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The War Within the Confederacy:
White Unionist of North Carolina

By Michael K. Honey

Part II

Anti-Slavery Attitudes and Interracial Cooperation

The Claims Commission did not ask claimants their opinions regarding slavery; it eschewed questions of social philosophy and political ideology, pursuing more practical questions such as whether a person voted against secession, had relatives in the Confederate army, or had given aid to the rebellion. Partly as a result of this, most statements of belief by Unionists stressed patriotic feelings for the "stars and stripes" and took a simple anti-Confederate,pro-Union posture. Nonetheless, some claimants came from staunchly abolitionist families, and a few, such as Samuel Coles, a ninety year old farmer from Orange County, expressed sympathy for the slaves. Coles testified, "I was always opposed to slavery. I don't think God ever intended them to be slaves. I thought so long before the war, and all through the war."41

Even though such unsolicited and forthright abolition sentiment appeared rarely, there seems to be little doubt that the widespread opposition to the Confederacy did have much to do with slavery. Although Confederate supporters maintained they were fighting a war for "Southern rights" and independence from the outside interference of the North, Unionists tended to identify the war as nothing but a selfish quest for more land and slaves on the part of the upper class. According to a witness before the Claims Commission, small farmer Joshua Godwin expressed the opinion that the war was "gotten up by slave holders." Another witness cited the belief of Randolph Wells that "there was no cause for the war only the slaveholders wanted more negroes and more territory." One witness told how claimant Daniel Moore denounced both slavery and the slaveowning class to his neighbors during the war, telling them that the war "was brought on by the rich slave owners who did all they could to keep out of the army themselves and put the poor men in to fight for their slaves."42

At bottom, the resentment many nonslaveholding Unionists felt toward the Confederacy resulted from their feeling that they, as well as the slaves, were being exploited by the wealthy planters. Complaints against the planters included the belief that they shirked military duty, withheld the labor of their slaves from the war effort, controlled the government for their own selfish ends, and all the while looked down their noses at the white lower classes. At the same time the Confederacy dragooned those who had no interest in slavery into the military, leaving their families bereft of support. Why should a poor man fight for such a cause as the Southern Confederacy? Only to enrich the slaveholders, claimants concluded. "I owned no negroes to fight for and thought the war was brought in on account of negroes and was opposed to it and did all I could against it," Robert Edwards told the commission.43

Since everybody knew that the Richmond government was run by and for the slaveholders, Unionist animosity toward the planters quite naturally rubbed off on the Confederacy. Claimants felt that if the Confederacy won the war, free white labor, Unionists, and poor whites would suffer from the supremacy of the slave- holders. If the Confederacy won, Joel Flowers told the commission, the South would have a government of the rich which "would be oppressive to the poor." Likewise, a witness told the commission that abolitionist Joseph Hendrix expressed the view that "if the South ever became successful the Union men like himself would suffer worse than the negroes.44

Most white Unionists based their opposition to slavery and the slaveholders on self-interest, not concern for the slaves. Some of them felt their self-interest required not only the suppression of slaveholders but of the slaves. Others were pro-Union and pro-slavery at the same time.45 Nonetheless, the conditions of the war naturally brought many of them into what were described as "intimate terms" with blacks." It was well known among whites that "the colored men were all for the Union," as one claimant expressed it. As a result, Unionist whites readily confided their beliefs to blacks, both free and slave, during the war. In at least one case, even a slaveholder made confessions of such support for the Union to his slave and allowed the slave to make money and keep it in preparation for freedom.46

Orange Ferris, menber of Congress from New York, was
one of the members of the Southern Claims Commission

More typically, white farmers and artisans confided their Unionist beliefs to free black artisans, people on generally the same economic level as themselves. In one example of this type of association, Samuel Sullivan, a white farmer, brought his grain to free black James Quinn's grist mill several times a week throughout the war. According to Quinn, "we always had a great deal of conversation about the war when we met and no others were present." Sullivan expressed himself as both a Unionist and an abolitionist to Quinn, although he generally remained silent before his white neighbors. In another such case, white mechanic William Watson and black mechanic Nicholas Brown discussed the war and the Union cause while they worked together in a shop as wagon makers.47

