The War Within the Confederacy: White Unionists of North Carolina

Michael Honey, Fred and Dorothy Haley Professor of Humanities
1900 Commerce St. Tacoma, WA 98402
University of Washington, Tacoma

Americans probably know more about the Civil War than about any other event in our history. Yet one of the most interesting facets of the war remains the least researched by historians and almost unknown to the general public: the war within a war which helped defeat the Southern Confederacy. During the Civil War draft evasion, desertion, peace movements, and even armed resistance threw whole regions of the South into anarchy. Opposition to the Confederacy thrived in upcountry and mountain areas where few whites owned slaves, but it broke out in the plantation districts as well. Unionists–those Southerners who opposed secession and remained loyal to the Union throughout the war–provided the hard core of the internal opposition. Many others came to oppose the Confederacy in the course of the war because it demanded intolerable sacrifices from the common people in defense of an apparently hopeless cause.

Internal opposition also sprang up in the North, where the war touched off draft resistance, riots, and a strong peace movement. Small farmers, workers, and the poor carried the burden of the war in the North as well as in the South, and people in both regions began to call the conflict “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.”1 It was also a war over slavery, however, and this fact lent a special significance to the internal conflict and dissent in the South. Large plantation owners in the South–a relative handful of people–had always relied on support from the three-quarters of the white population which owned no slaves. Their acquiescence in the antebellum period lent the system its peculiar stability.2 The war, however, called that stability into question.

At the start of the Civil War nonslaveholders rallied to defend “Southern rights” in impressive numbers, creating the impression of a “solid South” in which whites of all classes stood behind the Confederacy. However, as the war dragged on the Confederacy demanded increasing sacrifices. The draft, crop impressments, Confederate suspensions of civil liberties, and exemptions of plantation owners from military duty especially rankled the nonslaveholders. Resentments against the large slaveholders, on whose behalf the war seemed to be fought, blossomed. Following periods of military failure, increasing numbers of nonslaveholders refused to fight and die for a slaveholder’s republic. Ultimately, according to some historians, so many of the common people turned against the Confederacy that internal conflict and demoralization, rather than defeat on the battlefield, destroyed the South’s ability to resist the North.3


Support for secession was not universal among North Carolinians. Many non-slaveholders remained loyal to the Union.

Yet surprisingly few historians have explored the significance of the devastating internal divisions that wracked the South during the war or their disruptive effects on relations between slaveholders and nonslaveholders.4 In both popular and scholarly literature the myth of the “solid South,” in which whites of both upper and lower classes united to fight side by side against the Yankee North, lives on.5 Furthermore, we continue to know little about the thoughts and activities of the mass of nonslaveholding whites–the small farmers, herdsmen, artisans, and workers who made up the bulk of the Southern white population. These people generally did not publish newspapers, run political parties, or sit in the legislatures, and their views have generally been lost to history.

Despite a general scarcity of written records about the common white people of the South, however, they need not remain in obscurity, at least not as, regards the Civil War period. Recently historians have delved into the National Archives’ massive collection of Civil War records to document in rich detail the self-emancipation of Southern slaves which helped to shatter the Confederacy from within.6 Archival records of the federal government’s Southern Claims Commission and the regimental records of Union army volunteers likewise provide a rich but largely unmined source of material about the views and activities of the Southern Unionists. Regimental records, a well known source of military history requiring little explanation here, provide documentation of the activities of Southern Unionists who took up arms against the Confederacy.7


B.F. Moore was a leader of the Unionist cause in North Carolina


Zebulon Vance was the governor of North Carolina during the Civil War.

