this is because the story of Southern Unionism challenges two related popular mythologies that have helped shape how Americans think about that era: the portrait of the Confederacy as a heroic “lost cause” and of Reconstruction as an ignoble “tragic era.”

For much of this century historians who sympathized with the Confederate struggle minimized the extent of Southern discontent and often castigated the region’s Unionists as “Tories,” traitors analogous to Americans who remained loyal to George III during the Revolution. And many Northern writers, while praising Unionists’ resolve, found it difficult to identify enthusiastically with men complicitous in the alleged horrors of Reconstruction. Yet as the smoke of these historiographical battles clears, and a more complex view of the war and Reconstruction emerges, it has become abundantly clear that no one can claim to fully understand the Civil War era without coming to terms with the South’s Unionists, the persecution they suffered, and how they helped determine the outcome of our greatest national crisis.