Because of this confidential relationship between blacks and whites, the testimony of a black on behalf of a white after the war became a strong recommendation in favor of a claim. According to one claims agent, blacks were "generally better posted than the rich white neighbors" of white claimants on who was a true Unionist and who was not. Whites also testified on behalf of black claimants, however, and in a number of cases whites and blacks seemed to associate as friends and neighbors, displaying little sign of the deadening effects of the South's racial system.48

In the most startling example of the secret association between white and black Unionists during the war, witnesses revealed to the Claims Commission that in Davidson County blacks and whites joined in an underground conspiracy on behalf of the Union as members of the Heroes of America. George Clark, a freeborn black carpenter, apparently served as a connecting link to black and white Unionists who brought "work" to him during the war and at the same time stayed abreast of efforts to support the Union. Fittingly enough, when Gen. George Stoneman's Union army regiments made their way through the mountains at war's end, Clark served as their pilot. Though cooperation between blacks and Southern whites in the Unionist cause usually seems to have been confined to private discussion and some economic interchange, in Davidson County it appears that the roots of an activist black and white organization were also planted during the war.49

White Unionists in Arms: the Regimental Records

White and black Unionists shared another form of opposition to the Confederacy: armed opposition. In the eleven Confederate states 48,072 whites joined the Union army, as did 93,346 blacks. In North Carolina, 3,200 whites and 5,035 blacks enlisted in Union military service. While there are now a number of histories of blacks in the military during the Civil War, little information is available about the white Union volunteers beyond the bare information provided in military compendiums.50 Who were these people? Where did they come from? Why did they join the Union army? Since the Southern volunteers represent perhaps the most militant group of resisters to the Confederacy, it seems appropriate to conclude this discussion of white Unionism with a consideration of these question.

James B. Howell, member of Congress from Iowa, was
one of the members of the Southern Claims Commission.

According to the regimental records, the Union army in North Carolina drew white volunteers from all but twelve of the state's eighty-six counties. Though volunteers came from all over the state, the largest group came in about equal numbers from six counties in the extreme western mountains, where 1,033 joined up, and from six counties in the plantation belt along the eastern coast, where 994 joined. Unionists in these areas could most easily reach the federal military lines, but the Union regiments were inaccessible or unknown to many other Unionists. The regiments thus remained small and saw only limited action in the war.51 Nonetheless, the existence of these regiments of native North Carolina whites raised frightening possibilities of lower class revolt in the minds of some slaveholders and outraged many adherents of the Confederacy.

North Carolina whites joined the Union army for much the same reasons that Unionists who came before the Claims Commission opposed the Confederacy. Perhaps their most distinguishing characteristic, however, was their lack of an economic stake in slavery and their dislike of the slaveholding gentry. Like the Union volunteers from the upcountry region of Alabama, North Carolina volunteers from the mountains held few if any slaves, came largely from areas that voted against secession, and did not identify with the slave economy.52

In the mountains, poor dirt farmers with no interest in slavery comprised nearly all of the men who volunteered for Col. George W. Kirk's Second and Third Mounted Infantry regiments. They were joined by a smattering of mechanics, blacksmiths and other tradesmen, miners, and doctors. Kirk's rag-tag army of mountaineers fought bushwacking Confederates during and after the war, and Kirk's men gained a reputation as staunch Republicans. In the post-war Reconstruction the governor reorganized the companies as state militia to put down the Ku Klux Klan, feeling they constituted the most reliable anti-Confederate men in the state.53