Less well known are the records of the Southern Claims Commission, established by Congress after the war to investigate and reimburse Southern Union supporters who provided livestock, food, or other material aid to the Union armies when they came South. These records provide an illuminating source of material on war-time white Unionism in the South. As part of its investigations, the Claims Commission, which was in operation from 1871 until 1880, transcribed the testimony of thousands of Southern Unionists–supported by the testimony of their neighbors, friends, acquaintances, and family members–concerning their beliefs and activities during the war. Despite the self-interested nature of the testimony made by the Unionists, the commission’s rigorous tests of loyalty and thorough investigations indicate that those claims validated for reimbursement by the commission (only 41 percent of the cases) provide reliable and accurate documentation of the war within the Southern Confederacy.8

Using the Claims Commission and regimental records in the National Archives as a source of documentation, this article offers a brief profile of some of the average men and women of the white South whose views led them to resist the secessionist order. I have used North Carolina as a case study. Although this is an upper Southern state not typical of the Confederacy, what happened there during the war had parallels across the South. My focus is on Unionists of average means who filed claims for $1,000 or less, unlike an earlier study of the Claims Commission which focused on the few wealthy individuals who made claims of $10,000 or more.9

The despised Southern Unionists constituted the core of white opposition to the Confederacy which grew as the war went on. Along with the slaves, their activities increasingly undermined the Southern war effort. Like the slaves, the white opponents of the Confederacy have previously appeared rarely in the history books. In this article I hope in part to remedy this neglect and to cast new light on the Southern experience. In my conclusion I will suggest one possible interpretation of the South’s inner civil war and the role that the common white Unionist played in it.

North Carolina Unionists:
Resistance to the Confederacy, War, and Conscription

North Carolina probably manifested the sharpest internal opposition to the Confederacy of all the Southern states during the war.10 This resulted in part from a long history of conflicts before the war between the white majority of small farmers and mechanics and the minority of landed gentry. As in most of the South, though nearly one-third of the white population held slaves in North Carolina, the upper class of planters with twenty or more slaves always constituted a small fraction of the state’s white population.11


The image of Abraham Lincoln as president of the United States was enough to strike terror in the hearts of many southerners.

Yet the political power and wealth of these planters far outweighed their numbers. Their privileged status repeatedly provoked conflicts with nonslaveholders over questions of political representation and taxation. Such conflicts became especially intense in the year prior to the Civil War, when a movement to increase the taxes of slaveholders, spurred by the Raleigh Working Men’s Association, nearly succeeded in snatching control of the state government out of the hands of the gentry.12 The taxation controversy brought animosity against the upper class out into the open, causing one of the state’s eastern planters on the eve of the war to express the fear that nonslaveholders “would not lift a finger to protect rich men’s negroes.” The taxation campaign, he added, “infused among the ignorant people, the idea that there is an antagonism between poor people and Slave-owners.”13

Three years later, after guerrilla war had broken out in the western counties and constituted authority dissolved in some of the central piedmont counties as well, the reality of this fear had been proven beyond doubt. Causes of the disaffection in North Carolina are not hard to find and are similar to those afflicting the entire South. The war depopulated the state of most of its young white males, leaving thousands of families suffering in destitution, while Confederate crop impressments, taxation, and wartime inflation further impoverished the state’s middle and lower classes. At the same time, the Confederacy exempted planters owning twenty (and later fifteen) or more slaves from the draft.14 All over the Confederacy this favoritism toward the upper class “stunk in the nostrils of the people,” according to one Confederate politician. It especially rankled the people in North Carolina, who provided a disproportionate number of soldiers for the Confederate army while the Confederate leaders systematically excluded natives of the state from political and military appointments. Because the nonslaveholding majority of North Carolinians had voted down secession efforts before the war began, Confederate leaders apparently distrusted the state’s loyalty to the Confederacy.15


Union troops fighting in western North Carolina received logistical support from local citizens.

