So you think that just because you come from the south, your ancestors
must have been Confederates? Richard Nelson Current, author of
"Lincoln's Loyalists," estimates that as many as 100,000
white, Southern males wore the Blue instead of the Gray as regular
soldiers or local militia. Did you know every state in the Confederacy
except for South Carolina raised at least one unit for the Federal
Army, for a total of 55 regiments?
Were these men patriots or were they, as some Southern historians such as William Stanley Hoole maintained, traitors to the Cause? Who were these men who risked so much to remain loyal to "the Old Flag, sealed with the blood of our forefathers?" Were they uneducated hill folk, or were they sophisticated anti-slavery and anti-plantation visionaries? I want to address the Southern Unionist, specifically,
1. The facts of their numbers and demography.
2. An assessment of their impact on the conduct of the war.
3. Some history of one of the most valiant of these units, the First Alabama Cavalry, US Volunteers and one soldier in it, the 50-year old Pvt. Billington Sanders Hurst.
4. The fate of these men after the war.
From the perspective of the present, we must deal with the Myth
of the Lost Cause rather than the reality. With time, the myth
has grown to epic proportions; a solid Confederacy of people
standing firm against the tyranny of the strong central government,
of agriculturalism and Jeffersonian Democracy against the factory
and the political machine. From the very beginning, division
haunted the Confederacy. In Alabama, for example, of 52 counties,
23 voted to remain within the Union. These counties lay mostly
within the Appalachian Highlands of northern Alabama, and this
division was one that was repeated everywhere within the South.
The people of the uplands were pro-Union, and the people of the
plantation areas represented the fire-eaters of the Confederacy.
Where plantations ruled, slavery held sway, and the Confederacy
was strong. Where free men tilled the soil, slavery, slaves,
the Confederacy, and most particularly the Planters, were not
popular. On the coastal lowlands of North Carolina, where the
people earned their living by fishing and commerce, lumbering
and other enterprises that were inimical to the slave labor economy,
the people tended to remain loyal to the nation their forefathers
had fought to build.
Sadly, the war that was fought among Southerners was never civil,
and in a war characterized by grand gestures among the principal
armies, viciousness seemed to prevail. We're all familiar with
Grant stopping the war to present his friend Pickett with a silver
tea set on the occasion of the birth of his child. But how many
know that same George Pickett faced prosecution as a war criminal
for hanging 22 men of the First NC. Hostage taking and murder
were common, and the Confederates so feared the Unionists within
their midst that they used brutal tactics to suppress them.
Consider Alabama, the only state for which I have the figures
handy. A Deep South state, the location of the first capitol
of the Confederacy, yet 23 counties voted the "Cooperationist"
ticket. In Winston County, not a single vote was cast for secession.
In the 23 loyalist counties, the vote was 21,665 to 12,042.
However, the plantation states wielded the power, and in the slave-holding
plantation counties, 24,865 voted to secede and 6,965 voted to
remain. The totals for the state were 28,630 to remain in the
Union and 36,907 for secession. Barbour, Bibb, Butler, Henry,
Lowndes, Marengo, Pike and Russell Counties tallied no Cooperationist
votes. Thus, 43.7% of the voters of the ostensibly solid Confederate
state voted to remain within the Union.
The vote for secession followed closely the distribution of slaves
or the number of bales of cotton produced in Alabama. Winston
County held only 122 slaves, or 3.41% of the population, and in
most of the loyal counties, the proportion of slaves was less
than 20%. However, substantial Unionist sentiment was found even
in the plantation counties. In Green County, with 76.5% of the
population being African slaves, nearly 40% of voters wished to
remain within the Union. It must be pointed out that these figures
overestimate Unionist support because many Southerners voted Cooperationist
and then enlisted in Confederate forces. Nonetheless, I think
we can conclude that at the beginning, the South was far from
united in its rebellion, and substantial minorities still held
the Old Flag in high regard, while in some areas the loyalists
comprised a majority. This represented a worrisome threat that
drained substantial Confederate resources throughout the entire
The mountain area in western Virginia and eastern Tennessee was
one of the major hotbeds of Unionism. Virginia, arguably the
very heart of the Confederacy, was split along lines similar to
those seen in Alabama. The people of the mountain counties of
Virginia remained so solidly Union that they petitioned to be
admitted as a separate state in 1863. Tennessee was perhaps the
most split of the states voting to secede and sent approximately
equal numbers to each Army. As mentioned by Sam Watkins, the
First Tennessee, the regiment that stood Sherman's assaults on
the Dead Line at Kennesaw Mountain all alone and saying they needed
no help, had Union sympathizers in its ranks.
