Unionism


The significance of Alabama Unionists during the Civil War and Reconstruction has long been a subject of study among scholars. Largely centered in northern Alabama and to a lesser degree in the southeast region and in Montgomery and Mobile, Unionists were important both militarily and politically. Until recently, however, the details of this phenomenon have remained less well known, largely because the term Unionist (both then and now) has been used to refer to a range of different individuals and positions.

In the broadest sense, Unionist has meant any white person who opposed secession (including those who later supported the Confederacy) and those who came to support the Union Stephen A. Douglas (1813-1861) was an Illinois lawyer Stephen A. Douglasduring the war despite having originally supported the Confederacy. This broad definition includes a very wide range of Alabamians—from the most well-to-do planters who ultimately become officers in the Confederate Army to the subsistence farmer who deserted the southern cause midway through the war. It is also possible to define Unionism more narrowly, confining the label to those individuals who resisted both secession and the Confederacy during the war. Such unconditional loyalists probably represented no more than 15 percent of Alabama's adult white population. They were mostly nonslaveholding farmers (though a small minority owned slaves) living in the northern third of the state. A few Unionists also lived in the piney woods and coastal plain further south. In many respects, these men and women were very much like their neighbors who supported the Confederate cause. The reasons they remained loyal to the Union were also quite diverse. Many saw secession as illegal, whereas others felt that it would dishonor the American Revolution and their own ancestors. Still others were certain that secession would end in political or military disaster. Many were influenced by the respected figures in their families or neighborhoods.

Unionism in Alabama arose under the pressures of the presidential election of 1860. Nine months before, the state legislature had directed that, in the event of a Republican's election, a state secession convention would be called. By directly linking the presidential election to secession, the legislature fostered a political atmosphere that was particularly hostile to Unionists. Newspaper editorials and participants at community meetings condemned as traitors those who canvassed for Illinois senator Stephen Douglas, the nominee of the regular Democratic Party, rather than the John Cabell Breckinridge (1812-1875) was vice president of John Breckinridgesouthern-rights Democratic nominee, John Breckinridge. In the election, fully 80 percent of Alabama's eligible voters participated, giving Breckinridge a substantial victory, with 54 percent of the vote. John Bell, the Constitutional Union candidate who was supported by a number of Alabamians hostile to secession, received 31 percent of the vote. Douglas, the candidate most associated with a strongly Unionist position, polled slightly more than 15 percent. Republican Abraham Lincoln was not even on the ballot in Alabama.

As promised, Alabama secessionists called a convention in the wake of Lincoln's election. The campaign for convention delegates provoked heated and sometimes violent debates among neighbors, forcing many to defend their positions in public. Of the 100 delegates elected, 53 were secessionists and 47 were cooperationists, a term that refers to the delegates' desire to secede only in "cooperation" with other southern states. In fact, the men elected on this platform represented a wide range of ideas about if, when, and under what circumstances to cooperate with secession and included a minority faction—probably less than one-third (the vast majority of them from the northern third of the state)—of unconditional Unionists who opposed secession outright.

These delegates convened in Montgomery on January 7, 1861, and debated secession for four days. On January 11, 1861, the convention passed Alabama's Ordinance of Secession by a vote of 61 to 39. Many of those who voted against the ordinance, however, ultimately did support secession, and four immediately reversed themselves and signed with the majority. Among the opposition, 33 delegates subsequently signed the "Address to the People of Alabama," in which they pledged to consult with their supporters and then act on their wishes. Ten signatories Henry C. Sanford (1808-1888) was a minister of Henry C. Sanfordof the address signed the ordinance to satisfy their constituents. Other delegates who rejected the ordinance eventually took active part in the war. Only three signers—Henry C. Sanford of Cherokee County, Elliot P. Jones of Fayette County, and Robert Guttery of Walker County—never signed the ordinance and maintained their Unionism throughout the war. Only two wartime Unionists—R. S. Watkins of Franklin County and Christopher C. Sheats of Winston County—signed neither the "Address" nor the Ordinance of Secession.

Most of the men and women who supported the Union after Alabama's secession faced great difficulties. Many were ostracized and ridiculed by neighbors, called before community vigilance committees for questioning and intimidation, or actually harmed for endorsing the Union. Such treatment was most commonly meted out to those who publicly asserted their views; those who kept quiet and did not interfere with volunteering were often left alone during the first year of the war. After Confederate conscription began in April 1862, however, community tolerance of Unionists waned. Individuals who resisted the draft, for whatever reason, were subject to arrest and imprisonment. Family members who supported resisters were frequently threatened with violence or exile by conscript cavalry who hoped to pressure men to come in from the woods or mountains and surrender. In addition, it was not at all uncommon for the families of Unionists to be targeted for punitive foraging or arson by Confederate forces or local conscript cavalry.