By the fall of 1863 that loyalty–and the loyalty of other areas of the Confederacy as well–had indeed become questionable. The hated draft law, suspension of the rights of habeas corpus and freedom of speech by the administration of Jefferson Davis, economic privations, and military defeats at the hands of the North had turned the mountain districts of the Carolinas, Georgia, and Alabama into hotbeds of anti-Confederate sentiment. Following Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, a hard core of Southern Unionists came increasingly into the open all over the region, encouraging draft resistance, desertion, and other means of obstructing the Confederate war effort. Among North Carolina troops popular feelings against the war and mass desertions became so common that Confederate commanders felt they could no longer rely on them to fight. When Richmond fell, North Carolina could provide no base for further support of the Confederacy. War-time Governor Zebulon Vance summed up the situation in North Carolina in 1864, stating that “the great popular heart is not now and never has been in this war. It was a revolution of the politicians, not the people.”16

The Plunge into Secession

The majority of the white common people of North Carolina, as well as in a number of other Southern states, initially opposed secession from the Union.17 Secessionists therefore put on a concerted campaign to pressure people into closing ranks against the federal government. Unionists who came before the Claims Commission invariably had opposed secession from the start, and that is when their troubles began. According to Kinsey Jones of Duplin County, “such was the fury of the fireaters that it was not safe for a man to open his mouth … every Union man was threatened, and for sake of their owne safety compelled to keep their mouths shut.” After the Confederacy fired on Fort Sumter and President Lincoln called up enlistments to prepare for war, social pressures on North Carolina Unionists intensified. The influential North Carolina Standard declared “we are all Southern rights men now,” and on May 2 the legislature made it a crime for state officers to support the U.S. Constitution. The legislature took the state out of the Union on May 20 and refused to submit secession to the people for ratification.18

Once the plunge toward secession had brought North Carolina into the Confederacy, gala balls and patriotic appeals brought thousands of young men into the army, despite the efforts of many Unionist parents and kinfolk to dissuade them. Joseph Fisher, a German farmer adamantly opposed to secession, told the Claims Commission that he could not control his son, who thought “it was a nice big thing to get into the service.” Likewise, Micajah Wright, a Quaker who refused to pay war taxes, lost four sons to the rebel army. Bryant Scott, from a family of abolitionists and Union supporters, bemoaned the fate of his younger brother who joined the army. “Jesse was young,” said Scott,” and while yet he expressed his attachment to the Union, he was unaccountably led off by the influence of companions.”19


During the war, Union troops seized food stores and other property from local residents. The Southern Claims Commission was established in 1871 to make restitution.

Those who conformed to the pressure of the moment, however, often regretted it. Henry Howell fell in with a crowd of men who got a free ride to a military camp, only belatedly realizing that he was to be inducted into the army. His friend Richard Harrison testified that Howell “never intended to take up arms against the United States, that he had nothing to fight for.” When Howell refused to cooperate with the army, another friend testified, he was ridiculed as an abolitionist, “and it is a wonder they did not kill him.” His friends were in a like predicament, though not as outspoken as Howell. “I was a Union man myself,” Harrison explained, “but like many others I was drove in” to the Confederate service.20

When the Confederate congress passed a draft law in May of 1862, many Unionists accepted conscription because they considered the alternative of resistance too costly. Harriet Howell (no relation to Henry) explained that her husband opposed the Confederacy from the start, but accepted being drafted into the army “rather than lie out in the woods and disgrace his family.” She opposed the war, however, because “he would get killed and leave her with a lot of little children to raise,” according to a commission agent. Indeed, when her husband died in 1864, apparently as a result of military service, he left his family destitute.21

Perhaps resistance would have been better, but Confederate retaliation against resisters was much more certain than death on the battlefield. Jackson Jones, a thirty-year-old Quaker, provided one example of what happened to resisters when the military got a hold of them. After being conscripted he refused to answer roll call, stand in the ranks, or cooperate in any way with the war effort. As punishment, he was imprisoned, “bucked down” (hands tied between his knees), pierced with a bayonet, refused food and water, and had one of his ears cut off. Despite this torture, his brother testified, “he always spoke his sentiments boldly and openly, no matter who was present,” and finally the army discharged him.22

Most people did not have the courage to openly oppose the war in the manner of Jackson Jones, but as the war dragged on more and more people became committed to resistance. Like Jones, some six hundred families joined the Society of Friends during the war, espousing the “inconsistency of war and fighting with the loving and quiet spirit of a disciple of Jesus” and refusing to cooperate with the military. Thousands of others joined the secret order of the Heroes of America, another organization to which Jones belonged. This underground resistance organization focused its efforts on aiding draft dodgers and deserters in escaping into the mountains or out of the state.23 As the war progressed, increasing numbers of individuals went along with such efforts, whether they belonged to an organization or not.