The Unionists were a thorn in the side of the Confederacy from
the beginning, and Abe Lincoln, that wily old politician, sought
to exploit this advantage. East Tennessee and West Virginia were
hotbeds of outrage against the rebellion. The only problem for
Lincoln was to get access for recruiters and arms.
Lincoln immediately authorized a number of individuals to raise
regiments of loyal Virginians. Normally the governor of the state
was responsible for enrolling the state militia into the Federal
Army, and clearly none of the Southern governors would be any
help. William Burton, the governor of Delaware refused to cooperate,
but Lincoln found a way to enroll the Delawareans through Robert
Patterson, then commanding the Pennsylvania troops. The First
Delaware enrolled through Pennsylvania, and at first, Lincoln
used this mechanism to enroll Virginians. Ohio served as a major
recruiting ground for Virginians.
Early Federal military movements revolved around protecting the
Virginia Unionists and maintaining access to these military resources.
McClellan moved on Grafton in May of 1961, partly to protect
the B&O Highway and partly to protect the Unionists. Cox
moved up the Kanawha toward Charleston, then held by Gen. Henry
Wise, a rabid secessionist and ex-governor of Virginia. Wise
reported to Lee he was surrounded by hostile people. "They
invite the enemy, feed him, and he arms and drills them. A spy
is on every hill top, at every cabin, and from Charleston to Point
Pleasant they swarm." On the retreat "the State volunteers
under my command lost from three to five hundred men by desertion.
The Kanawha Valley is wholly disaffected and traitorous."
Well, not entirely. Thomas Jackson called the Kanawha home.
The government of the State of Virginia moved its military forces
to attempt to stem the hemorrhage of potential manpower and moved
some 5000 men to Mill Creek, near Martinsburg, which slowed recruiting
across the Ohio considerably.
A few men even were raised in the heart of the Tidewater. In
spite of hopes to raise an entire regiment of Loyal East Virginians,
only a single company, The First Loyal East Virginia Infantry
rallied to the Old Flag. Other men joined the Accotink Home Guard.
Both units spent most of their time patrolling telegraph lines.
But when the total was added up, 31,872 white Virginia men, including
those who joined before West Virginia was admitted as a separate
state, wore the Blue. This figure did not count militia who did
not enter Federal service. When it was said that on July 3, 1863,
as the troops lined up for their ill-fated assault, that "All
Virginia was there," it just wasn't true.
Tennessee was a bitterly divided state, and considerable efforts
were expended by both sides either to deny the military resources
to the enemy or to tap them. East Tennessee, particularly, was
a hotbed of Union sentiment, and no one was more vigorous in the
cause than Andrew Johnson. Johnson had campaigned vigorously
in East Tennessee prior to the secession vote. A friend of Johnson's,
James T.T. Carter, an Annapolis graduate and lieutenant in the
US Navy, was detailed from the Navy to drill troops in East Tennessee.
Carter, incidentally, was the only American to hold the ranks
of Major General and Rear Admiral.
The problem with East Tennessee was its inaccessibility to the
Federals. Guarded by the Cumberland Mountains, and cut only by
three passes, the region was denied to the Union. The trip to
Union territory was arduous, and the Rebels managed to interdict
the passes. A New Market physician and Mexican War veteran, John
W. Thornburgh, organized a cavalry company and was ambushed in
Baptist Gap. Only about a third managed to get through to Barbourville,
Kentucky. Thornburgh, himself, and 8 men were captured. The
remainder retreated to their homes. Nonetheless, some two thousand
men managed to escape and became the First and Second East Tennessee.