Based on the long-standing anti-slaveholder sentiment in the mountains, the existence of Kirk's regiments is not surprising. One might presume, however, that Unionists in arms would be rare in the eastern regions where rule by rich planters was strong. Yet white volunteers from the eastern part of the state opposed the Confederacy and the slaveholding class as vociferously and in nearly as large numbers as their comrades in the west. Recruited by Col. E.E. Potter and notorious local Unionist Lt. Col. Charles Henry Foster, the bulk of the volunteers for the First and Second Infantry regiments came from six counties dominated by a cash-crop, plantation economy. These counties had three times as many slaveholders and six times as many slaves as the six counties of the west which contributed most heavily to the Union regiments. The majority of eastern Unionists came from the stronghold of plantation slavery, where blacks, most of them slaves, constituted up to 60 percent of the population.54

Despite the dissimilarity between the populations and economies of the two regions, however, the forces that propelled Southern whites into the Union army appear to have been much the same in both east and west. As in the mountains, small farmers made up the great majority of the enlistments in the east, about 75 percent. Fishermen, tradesmen, seamen, laborers, and professional men comprised the rest of the volunteers. Few if any of the volunteers appear to have been slaveholders. Though slavery dominated the east, fishing and commerce allowed many nonslaveholders to maintain economic independence from the planters. They made this independence apparent in the 1861 referendum, when majorities in four of the six counties voted for pro-Union candidates.55

When Union forces began capturing various areas on the northeastern coast, the extent of alienation among nonslaveholding whites became apparent. A New York Tribune reporter recounted how "poor whites" organized by the hundreds into Free Labor Associations. At the Free Labor meetings, according to the reporter, a "Free Labor harangue, . . . denunciatory of the Slave oligarchy, and exhibiting the benefits which would result to the masses from its overthrow" triggered immediate enlistments into the Union army. However, though the Free Laborites favored immediate emancipation without compensation, according to the Tribune reporter they were also "generally down on the negro as well as his master" and wanted the slaves removed from the state.56 Narrow class interest, not sympathy for the slaves, motivated their abolitionism.

Self interest also dictated their enlistment in the Union army. Under war-time conditions hundreds of white families came into Union army lines much as did the slaves, with only the clothes on their backs, starving and sick. By enlisting they hoped to feed their families, receive reliable wages, and escape the Confederacy. Once in the army, however, white Unionists-derisively called "buffaloes" by Confederates--faced grave hardships. The poorly drilled Unionists huddled in camps with hundreds of escaped slaves, short on food and ammunition. Contrary to the promise they received upon enlistment, the Union army failed to pay them for months on end. Despite this failure of the army, however, few in the east ever deserted, for to return to Confederate controlled areas would have been suicidal.57

The Confederacy confirmed the danger facing native Unionists in February of 1864. In three separate executions, Confederate commanders hung twenty-three or twenty-four captured members of the North Carolina Volunteers as traitors at Kinston. The Confederacy claimed that these members of the Second North Carolina Union Volunteers had deserted from Confederate service and therefore deserved the death penalty. The Union army claimed that the men had been conscripted against their will by the Confederates and legitimately enlisted in the Union cause and called the killings murder.58

The treatment of the men and their families made the purpose of the incident clear. Confederate officials, some of them slaveholders from the region, kept the "buffaloes" in jail without food for days on end. In one of the executions, Confederates hung thirteen Unionists from one pole and left the dead men stripped of their clothing to be buried in a mass grave. When widows of the men tried to gather the bodies, Confederates subjected them to verbal abuse and robbed them of what possessions they had. A Union army board of inquiry held that the Confederate commanders in charge had executed the Unionists on false charges without a proper trial and had allowed robbery and abuse of their families in order "to terrify the loyal people" of the state.59

The fate of the men executed at Kinston served to highlight the bitterness of the struggle between Unionists and Confederates in North Carolina and the extent to which some Southern leaders would go to intimidate the poor whites. It also set the stage for the murders and outrages against Unionists which followed in the wake of the war. Lt. Col. Oscar Eastman of the First North Carolina believed that native whites who had taken up arms for the Union "would occupy the most critical position on their return home" after the war and pleaded with his superiors to let the men keep their weapons.60 Indeed, when North Carolina white Unionists joined in a voting alliance with blacks in the Republican party during Reconstruction, vigilantes repeatedly used beatings, burnings, and murder to suppress them.61 The war had unleashed antagonisms in North Carolina that did not die with the surrender of Lee's army.