Draft Resistance and the Underground Railroad

For Southern Unionists, the draft provided the most hated and visible instrument of Confederate power. Conscription forced many Unionists to support the secessionist cause, which they reviled as treason to the United States. It also decimated Southern families. Henry Raines testified before the Claims Commission that the Confederacy drafted three of his brothers, three sons, and one nephew. When his fourth son voluntarily enlisted, Raines bitterly told him “that I would rather have laid him in his grave” than to lose another son to the Confederacy. William McCanless, a physician arrested in 1863 for giving resisters false medical deferments and for harboring deserters, similarly justified his anti- draft activity by declaring that “it was a shame to take men off to this army to be slaughtered; and that it would be considered a dishonor in future years to have been in favor of the rebellion.” Even many without strong Union sentiments opposed the draft as state-supported “slavery” and a subversion of freedom and civil liberties.24

When confronted with jail or the army, many North Carolinians fled to the hills, woods, or swamps. While some thought it a “disgrace” to hide out, most Unionists interviewed by the Claims Commission felt no shame at all for draft evasion. William Wade ignored his first two conscription orders. When the Confederates arrested him and threw him into the army, Wade deserted and spent the last two years of the war hiding out in the swamps. Conscription agents hunted Joseph Leonard in the woods for two years before capturing him; once in the army he deserted and fled to Indiana. Phillip Mock, a mountain blacksmith, did not wait for the arrest to come, but gathered his belongings on his shoulder and hiked all the way to the “free” territory in Kentucky at the first notice of conscription activity. Daniel Squires and Gideon Bray, on the other hand, succeeded in escaping conscription while continuing to cultivate their crops throughout the war. They hid out in the woods much of the time, working in the fields at night or in the early morning hours, guns strapped to their backs and wives on the lookout in case conscription officers should appear.25

Because Unionists felt that draft evasion constituted a form of resistance to the Confederacy, they approved of virtually all available methods to escape induction. Ransom Jinks acted crazy when arrested by conscription officers. “They thought I was a perfectly deranged man,” he testified before the commission. “I took no oath, they didn’t think I had sense enough to know what an oath was.” Others feigned illness and received phony medical papers from cooperative doctors who helped them obtain draft deferments. Napolean Williams, on the other hand, used “family influence” to keep his son out of the war. William Harrel’s “influence” consisted of supplying moonshine whiskey to the enrolling officer, who kept Harrel out of the war. Miles Sneed received an exemption from the draft because he worked in an iron forge considered essential to the war effort. He meanwhile took in and fed draft resisters “who would have otherwise been captured or would have starved.” When Confederate authorities ordered Sneed’s forge hands to arrest two known Union men, Sneed saw to it that the men “escaped.”26


The South’s reliance on a slave economy was illustrated even on the currency of the Confederacy.

Some men joined the Home Guard, or local militia, as a way of not only avoiding conscription but also aiding war resistance. Unionists in the local militia conducted particularly effective activity in mountain counties poorly supervised by the Confederacy and near Union lines in Kentucky and Tennessee. Green Burgess, captain of the Home Guard in Cherokee County, helped Union men escape from his district and even used his position to procure furloughs for men in the Confederate army who then fled from the state. Bryant Scott likewise used his position in the Home Guard to obtain information on planned Confederate conscription forays and then sent word to draft resisters to “be on the lookout” for the enrollment officers. While on patrol Scott also allowed captured draft resisters to escape. On one occasion, Scott reconnoitered with a man piloting Confederate army deserters out of the mountains and then sent the local militia in the wrong direction to locate the deserters. This arrangement, the pilot told the Claims Commission, provided local Unionists with “a fund of merriment.”27