Reaching the loyalists was a source of contention between Lincoln
and his generals. Buell saw only the military difficulties and
was less than enthusiastic. George Thomas, one of his division
commanders, was even less enthusiastic. Buell's refusal to move
on East Tennessee was one of the main reasons Lincoln replaced
Another Carter brother, William B., looked to organize a bolder
stroke. On the night of November 8, loyal men burned a number
of bridges on the east Tennessee and Virginia Railroad, one of
the few steel arteries of the South. The Confederates reacted
with a savagery that belied their talk about "rights".
Isham G. Harris, the fire-eating governor of Tennessee, wrote
to Jefferson Davis, "The burning of railroad bridges in East
Tennessee shows a deep-seated spirit of rebellion in that section.
Union men are organizing. This rebellion must be crushed out
instantly, the leaders arrested, and summarily punished."
Confederate troops began scouring the hills, and slowly the numbers of captives increased, reaching the hundreds. Secretary of War Judah Benjamin sent the following instructions for dealing with the "traitors".
1st. All such as can be identified as having been engaged in bridge-burning are to be tried summarily by drum-head court-martial, and, if found guilty, executed on the spot by hanging. It would be well to leave their bodies hanging in the vicinity of the burned bridges.
2nd. All such as have not been so engaged are to be treated as prisoners of war, and sent with an armed guard to Tuscaloosa, Ala., there to be kept imprisoned . . . till the end of the war.
P.S. Judge Patterson, Colonel Pickens, and other ringleaders
of the same class must be sent at once to Tuscaloosa to jail as
prisoners of war.
Several prisoners were hanged and left near the railroad, where
passengers were encouraged to flog their dead bodies with canes
as the train passed. The weather being somewhat warm, the corpses
were cut down after only 36 hours. This barbarous treatment was
justified by Jefferson Davis' proclamation, "stating that
all those who did not fully recognize their allegiance to the
Government should remove from its limits, with their effects before
October, 1861. Those persons who remained tacitly recognized
the Government and are amenable to the laws."
Not everyone supported such high-handed practices and recognized
the resulting calm was more apparent than real. Meanwhile, the
disaffected continued to trickle through the passes. Finally,
after Grant opened the way by taking Forts Donelson and Henry,
Nashville fell in February, 1862 and East Tennessee was available
for recruiting. Andrew Johnson was appointed military governor,
but he and his subordinates botched the recruiting job by bickering
among themselves. Besides, some of the ardor had been cooled
by the Emancipation Proclamation.
The Confederates tried to recruit in East Tennessee, finally resorting
to the draft. Many wondered whether the results were worth the
effort. East Tennesseans were notoriously unreliable, often surrendering
at the first opportunity, or simply deserting. Worse, the more
conscription was enforced, the more men went North.
The deserters presented problems to both sides. The Confederates
felt justified in executing men who had left the Confederate Cause
to join the Union. Yet, these men claimed the only reason they
wore the Gray was because of the draft, and had they been given
a choice, they would have worn the Blue in the first place. The
Federal authorities recognized that they were asking a lot of
men to doubly risk their lives by serving against the Confederacy.
Many of the "galvanized Yankees" were placed in units
that guarded the frontiers and fought Indians.
All over the South, the pattern of Tennessee was repeated. In
North Carolina, a number of regiments were raised on the coast
and in the highlands. Even Georgia sent a regiment near the end
of the war. In Alabama, my great great grandfather, Billington
Sanders Hurst managed to elude Confederate patrols and, at age
50, rode 210 miles from his home in St. Clair County, Alabama,
to enlist as a private in the First Alabama Cavalry, US Volunteers.
More about the proud Fighting First later.
In Arkansas, the main problem was with equipping volunteers.
Surprisingly, Louisiana was also a hotbed of loyalist sentiment.