After the Union Army invaded Alabama in early 1862, Unionists had more opportunities to flee behind Union lines for safety and the possibility of employment as soldiers, spies, or laborers. Most well known of Alabama's Union troops was the First Alabama Cavalry, U.S.A., organized in late 1862 by Brig. Gen. Grenville M. Dodge, stationed at Corinth, Mississippi. The regiment served mostly in northern Alabama, western Tennessee, and northeastern Mississippi, though it marched with Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman to Savannah in 1864. Alabama Unionists John Bell (1797-1869) was a Tennessee state legislator John Bellalso joined other federal regiments, particularly those from Tennessee, Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio. Those who remained at home, both within Union-occupied territory and behind Confederate lines, also actively assisted Union forces as spies and guides. In some cases, they collaborated with local African Americans (most often their own slaves) to aid and abet the Union Army or pro-Union men in their neighborhoods. Moreover, African Americans from Alabama also crossed the Union lines to serve as laborers and soldiers, and after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect in 1863, many were inducted into United States Colored Troops regiments. Almost 5,000 African Americans, or 6 percent of Alabama's black male population between the ages of 18 and 45, volunteered in the Union ranks.

As was the case throughout the South, by the midpoint of the war Alabama's original Unionists were increasingly joined in their dissent by deserters from the Confederate Army, mostly men whose families were struggling at home without their labor. Disillusioned by the realities of warfare, angered by the inequities of service under laws exempting slaveowners and selected professionals, such Alabamians generally wanted the war to end more than they desired Union victory, though some did cross lines and join the Union army rather than desert and avoid service altogether. A small peace movement also emerged at this time among men who had originally opposed secession but later supported the state.

After the war, Unionists continued to struggle politically and socially, for their wartime activities had alienated them from their now-defeated neighbors. Most eagerly joined the Union League and the Republican Party. Some wartime Unionists helped reintroduce the Methodist-Episcopal Church  (as contrasted with the Methodist-Episcopal Church, South) to northern Alabama, finding there a more hospitable environment for worship. Many campaigned strenuously to convince the president and Congress to limit the political rights of former Confederates. They also sought positions of local and state authority for others who had supported the Union during the war. At this point, a number of men who had originally opposed secession but supported the state in 1861, as well as citizens who had become disillusioned with the war, also moved to the fore of Grenville M. Dodge (1831-1916) was a brigadier general Grenville M. Dodgepolitical life in Alabama. These moderates were, in general, encouraged by Pres. Andrew Johnson, who appointed such men to positions of political authority in the immediate post-war provisional governments he established. The Republican Party in Alabama was populated by such individuals, as well as core Unionists who had served in the Union Army or otherwise actively resisted the Confederacy. Both groups were referred to by their Democratic opponents as sc alawags.  

Under Congressional Reconstruction (1867-74) wartime loyalists gained greater political power than they had under Presidential Reconstruction, taking leading roles in the constitutional convention of 1867, the Freedmen's Bureau, and the Republican-dominated state legislature. Most also supported, though sometimes reluctantly, voting rights for African Americans as a means to gain political power over former Confederates. For their continued association with northern Republicans and support for African American equality, white Unionists were targeted for intimidation and physical violence by the Ku Klux Klan and other anti-Reconstruction vigilantes. As elsewhere in the South, Alabama Unionists and their Republican allies (white and black, northern and southern) received little in the way of federal assistance to defend against the onslaught of violence. As their party was overwhelmed by the Democratic opposition, Unionists retreated from the forefront of state politics, though those in communities with substantial loyalist populations continued in positions of local political leadership well into the late nineteenth century.

Additional Resources 

Barney, William L. The Secessionist Impulse: Alabama and Mississippi in 1860. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974.

Fitzgerald, Michael W. The Union League Movement in the Deep South: Politics and Agri cultural Change During Reconstruction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.

Mills, Gary B. Southern Loyalists in the Civil War: The Southern Claims Commission. A Composite Directory of Case Files Created by the U.S. Commissioner of Claims, 1871-1880, including those appealed to the War Claims Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Court of Claims. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, Inc. 1994.

Rogers, William Warren, Jr. The Confederate Home Front: Montgomery  During the Civil War. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1999.

Storey, Margaret M. Loyalty and Loss: Alabama's Unionists in the Civil War and Reconstruction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2004.

Margaret M. Storey
DePaul University


Published December 14, 2007
Last updated June 26, 2013