Scott and his comrades involved in the “underground railroad” in the mountain areas were not ordinary resisters, however. They belonged to the secret society known as the Heroes of America, or “Red Strings.” A secret handshake, an oath, and the red strings which these men hung outside of their windows served “to distinguish the Union men from the rebs,” one member told the Claims Commission. Organizers kept the Heroes completely decentralized so that most people only knew for certain one other member of the organization, and most carried on their anti-Confederate activities in secrecy.28

However, some members of the Heroes of America, such as Caleb Idol, a seventy-year-old farmer took up bold and outspoken positions against the Confederacy. When informed by a neighbor that the Confederates planned to hang the Union men in the county, Idol swore “they might hang or do what they pleased, he was not going to quit talking his Union sentiments,” according to a witness before the commission. Some, such as Scott, were radicals who wanted to overthrow the state’s ruling class and favored emancipation of the slaves. Many others, including William Crawford and Tandy Kiser, kept their political opinions to themselves, but nonetheless helped the resistance by hiding draft evaders and Union soldiers who escaped from the Confederate prison at Salisbury.29

According to one estimate some ten thousand Unionists belonged to the Heroes of America by the war’s end. Many more, however, collaborated with the organization whether they belonged to it or not. Activity supporting draft resisters and deserters became so widespread in North Carolina that the Confederacy found it impossible to suppress. In the mountain counties particularly, many people played a role in the “underground railroad” which guided draft resisters and escaped Confederate prisoners out of the state. Older men exempt from the draft such as Benjamin Rose (aged seventy-five), Jeremia Cole (fifty-seven), and Wiffiam Brown (fifty- eight), used their homes as stops for the underground railroad, while younger men such as John Robinson worked as “pilots” and pathfinders of the backwoods.30

Women played a particularly significant role in encouraging desertion and draft evasion. By writing discouraging letters to the North Carolina troops urging them to come home, many married women had a disastrous impact on military morale. One woman wrote her husband that his daughter, “your darling Lucy . . . is growing thinner and thinner, and … unless you come home we must die.” Another wrote the governor concerning her enlisted husband, saying “I would like to know what he is fighting for. He has nothing to fight for. I don’t think that he is fighting for anything only for his family to starve.” Single women also played a role in supporting the Union. Susan Flora, a sixty-seven year old widow, turned her farm over to Union authorities for their use and hid deserters. Sarah Bailey likewise concealed deserters on her farm and kept her step-son out of the war by dressing him in women’s clothing and occasionally hiding him out in the cane. At war’s end she testified, “I was glad when I see the Yankees coming.”31

By maintaining close contact with their relatives and neighbors in the Confederate army–many of them opposed to the Confederacy in principle but unwilling to desert-Unionist families encouraged internal opposition within the Southern military. Indeed, “Johnny Reb” in North Carolina often turned out to be a Union supporter. Henry Williford, conscripted into Confederate service, considered himself just as much a Union man as his friend William Wade who deserted and stayed in contact with Wade throughout the war. Silas Rose, in the army two and a half years, maintained contact with a friend back home operating a stop on the underground railroad, never revealing his friend to authorities. Even as a Confederate soldier, Rose told the commission, “in principle I was a Union man.”32 Such relationships illustrate why Gen. Robert E. Lee felt the Confederacy could not rely upon the North Carolina troops and why Confederate authorities felt they had to do everything in their power to suppress the most outspoken Unionist dissenters.

Talking Union: The Suppression of Dissent

Because of the threat that demoralization of the army posed to the Confederacy, a great crackdown on freedom of speech occurred in North Carolina during the Civil War. Vigilante violence and community ostracism had been used before the war to squelch anti-slavery sentiment in the state; preachers had been run out of towns on rails, professors fired, and abolitionists whipped for trying to speak out on the slavery issue.33 Such pressures only intensified during the war years. Although the majority of North Carolinians had opposed secession once the war began, militarization increasingly established a deadly atmosphere of fear and suspicion between neighbors and friends. Conformity became the abiding principle of the Southern Confederacy, and those who did not go along jeopardized their lives and fortunes.