The Cajun population, particularly, held no love for the planters
and enlisted in Union units in considerable numbers. The Irish,
German and Yankees of New Orleans saw the Confederate cause as
treason, and when Butler and Farragut steamed up the Mississippi
in April, 1862, the dragooned men holding Ft. Jackson were such
unwilling conscripts that they spiked their guns and shot the
officers who wouldn't agree to surrender. The fort fell without
a Union shot being fired.
If a brigade of Federals could have worked their way through Indian
Territory to West Texas and the Hill Country, Texas would undoubtedly
have returned to the Union. Sam Houston, the governor at the
time of the secession vote, had done everything legal and illegal
he could manage to keep Texas in the Union. The German immigrants
saw no advantages to the Confederacy. Even today, few of the courthouses
in areas settled by Germans display the ubiquitous Confederate
infantryman on the square. The Hispanic population in Texas was
solidly Unionist, and a number of irregular units were formed.
These units were most unreliable, however, because Mexico started
its own civil war about that time, and these men had the bad habit
of taking their equipment further South. The situation in Texas
was particularly bitter. More than a hundred Unionists were hanged
for their loyalty. Every state of the Confederacy except for
South Carolina sent at least one regiment of white men to the
Union Army. Mississippi contributed the First Mississippi Mounted
Rifles, though the unit never filled completely. Florida contributed
the First and Second Florida Cavalry. Georgia contributed the
First Georgia Battalion. Many other Georgia men enlisted in Tennessee
units or the First Alabama, as did nearly 100 South Carolinians
and 300 Mississippi men.
PART II. Who Were These Men
Why were some men of the South vehement supporters of the Union,
while other Southerners rallied to the Stars and Bars? William
Stanley Hoole, author of a monograph on the First Alabama, characterized
them as a "poor, often underprivileged people who had long
been isolated on their rocky highlands, suspicious of intruders
and generally antisocial. Blindly hating the affluent slave-holder
and his slave alike, they had first refused to support the cause
of secession and, afterwards, ignored all Confederate civilians
and military conscription laws." The descendants of the
men of the First have charged Hoole, better known for his Confederate
histories, with slander. In fact, Hoole was only reporting what
the Myth of the Lost Cause needed to claim. To validate the Great
Rebellion, the loyalists needed to be discounted.
Very few Unionists owned slaves, but, then, very few ordinary
Confederate soldiers were slave-holders, either. Throughout the
South, only one family in three owned as much as a single slave.
Examination of the 1860 census for Washington County, NC, which
furnished roughly equal numbers of men to each army, showed the
average Union soldier owned only $269 in personal property. The
average Confederate soldier owned $3,759, but is this an example
of the fallacy of the mean? None of the Unionist heads of household
reported more than $1000 in family income, while a couple of dozen
Confederates did. All but one of the Unionists was a landowner,
while 19 of the Confederates were landless. After all, the mean
of one million dollars and one hundred dollars is $500,050.
Close examination showed the Confederates of Washington County
to be large planters and their dependents, their sons, the merchants
with whom they dealt, the lawyers and clergymen they patronized,
and the poor white men who worked as day laborers, an alliance
of the very rich and the very poor. The division between Unionist
and Secessionist was not simply between rich and poor. The middle
class that had no economic interest in the slave economy tended
to be solidly Unionist, and why not? These Middle-class folk
themselves were oppressed economically by the system. Moreover,
they tended to be mightily offended by the airs put on by the
planters, who tended to see themselves as a privileged aristocracy.
In the case of the Hurst family, Billington owned 160 acres of
land in St. Clair County, Alabama. I've seen his property, and
it is good bottom land, rich and productive, and I doubt if he
were a hillbilly. Interestingly, the geographic division of politics
remains still in Alabama, where politics in the northern part
of the state still has a much stronger populist flavor than in
the old plantation counties.
