The Tories of The South: Alabama Unionists
Until recently, history has not acknowledged the existence of a great number of native Alabamians who remained loyal to the Union during the course of the Civil War. Ex-confederates kept all mention of any division within the C.S.A. out of history books and shamed those to silence that dared to speak otherwise. Southerners often think as one organism, and certainly in this respect many natives did not look kindly on their brethren who dared to deviate from the established majority.
Five Alabama counties were hotbeds of Unionist sympathy: Marion, Winston, Walker, Fayette, and Randolph. However, Union sympathizers were found to a lesser degree in eight other counties of the Northern third of the state. Only one regiment of Federal troops was culled from Alabama natives--the first Alabama Calvary.
These counties were peopled primarily by the poorest of the poor, with the lowest per capita income of any other counties in the state. These impoverished yeomen farmers tended their crops in rocky, mountainous, harsh conditions which did not support much crop growth. Soil conditions were barely adequate to grow much of anything and as such, the meager wages produced could barely support one's own family. The upkeep of slaves was not an inexpensive endeavor, so it is hardly surprising that few, if any residents of these counties owned even one.
So strong was Union sentiment in North Alabama and East Tennessee that it was proposed that North Alabama join with Unionist East Tennessee to form the loyal state of Nickajack. Throughout the south, residents of mountainous areas, by in large stayed loyal to the Union. The most notable example lies with the western counties of Virginia, whose distaste for secession was so strong that they broke from Virginia altogether, and in 1863, joined the Union as the independent state of West Virginia.
Sectionalism, however, proved the undoing of this proposal. The loyalty of Alabama Unionists, other than a de facto devotion to the United States, lay to their own individual county and families.
Furthermore, being ardently against secessionism, they did not want to further subdivide a region that, in their view, had no right to break away from the Federal Government in the first place.
The economic conditions of Winston County, Alabama, were typical of most southern unionists. In 1860, Winston County was the poorest county in Alabama. The per capita value of property was $168 and the county and the country ranked last in cotton production and slaveholding, with only 2 percent of the population owning slaves.
Their resentment of the wealthy planter aristocracy of the Black Belt ran deep. They had long been perceived by the planter aristocracy of the state as mere country bumpkins: backwards, ill-educated, and uncouth. Residents of these mountainous counties in north and northwest Alabama had long been suspicious of outside interference and generally kept to themselves. They did not stray outside the borders of their county, intermarried within their ranks, and shunned outsiders with a proud contempt.
As for their political allegiance, most were proud Jacksonian democrats. Their fathers and grandfathers had fought with Old Hickory against the Creeks and Cherokees and held fast to his belief that the union must be preserved at all costs. As the Civil War arrived, and war seemed inevitable, many Alabama Unionists spoke about how Andrew Jackson would have dealt with secession by hanging the ringleaders and crushing the rebellion before it had even gotten started.
Some thirty years prior, Jackson himself had warned South Carolina about the foolishness of dissolving ties with a Union that had been won at great cost from Great Britain.
Indeed, Jackson warned South Carolina on Dec. 10, 1832 that he was prepared to do just that.
“Are you really ready to incur its guilt? If you are, on the heads of the instigators of the act be the dreadful consequences; on their heads be the dishonor, but on yours may fall the punishment. On your unhappy State will inevitably fall the evils of the conflict you force upon the Government of your country. It can not accede to the mad project of disunion, of which you would be the first victims.”
Enlisting for the north was a dangerous risk, so sign up (muster) rolls could be found only at clandestine meeting places. As such, times and places to meet were spread almost exclusively by word of mouth. The penalties for “turning traitor” were harsh. Numerous accounts exist of Confederate home guards robbing the homes of Southern Unionists, with murder or political assassination a constant threat. Yet, instead of thwarting the desire to aid the North, such attacks often strengthened the desire to fight against the rebelling South.
It is of note to mention that Union general William T. Sherman used members of the First Alabama Calvary as his trusted scouts while on his infamous raid through the southeast that eventually ended on Christmas Day in Savannah, Georgia. These native southerners, familiar with their home terrain, were invaluable to Sherman and greatly impeded the speed at which he progressed. Ex-Confederates would not soon forget the raping and pillaging that progressed at the hands of Sherman’s men, nor would they forget the role that their native southerners played in wreaking such havoc. After the war, the defeated confederates took out their aggressions upon those who they perceived as "Tories" and "traitors".
Eight months after Appomattox, in testimony before the U.S. Congress, Brevet Brigadier General George E. Spencer, who commanded the 1st Alabama Calvary, estimated that ten percent of the state remained very firmly loyal behind the Federal Union. Spencer, a former resident of Iowa, was asked his opinion of Alabama public sentiment since Lee’s surrender.
He replied, in part, “I find the sentiment of most of the people hostile to the government of the United States…General Sherman’s escort was from my regiment. The lieutenant commanding that escort (returned home)…but was allowed to remain only six hours there. He was mobbed in the streets and was charged with being responsible for everything that Sherman’s army did. His friends and relations made him leave to save his life.”
During the war, but particularly after it had concluded, these counties supported the Republican Party. Seeing first hand the cruelty perpetrated on them by their rebel neighbors, almost all of whom were staunchly Democratic, they concluded that the party of Jackson did not represent them anymore. Their apex of power rested in a brief, eight year period from 1866-1874, which coincided neatly with the Union occupation of Alabama.
Southern Unionists were decried by most members of their state as scalawags, particularly because of their willingness to comply wholeheartedly with the Reconstruction government. Alabama Tories were among the firmest supporters of a series of Washington appointed Republican governors. They provided food and shelter to Union troops who were stationed in their counties, but they refused to directly participate in the Freedman’s Bureau or to involve themselves in the affairs of any other region, save their own. They aided the occupying forces for the year 1867-1868, by providing a base of authority for occupying troops. These two years, unsurprisingly, were the height of Unionist power, as the military ruled the state without a designated figurehead.