A few examples from the Claims Commission records indicate the seriousness of the plight of Union supporters in North Carolina. Confederate military forces routinely inflicted harsh punishments on these dissidents. In the western mountains conflicts between Unionists and Confederate military authorities took on murderous proportions, establishing the basis for decades of feuding after the war.34 Civilian resisters such as Louisa Stiles, whose husband, two sons, and two brothers all gave their lives as Union army volunteers, counted themselves lucky to survive the war. Mrs. Stiles used her homestead to provide aid to Union army troops, and as a result, she told the Claims Commission, “I was often threatened with killing, and having my house burned, and property destroyed.” In one incident, she told the commission, rebel soldiers even put ropes around the necks of her children and threatened to lynch them if she did not stop her activities.35

In the east, rebel soldiers attacked Unionists for much lesser deeds than those of the Stiles family. Soldiers destroyed the home and business of James Roberts, a grocer in Carteret County, and threatened to tie Roberts and his father and three brothers to a stake and burn them to death merely for holding Unionist sentiments. Soldiers likewise attacked James Stanton, a Quaker in the same county, beating him and stealing his goods. In another incident, rebel soldiers evacuating Elizabeth City set fire to the home of William Lister, a small local manufacturer, and shot him to death when he came to the window for air. Lister’s offenses consisted of a stubborn outspokenness against the Confederacy and naming his son after Abraham Lincoln.36

Even when Unionists did not find themselves harassed by military authorities, in many areas where the Confederacy was strong their Confederate-minded neighbors subjected them to enormous social pressures and continual threats of violence. Local hooligans in Craven County, for example, kidnapped Henry Covert, a seventy-two year old ship’s carpenter, and threatened him with tar and feathers “for talking on the Union side.” The neighbors of Charles Long, a shoemaker near Chapel Hill, wanted him arrested because he would not vote for Jefferson Davis and talked about getting up a mob to hang him or ride him on a rail. In a similar case, the neighbors of B.L.D. Williams in Wake County held an extra-legal “trial” and considered confiscating his property for “talking too much.” Only the intervention of an influential friend stopped these proceedings.37

Rebel supporters also continued to persecute Unionist voters all across the state during the elections, as they had during the secession referendum in 1861. When W.W. Holden ran as a peace candidate for governor in 1864, Joseph Hendrix testified, “the news was circulated that if any man voted for Holden … he should be handcuffed and sent to the rebel army. Men were stationed at the ballot box door to prevent men from voting for Holden.” Daniel Horn told the commission that when he voted for Holden in Sampson County “it created a great excitement and I did not know but I should be killed.” Holden himself testified that he had feared for his life during the election and had slept in the home of a claimant before the commission who guarded him with pistols in case anyone tried to assassinate him. With many of his supporters in exile or hiding, Holden made little dent in the votes cast for Governor Vance.38

Such military and community pressures against them silenced some Unionists, who told the Claims Commission that they remained “powerless” and “passive” during the war, keeping their opinions to themselves and living in constant fear of their neighbors and former friends. Michael Shuping told the commission that “Union men in my neighborhood talked but little during the war, and never to anyone, so far as I know, but to Union men. Especially was this the case with old men like myself, situated … around the slave owners and war men.” Thomas Woody told the commission he was ostracised and threatened with arrest, and “times got so rigid that I was afraid to talk.” In 1872 he was still being harassed by former secessionists.39

Because of the persecution they endured most Unionists developed a special hatred for the secessionist politicians and the slaveholding gentry who they felt brought on the war. Polly Johnson testified before the commission that her husband had declared “if he had his way he would hang every man that had anything to do with throwing North Carolina out of the Union.” Another claimant had seriously considered a plan to assassinate Jefferson Davis during the war. For these and other Southern Unionists, the Confederacy had taken away rights they considered theirs by virtue of being American citizens: free speech; the right to control their own property, to vote, and to associate on a free basis politically; and due process rights all had been violated. Many Unionists felt they had no future in a secessionist South and would have to leave the state or be hanged themselves if the Confederacy won the war. Though the Confederates thought they were fighting for liberty, Mrs. Johnson felt that, on the contrary, “they are fighting themselves into slavery.”40

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, member 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.