PART III. The Fighting Southern Federals
What was the impact of the Southern Loyalists? Three factors
need to be considered; the direct contribution of the men as soldiers
to the Union cause, the resources expended by the Confederacy
to counter the threat, and finally, the loss of manpower to the
Southern cause. Taking these in reverse order, the loss of manpower
to the South was probably fatal to its cause. While estimates
of the numbers differ. Current estimates that as many as 100,000
white men of the South served the Union cause as Federal forces
and local defense forces. This was more men than Lee or any other
Southern commander ever had under arms at any time. In addition,
thousands of other troops were diverted from the main armies to
control the loyalists. Cavalry patrols. How much difference
would the cavalry patrols that tried to interdict the flow of
manpower have made to the cavalry-poor army of Johnston?
Consider the impact of the 30,000 East Tennesseans who joined
the Union. Had they joined the Confederate forces, this would
have amounted to a swing of 60,000 men, and when the 10,000 Confederates
who were required to keep East Tennessee in subjugation are added
in, a difference of 70,000 men results.
Finally, there is the direct contribution. There is no question
that some of the southern units were hard-fighting, crack units,
while others were of questionable value. The Tennessee Unionists
units were of solid quality, as were most of the Virginia units,
who saw fighting almost from the beginning at Philippi and Romney
under McClellan. The First Mississippi Mounted Infantry rode
with Grierson in his famous raid through the heart of Mississippi.
In the movie "The Horse Soldiers" with John Wayne and
William Holden, the Southern-speaking men (Ken Curtis) were authentic
and represented the First Mississippi. It is true that when Pickett
executed 22 men of the First North Carolina USV, he did, in fact,
cut the heart out of some units, particularly those containing
"galvanized Yankees." Still, these men could, and did,
perform valuable duty in less exposed positions.
Other Unionists such as the First Alabama were dependable units,
just as hard-fighting as any Ohio, Maine, or Pennsylvania troops.
The Myth of the Lost Cause demands the loyalists be branded as
poor soldiers. Interestingly, many of the Unionists served in
cavalry units, and early in the war, the quality of the Union
cavalry in general was very poor. But by 1864, the Federal cavalry
were, in general, at least equal to the Confederates. The hard-riding
Blue troopers of Phil Sheridan scattered Jeb Stuart's plumed cavaliers
and killed the famed cavalryman. While they never tamed "that
devil Forrest", the Union cavalry in general, and the First
Alabama did humble Joe Wheeler and Wade Hampton.
The First Alabama began humbly. Poorly trained and equipped,
and sent against superior numbers of Confederate cavalrymen in
1862, they fared poorly early. But by the time Sherman began
his Red Clay Minuet with Johnston, the First was a solid, invaluable
unit. The regiment was formed in 1862 in Huntsville and Memphis
and mustered into Federal service that December in Corinth, Mississippi.
Company officers were chosen from among the men, and Captain
George E. Spencer was later named Colonel and given overall command.
During most of its operational life, the First Alabama was part
of the 16th Corps, Army of the Tennessee. As a cavalry unit,
its missions were scouting, raiding, reconnaissance, flank guard
and screening the army on the march The names on its battle flag,
like most cavalry actions, are mostly forgotten; Nickajack Creek,
Vincent's Crossroads and Cherokee Station among others. Better
known names are there, too; Streight's Raid through north Alabama;
and battles at Dalton, Resaca and Kenesaw Mountain in the Atlanta
One general characterized the Alabama troops "invaluable...equal
in zeal to anything we discovered in Tennessee." And Major
General John Logan, commanding the 15th Army Corps in Sherman's
forces, praised the troopers as "the best scouts I ever saw,
and (they) know the country well from here to Montgomery."
General Sherman, knowing the value of his Alabama troops as soldiers
and symbols of the loyal South, honored the First by his selecting
it to be his escort on the march from Atlanta to the sea.