Conclusion: Decline of the Solid South

Southern journalist Wilbur Cash summed up the popular image of the lower class white Southerner in his 1941 book The Mind of the South. In Cash's view the common white Southerner could not identify or understand his (or her) own class interests. "Add up his blindness to his real interests, his lack of class feeling and of social and economic focus, and you arrive, with the precision of a formula in mathematics, at the solid South," according to Cash. The Civil War experience and belief in white supremacy, Cash believed, bonded the upper and lower classes together in white solidarity well into the twentieth century.62 Historians have yet to dislodge this popular image of the lower class white Southerner.

The commission had a county-by-county list of individuals who applied for compensation.

I believe, however, that further study of the dissent and conflict in the Confederacy would lead us to a different set of conclusions. This short study of North Carolina Unionism certainly raises questions about the supposed solidarity between the white upper and lower classes. For many white Union supporters, the war intensified antagonisms to the slaveholding class that had been smoldering for years. Their bitter language and attitude indicates that many Unionists hated not only secession but also the Southern upper class. Others opposed the Confederacy mainly out of patriotic sentiment in favor of the Union and because of the Confederacy's encroachments on their liberties. All of the Confederacy's nonslaveholding opponents reviewed in this article, however, shared the belief that secession ran counter to their interests. It remains questionable whether any of these Unionists ever belonged to the "solid South."

Yet the farmers, artisans, and mechanics who came before the Claims Commission in most ways represented the typical white Southerner. It is therefore not surprising that few of them expressed real sympathy for or solidarity with the slaves. Prior to the war many of these people may have even aspired to own slaves. The events of the war, and particularly Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, however, closed that route to wealth and power to Southern whites forever, undermining the last material incentive for nonslaveholders to support the existing system. One Unionist explained his opposition to the Confederacy concisely: "I had no Negroes to fight for." Nor would he ever. This single fact, accurately perceived by masses of nonslaveholding whites, probably did more to destroy the Confederacy from within than anything else.

If there ever was a "solid South," the Civil War tolled its death knell. By 1863 whatever sense of unity existed between the plain folk and the aristocracy before the war seems to have collapsed, at least in North Carolina. There the war provided a turning point in class relations among whites. In its wake followed a period of prolonged conflict between the upper and lower classes during the eras of Reconstruction and Populism. Significantly, during these eras former Unionist whites and former black slaves joined together in voting alliances several times to elect reformist state governments inimical to the power of the old plantation aristocracy. Only the imposition of segregation and black disfranchisement at the end of the nineteenth century ended these threats to entrenched economic power.63

Many historians once assumed that most slaves accepted their lot, embracing planter paternalism as the best that they could get in this world. By discovering new records and a new focus which attempts to look at the world from the slaves' point of view, and wherever possible to let them speak for themselves, historians have now come to quite different conclusions. Perhaps in a similar way some day we will find that the inferred support of slavery and the Confederacy by the masses of Southern nonslaveholders was equally erroneous. In any case, the rich records of the Southern Claims Commission and the Union army regiments, I believe, can begin to open up a much fuller understanding of the common people of the white South during the war than we now have.


41 Testimony of Samuel Coles, Mar. 14,1872, Durham, Orange Co., Claim No. 43,448, sett. 2946, ibid.

42 Testimony of John Elmore in the case of Joshua Godwin, Mar. 13, 1872, Sampson Co., Claim No. 2,344, sett. 518; testimony of William McKenzee in the case of Randolph Wells, Sept. 23, 1872, Fayetteville, Randolph Co., Claim No. 41,477, sett. 1539; testimony of Daniel Derrech, in the case of Daniel Monroe, Sept. 15, 1871, Cumberland Co., Claim No. 554, sett. 102, ibid.