1 See Eugene C. Murdock, “Was It a Poor Man’s Fight?”, Civil War History, 10(1964): 241. Ella Lonn’s Desertion During the Civil War (1928) provides an informative account of the grievances of the soldiers which led to massive desertions on both sides.

2 According to Avery Craven, out of the South’s white population of eight million in 1860 “the number of persons in any way connected with the institution by family or direct interest could not have reached two millions,” leaving three-quarters of the white South “outside the favored circle.” The Coming of the Civil War (1942; reprint ed., 1974), p. 28. However, Otto Olsen points out that a much higher percentage of whites benefited from slave ownership in the states of the Confederacy and that white interest in slave ownership as a route to wealth and power remained “central to southern white unity.” See “Historians and the Extent of Slave Ownership in the Southrn United States,” Civil War History, 18 (June 1972): 101-16. Eugene D. Genovese emphasizes that kinship, culture, and politics also tied nonslaveholders to the regime of the planters, in “Yeomen Farmers in a Slaveholder’s Democracy,” Agricultural History 49 (Apr. 1975): 331-342. Such ties and perceived economic interest in slavery, however, did not abrogate class conflict in the South.

3 Both Bell Irvin Wiley in The Road to Appomattox (1956; reprinted ed., 1977) and Frank Lawrence Owsley in “Defeatism in the Confederacy,” a 1926 article reprinted in Harriet Chappell Owsley, ed., The South: Old and New Frontiers, Selected Essays of Frank Lawrence Owsley (1969), concluded that internal dissension had defeated the Confederacy long before final military collapse. More recently, Paul D. Escott in After Secession; Jefferson Davis and the Failure of Confederate Nationalism (1978) identified the strained relations between classes during the war as the main source of Confederate weakness.

4 Georgia Lee Tatum’s Disloyalty in the Confederacy (1934) still provides the most complete overview of Southern dissent. Only a few local or state studies followed her work, such as Hugh C. Bailey’s “Disloyalty in Early Confederate Alabama,” Journal of Southern History 23(1957): 522-528, and Durward Long’s “Unanimity and Disloyalty in Secessionist Alabama,” Civil War History 11 (1965): 257. More recently, William Auman’s “North Carolina’s Inner Civil War: Randolph County’ (Master’s Thesis, Univ. of North Carolina at Greensboro, 1978) and a number of studies on North Carolina (cited later) have re-emphasized the question of internal dissent.

5 Historians from Frank Owsley to Eugene Genovese have stressed intra-class cooperation before the Civil War. See for example Owsley’s essay “Plain Folk and Their Role in Southern History,” in The South: Old and New Frontiers, or Genovese’s essay “Yeomen Farmers,” which finds an “impressive degree of class collaboration and social unity” between the plain folk and planters (P. 333). Subsequent scholars of the “plain folk” have also found, according to a recent survey of the literature, “a remarkable similarity of beliefs among the classes of the South.” Edward Magdol and Jon L. Wakelyn, eds., The Southern Common People, Studies in Nineteenth-Century Social History (1980), P. 9. However, the available studies focus on class relations before the war, when slavery required relatively little sacrifice and still offered potential benefits to the nonslaveholders, and do not take into account the reaction of many nonslaveholders to quite different circurnstances during the war.

6 See Ira Berlin, et al., eds., Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867, Selected From the Holdings of the National Archives of the United States; Series I, The Destruction of Slavery (1985), and Series II, The Black Military Experience (1982).

