Edited excerpts from The Southern Loyalist By: Robert E. Hurst
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 that every state in the Confederacy except for South Carolina raised at least one unit for the Federal Army, for a total of 55 regiments?
The mountain area of western Virginia and eastern Tennessee was one of the major hotbeds of Unionism. Virginia, arguably the very heart of the Confederacy, was split in loyalty. 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 who voted to secede and sent approximately equal numbers to each Army. Tennessee was so bitterly divided that 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.
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 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 Fort 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.
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, 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. 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 universally 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 (e.g. Ken Curtis who played the role of Festus in the TV series “Gunsmoke”) were authentic and represented the First Mississippi.
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 indeed 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 did humble Joe Wheeler and Wade Hampton.