43 Testimony of Robert Edwards, Mar. 3, 1871, Greene Co., Claim No. 41,429, sett. 1508, ibid.

44 Unionists were right about who ran the Confederacy. According to historian Clement Eaton, 33 planters and 43 lawyers ran the Montgomery Convention which established the Confederacy, and only one of these delegates did not own slaves. The Old South, p. 505. Testimony of Joel Flowers, Feb. 28, 1873, Goldsboro, Sampson Co., Claim No. 41,432, sett. 1510; testimony of S.A. Daniel in the case of Joseph Hendrix, previously cited, fn 38, ibid.

45 Many Southern white Unionists were anti-black as well as pro-Union, as Andrew Johnson proved during his tenure as president. Bryan Tyson, a prominent Unionist from North Carolina, provides an example of a white Unionist who sought an end to secession in order to save slavery. William T. Auman, "Bryan Tyson: Southern Unionist and American Patiiot," North Carolina Historical Review, 62(July 1985): 257-299. Not all Unionists were opposed to black freedom, however, as this paper indicates.

46 Testimony of John Howell in the case of Everett Hayes, Mar. 25, 1875, Goldsboro, Wayne Co., Claim No. 41,441, sett. 1488; testimony of Stephen Graham in his own case, Feb. 15, 1873, Newton, Catawba Co., Claim No. 36,749, sett. 4588, RG 217, NA.

47 Testimony of James Quinn in the case of Samuel Sullivan, previously cited, fn 18; testimony of William Watson in the case of Nicholas Brown, Dec. 27, 1872, Fayetteville, Cumberland Co., numbers not listed, ibid.

48 Quote of claims agent cited in Klingberg, Southern Claims Commission, p. 85. James Riley, a well-to-do white merchant and farmer, testified in support of the claim of John Chavers, a free black farmer who Riley knew for 15 years as a neighbor, Aug. 9,1873, Wilkes Co., Claim No. 43,443, sett. 2950, RG 217, NA.

49 Testimony of George Clark, Phillip Ball, and William Hendrickson in the case of Clark, May 14, 1875, Lexington, Davidson Co., Claim No. 43,444, sett. 2708; testimony of William Henderson and James Smith in the case of Ball, Apr. 3, 1873, Lexington, Claim No. 37,448, sett. 5632, ibid.

50 For a history of blacks in the Union army, see Berlin, Freedom, Series II, cited earlier. The adjutant general of the U.S. Army reported the figures on Southern enlistments to the Congressional Globe in 1870. The largest number of white enlistments came from Tennessee (24,940), followed by Arkansas (5,942), Louisiana (5,488), North Carolina (3,200), Alabama (2,296), Texas (2,132), Florida (2,050), Mississippi (984), Virginia (880), and Georgia (160). No figures existed for South Carolina. Klingberg, Southern Claims Commission, p. 43.

51 Access to the Union army came early in the war in the east when Union troops took over the northern coast of North Carolina. In the west, Union recruits generally got siphoned off to regiments in Kentucky and Tennessee. Counties which did not produce any members of the North Carolina Union Volunteers were far removed from Union lines. The six mountain counties with the largest number of enlistments were Buncombe (387 men), Yancy (262), Henderson (123), Wilkes (112), Madison (105), and Cherokee (44). The six eastern counties with the largest enlistments were Hyde (298), Bertie (247), Beufort (207), Tyrrell (101), Craven (93), and Hertford (48). Figures have been collected from the Regimental Letter and Endorsement Books of the four regiments of North Carolina Volunteers, Adjutant General's Office, RG 94, NA. In some cases in the west Unionists enlisted in the federal army only to be assigned to stay in their home areas to gather information and serve as links between local Unionists and the U.S. forces. Testimony of Hugh Lambert, Apr. 22, 1873, Murphy, Cherokee Co., Claim No. 43,457, sett. 2984, RG 217, NA.

52 See William Stanley Hoole, Alabama Tories, The First Alabama Cavalry, USA, 1862-1865 (1960), p. 11. The six counties which contributed the most Union enlistments in the west contained a population of 61,580, with only 925 slaveholders and 5,617 slaves among them. Blacks in these counties ranged from 6 to 16 percent of the population, and majorities in all of these counties voted for Unionist candidates in 1861. For a tabulation of figures, see Honey, "Class Conflict and White Unionist Sentiment in North Carolina," pp. 102-105.