Reconstruction officially ended in 1877, when newly elected President Rutherford B. Hayes fulfilled a campaign promise and pulled the last remaining occupying forces from the states of Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina. However, Alabama had been reclaimed by the Democratic Party, long before, having wrested political control four years prior. The north lost interest in maintaining an unpopular army and was eager to flee the south and leave its people to their own devices.
The five loyalist counties had never wielded much political power before the Civil War, and after the temporary setback of Reconstruction, a vengeful, Democratic legislature stripped the region of all its political clout. After 1874, these counties had even less influence on Montgomery politics than before the war.
General Spencer, in his testimony before Congress soon after the war, had noted the chaos which occurred immediately after Emancipation. When asked his opinion of what would occur to “colored people” if U.S. troops were removed and the Freedman’s Bureau suspended, he replied that “(Negroes) would be in worse slavery than ever. I consider that the colored people there to-day are worse off than when they had masters. The masters had an interest in them to the extent of so many dollars, and would protect them. Now the general disposition is to mistreat them in every possible manner. The laws of the legislature, which they passed, show that. The arming of the militia is only for the purpose of intimidating the Union men, and enforcing upon the Negroes a species of slavery; making them work for a nominal price for whomever they choose, not allowing the Negroes to have any choice, any way.”
Although Southern Unionists would concede that “negroes” needed civil and legal rights equal to whites, they did not believe freed men should be granted the right of the ballot. Racism still ran rampant between Unionists and ex-Confederates alike and both regarded African-Americans as “socially and intellectually inferior.” Unionists would be less inclined to perpetrate acts of violence against Freedmen, but they certainly were not ready to see them as equals.
Unfortunately, the contributions of loyalists were soon all but forgotten by their northern allies. Despite the fact that 2.578 white Alabamians had joined the Union army during the Civil War, support for continued occupation of the south weakened and as it did, Republicans lost all political authority. Internal dissention proved the undoing of the few years in which Unionists controlled Alabama politics, but in particular, the already bankrupt state found itself $25 million dollars in debt to railroad trusts. It had been the dream of many Unionists to create a massive railway system that would connect the state’s major cities, but state coffers were utterly unable to afford such a massive undertaking. This issue, above all others, secured a massive Democratic victory in 1874 that re-secured power in the hands of former secessionists.
These former secessionists called themselves “Bourbons”, taking their name from a family of French monarchs who had prided themselves on their lavish spending. Though momentarily stunned by the defeat of the Confederacy, they nonetheless grew in strength and made several distinct gains in each election. These gains were due in a large part in their ability to disenfranchise more and more of the African-American vote.
Having failed to cash in on the benefits of Federal occupation during Reconstruction, the fate of “Free Staters” and Southern Unionists alike was secured as soon as the sound of marching Federal troops faded. As a result, the Bourbons steadily consolidated their gains into the myth of the “Solid South”.
Winstonians and other “Tories” were initially persecuted for supporting the Union during the Civil War, later they were persecuted for opposition to the party of secession, and a Democratic legislature all but wrote them out of existence when they secured power. As a result, many Southern Unionists fled Alabama and the south after Reconstruction, settling down primarily in the upper Midwest. Similarly, after the Revolutionary War, British Loyalists fled the United States and settled in Canada for many of the same reasons.
Still, many remained, and these pro-Union counties became even more isolationist and insular as a result. They continued to put together enough signatures to put Republican candidates on the ballot for decades, but found their candidates soundly defeated by their Democratic adversaries in nearly every election. The resentment between Unionists and Confederates lingered for years and traces of it remain to the present day.
For example, Winston county residents still, by in large, maintain a healthy contempt and suspicion of outsiders and make efforts to defy the status quo of their state. Residents from outside the county think of its denizens as strange, unfriendly, and radical. Playing up to its stereotype, the county supported a fair number of far-leftists and communists during the turbulent 1930s, when much of the state was firmly behind FDR’s more pragmatic liberalism.
Federal Judge Frank Johnson, himself a Winston county product, rose from poverty to become a notable U.S. Circuit Judge. He supported the Republican Party and its candidate for President, Thomas Dewey, as a delegate to the 1948 convention. Most of the state supported pro-segregation Democrat Strom Thurmond and his “Dixiecrat” party. Johnson later proved to be the fly in the ointment of Governor George C. Wallace and his platform of segregation. Johnson’s ceaseless rulings for integration and in support of notable figures like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. won him nationwide acclaim, but few friends in his home state.
Johnson, using the power delegated to him by the Federal Government, forced a swift procession of integration, a move that most Alabamians resented. He, then, was a true Southern Unionist, loyal to the Federal Government above all, and distrustful of the issue of individual states’ rights; such ideas had been re-introduced by a variety of segregationist governors, including Wallace, during the 1950’s and 1960’s.
Yet, like his Tory ancestors, he was not an absolute liberal. During the 1960s, Johnson maintained that Northern liberal whites in the Civil Rights Movement were ``sorely misguided.'' He personally opposed interracial marriages. Only by 1984 did he believe that blacks should compete equally with whites in education.
In summary, Alabama Unionists played a major role in the politics and policies of their state and their nations, despite their minority status. Their political stance might be describes not so much liberal as libertarian. Their descendents continue to stand counter to the established viewpoints of the majority of Alabamians. Fiercely loyal to the Union, they, unlike neo-Confederates, see themselves as the true sons and daughters of the American Revolution. By in large, they are an opinionated, sometimes secretive, but often highly moral people who would prefer to be left alone, but will often fight to the death for their right to be left in peace.