The First, part of Kilpatrick's Third Cavalry Brigade (with the
Fifth Kentucky and Fifth Ohio) rode over 700 miles in 55 days
during the winter of 1864. In February, they routed a brigade
of Wheeler's cavalry at Williston, SC, taking 5 battle flags and
scattering the Confederates over miles of countryside. On March
10, surprised in camp by 5,000 of Wade Hampton's and Joe Wheeler's
cavalry, the 800 men of the Third Brigade killed 103 of their
attackers with the loss of 18 men and officers at Monroe's Crossroad
(also known as the Battle of Kilpatrick's Pants). The official
report said that "a bloody hand-to-hand conflict" followed,
lasting more than three hours. Brave Lieutenant Stetson managed
to turn the tide when he crept to one of his guns and delivered
a barrage of cannister into the ranks of the attackers.
The First displayed a darker side, also and was "zealous
in its chastisement of Rebels". They took seriously their
role as foragers, and it was charged the First, knowing where
a Southerner was likely to stash his food, never went hungry.
This is not entirely true because they often went hungry and
their horses starved for lack of forage. They relished their
job as incendiaries, too and "laid Barnwell in ashes"
despite Kilpatrick's efforts to stop them. These actions are
more understandable when one learns the fates of their families.
Many had their homes burned or their families abused, and some
saw their kin lynched by vindicative Confederates. So badly were
many of their innocent families treated that a "Refugee House"
was established in Nashville for those who were able to escape
Rebel persecution. Our family fared well, probably because Billington's
son, my great grandfather, served in the 19th Louisiana Infantry,
PART IV. The Fate of the Southern Unionists During Reconstruction
The fate of the Southern Unionists began to be clear with the
massacre at Ft. Pillow, where Forrest's men massacred a number
of white soldiers of the 13th Tennessee Cavalry. The commanding
officer, Maj. Bradford, was shot after he had surrendered and
was being taken to Forrest's headquarters at Jackson, TN. Yet,
Ft. Pillow is remembered mainly for the massacre of black soldiers.
Both Congress and Lincoln were forgetting the Tennessee loyalists,
and forgotten they are today. Yet, these men risked more for
their nation than did the men of the North, for they risked execution
on capture and consigned their families to the often not-so-tender
mercies of their often unforgiving neighbors.
In part, they fell into obscurity because Lincoln saw the African-American
population as representing a larger manpower resource, and after
the war, the Radical Republicans sought to consolidate their power
through the freed slaves rather than the Southern Unionists.
There were some exceptions. Col. Spencer, commander of the First
Alabama, was elected governor and then Senator, and was the only
Republican re-elected to the Senate. Nontheless, he ended up
his years in Nevada, leaving Alabama for a variety of reasons.
The end of the war did not end the private grudges that the division
of the Southern whites had produced. Victorious Union veterans
sought retribution for the depravations their families had suffered
during the war. Yet, the government failed to reimburse them
for their losses, or even to provide effective protection in many
areas. Andrew Johnson was extremely generous in pardoning ex-Confederates,
and in many areas these pardoned men established governments that
were inimical to the Union veterans. Some were murdered, many
left and went West, while others, such as Billington Sanders Hurst
moved away from their homes. On his return, he gathered his goods
and left. Our family never spoke of him again and I was the one
who discovered his Union service. He moved to Jefferson County,
Alabama, where he married again. In 1881 he was apparently destitute
and applied for a disability pension.
Reconstruction under the Act of 1867 brought temporary relief,
but the loyalists, like all Southerners, had been impoverished
by the War. The Southern economy was in shambles, and the industrial
powers of the North quickly established their economic hegemony.
Until the late 1940's Southern goods moving north paid a higher
price on the railroads than Northern goods moving South or Southern
raw materials moving north. Moreover, the white loyalists felt
alienated in the Republican Party, which tended to give more emphasis
to the needs of the freed slaves than to the loyal whites. One
of the tenets of Northern industry was to divide and conquer,
and by setting black against white, a reservoir of cheap labor
could be guaranteed. Additionally, the often corrupt and inefficient
"Carpetbagger-Scalawag) governments did little to help Southerners
of any color or loyalty, preferring to line their own pockets.
Finally, as racial divisions emerged in the South, the loyalists
saw how they finally would have to decide their political loyalties,
and so they submerged into the white culture virtually without
a trace. Only in the last decade have most descendants of men
who served with the First Alabama learned the truth about their