53 Alex Merrell and his three sons joined Kirk's regiments as a group, Summary Report in the case of Merrell, Dec. 20, 1875, Henderson Co., Claim No. 41,458, sett. 2065, RG 217, NA. Farmers constituted 97 percent of the enlistees in Kirk's regiments according to my tabulations of figures in the Regimental Books, RG 94, NA. See Joseph deRoulhac Hamilton, Reconstruction in North Carolina, "Columbia University Studies in History, Economics and Public Law," vol. 58 (1914; reprint ed., 1971) on the "Kirk-Holden War," pp. 497-533.

54 Barrett, Civil War in North Carolina, p. 176. Foster ran as a Union candidate for Congress from territory occupied by the United States in 1863 and was instrumental in organizing Free Labor Associations in the area. See N.C. Delaney, "Charles Henry Foster and the Unionists of Eastern North Carolina," North Carolina Historical Review, 37 (July 1960): 348-366. Of a total population of 67,542 in the six counties of the east, there were 2,590 slaveholders and 29,085 slaves, with the percentage of the black population in these counties ranging between 60 percent and 35 percent. See my tabulations in Honey, "Class Conflict," pp. 101-103.

55 Figures compiled from Regimental Records, RG 94, NA; Sitterson, Secession Movement, pp. 5-11.

56 Brown, "A Union Election," pp. 391-392, 387.

57 Ibid., p. 191. Desertion rates in Hyde and Hatteras counties on the east coast was about 5 percent, as compared to desertion rates of up to 20 percent in the western regiments, according to my calculations in the Regimental Books. The Westerners in the Union, as in the Confederacy, frequently quit the Army when it was time to work their farms, sometimes returning and sometimes not.

58 Details on the Kinston Massacre are in a report entitled "Murder of Union Soldiers in North Carolina," House Executive Document 98, 39th Cong., 1st sess. My thanks to Michael Musick for bringing this document to my attention.

59 Ibid., p. 17.

60 Eastman to Lt. Col. J.A. Campbell, June 10, 1865, Regimental Letter and Endorsement Book, 1st N.C. Volunteers, p. 206, RG 94, NA.

61 Allen W. Trelease, White Terror, The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction (1972). See "North Carolina, terrorism and violence," and "lynchings and murders" in the index.

62 Cash, The Mind of the South (1941), quote on p. 66, and see 34-37, 111, 128-129.

63 Otto H. Olsen's revisionist study of Reconstruction in North Carolina documents the fusion of wartime white Unionists in a voting alliance with new emancipated slaves after the war. Carpetbagger's Crusade, pp. 42-47, 49-80, passim. See Dwight B. Billings, Jr., Planters and the Making of a "New South:" Class, Politics, and Development in North Carolina, 1865-1900 (1979), for an analysis of the post-Reconstruction era.


"The War Within the Confederacy: White Unionist of North Carolina," by Michael K. Honey. Reprinted from Prologue (Journal of the National Archives), Summer 1986, Vol. 18, No. 2, pp. 75-93.

Special thanks to Otto H. Olsen for his critical reading of an early draft of this paper.


Copyright @ by Michael Honey
Used By Permission.
Only for personal use; Not for reproduction.


Michael Honey, Professor
African-American, Ethnic and Labor Studies and American History
University of Washington, Tacoma
1900 Commerce St. Tacoma, WA 98402

Harry Bridges Chair of Labor Studies, University of Washington
The only academic chair in the U.S. endowed by union members.

Books by Dr. Honey: Southern Labor and Black Civil Rights: Organizing Memphis Workers, (Univ. of Ill. Press, 1993), and Black Workers Remember: An Oral History of Segregation, Unionism, and the Freedom Struggle, (Univ. of California Press, 1999).

Copyright 2001 NCUV Project

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