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Unionists in East Tennessee and beyond: the myth of Confederate hegemony in the South

Brandon Paykamian • Nov 16, 2018 at 10:05 AM

The truth that many do not wish to talk about in the Southeastern United States is this – Confederate hegemony during the Civil War is a historical revisionist myth.

During the Civil War, Washington County was a Union stronghold, much like other regions of Central Appalachia, where plantations were few and far between in comparison to the rest of the state.

In fact, Washington County and other parts of East Tennessee were forcefully occupied by Confederate troops during the Civil War, and a good number of local residents at the time were not enthusiastic participants in the Confederate cause. Rather, they were conscripted after April 1862, when the Confederate Congress officially passed the first general conscription act in U.S. history.

But it wasn’t just in our mountains that Unionists in large numbers were actively fighting against the Confederate cause, according to David Williams, author of a historical work titled “Southern Unionism” — a comprehensive research essay I highly recommend that outlines the various struggles Southern Unionists faced.

In “Southern Unionism,” Williams condenses much of his earlier writing, which points to the idea that the Confederate cause forced those who didn’t own land and slaves to support a war effort in the interests of landowners and wealthy slaveowners throughout the South. 

“In Bandera County, Texas, just west of San Antonio, residents formed a pro-Union militia, refused to pay taxes to the Confederate-backed state government, and threatened to kill anyone who tried to make them do so,” he wrote.

“At the state’s northern extreme near Bonham, several hundred anti-Confederates established three large camps close enough so that the entire force could assemble within two hours,” he wrote. “They patrolled the region so effectively that no one could approach without their knowing of it. In the central Texas county of Bell, deserters led by Lige Bivens fortified themselves in a cave known as Camp Safety. From there they mounted raids against the area’s pro-Confederates.” 

In every Confederate-held or occupied region in the South, there were similar stories of military mobilization by southerners in favor of the Union. It was such a problem that many were imprisoned and executed for their political sympathies.

In the same year of the conscription act, food riots broke out all over the south, when hordes of hungry rioters – some armed – ransacked stores and warehouses looking for anything to eat. It seemed the Confederacy promoted an inefficient political order unable to meet the needs of many, and it was around this time that the Confederate government began to take a more authoritarian approach to Unionists and people who did not toe the line.

In East Tennessee, Williams explains that “class antagonisms” contributed to pro-Union sympathies against the Confederate aristocracy. Williams said that many non-slaveowners did not feel compelled to fight for the Confederacy and were not only reluctant to pay taxes to contribute to this war effort, but were also actively opposed to it both politically and militarily throughout East Tennessee.

Washington County, in particular, was home to just as many — if not more — Unionists as it was to Confederates. 

It’s important to note that these Unionists were stubborn mountain folk who did not own land; in their view, they were resisting a new regime in which they refused to be bullied. 

“Though their motives were not always the same, the one thing nearly all armed resisters had in common was that they were men of modest means. In eastern Tennessee, for example, Unionist guerillas were mainly small farmers, artisans, and laborers,” Williams wrote.

“By contrast, their pro-Confederate counterparts held three times as much real estate and twice as much personal property. In the North Fork district of western North Carolina’s Ashe County, a comparison of thirty-four Union and forty-two Confederate volunteers shows that holdings in real and personal property among Confederates was more than twice that of their Union counterparts.

“In Washington County, which supplied nearly an equal number of troops to the Union and the Confederacy, Union soldiers were fourteen times poorer than those in the Confederate army. Such figures reflect a class-based Unionism that made itself felt all across the South.

The rise of such class warfare was the very thing that slaveholders had tried to avoid for so long and what had, in large part, led many to push for secession in the first place,” he continued. 

While the Confederates did enjoy some popular support in many regions throughout the South, Williams and other historians blow a hole in the idea that the Confederacy enjoyed the widespread popular support and ideological hegemony many often claim they did.

Who knows? After a little digging, I’m sure many folks from around here reading this article today would find that their ancestors were actually risking everything to fight the Confederacy. 

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