7 Records of the First and Second Regiment Infantry, and the Second and Third Regiment Mounted Infantry, North Carolina Union Volunteers, Regimental Records and Endorsement Books and “Volunteer Organization, Civil War,” Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, Record Group 94, National Archives. Also useful are Compiled Service Records of volunteer Union soldiers on Archives microfilm.

8 According to Frank W. Klingbeirg, The Southern Claims Commission (1955), the commission received 22,298 claims and pursued 16,991 of these to completion. The commission employed a strict loyalty test for claimants, which in Klingberg’s words required “a life of treason to the Confederacy,” and did not accept mere disaffection as proof of Unionism. Of $60,258,150.44 worth of claims in the South, the government paid out only $4,636,920.96. The extensive documentation for most cases in the commission’s files provides convincing evidence that few if any of the claims accepted by the government were fabrications. (See Klingberg, pp. 16-19, 68-76, 86, 99).

9 Klingberg’s study focused on 701 claimants from across the South who came before the commission with claims of $10,000 or more. I believe the real significance of the commission records, however, lies in what they tell us about the average white Southerner, whose views usually go unrecorded. In North Carolina, out of 2,209 cases filed with the commission only 11 involved sums of $10,000 or more and most claims involved sums of $1,000 or less. (See Klingberg, Claims Commission, pp. 18, and related material, pp. 157,159,160,201). Claims Conunission records indicate the occupation, amount of land owned, and other facts regarding the wealth of claimants.

10 Because of the widespread opposition to the Confederacy in North Carolina, there is more published literature on Unionism and dissent in this state than in any other. See for example Mary Shannon Smith, “Union Sentiment in North Carolina During the Civil War,” Meredith College Quarterly Bulletin, 9(1915): 3-21; and A. Sellew Roberts, “The Peace Movement in North Carolina,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 9(1924):190-199; Horace W. Raper, “William W. Holden and the Peace Movement in North Carolina,” North Carolina Historical Review, 31(1954) 493-516; Richard Bardolph, “Inconstant Rebels: Desertion of North Carolina Troops in the Civil War,” North Carolina Historical Review, 12(Apr. 1964):163-89; and Norman D. Brown, “A Union Election in Civil War North Carolina,” North Carolina Historical Review, 43(Oct. 1966). Additional works will be cited where relevant.

11 In 1860 nearly 28 percent of the white population, 34,658 individuals out of a total population of slightly under one million, belonged to families which owned slaves. A little under 10 percent of these families owned between 20 and 50 slaves, while about 2 percent owned more than 50 slaves. Some 88 percent of the slaveholders owned less than 20, and 46 percent owned 5 or less. (Hugh Talmadge Lefler and Albert Ray Newsome, North Carolina, The History of a Southern State (1954), pp. 395- 396. The state’s white population in 1860 consisted of about 34 percent laborers, 45 percent farmers, and 14 percent tradesmen. (Guion Griffis Johnson, Ante-Bellum North Carolina: A Social History [19371, P. 57.)

12 The majority of farmers and workers, the latter receiving the lowest wages in the nation in 1860, repeatedly complained that the minority of the most wealthy planters dominated the state’s economic and political affairs. For a survey of the conditions in the state which accentuated upper and lower class conflicts during the Civil War, see my Master’s paper “Class Conflict and White Unionist Sentiment in North Carolina” (Howard Univ., Department of History, 1978). On the taxation controversy, see Donald C. Butts, “The ‘Irrepressible Conflict’: Slave Taxation and North Carolina’s Gubernatorial Election of 1860,” North Carolina Historical Review, 58 (Jan. 1981): 44-67.

13 Clarence Clifford Norton, The Democratic Party in Ante-Bellum North Carolina, 1835-1861 (1930), P. 205, quoting Kenneth Rayner to Thomas Ruffin, Dec. 12, 1860.

14 William Auman’s thesis documents the almost complete loss of Confederate control over North Carolina’s piedmont “Quaker belt.” Stephen E. Ambrose indicates that similar conditions and causes stirred opposition to the Confederacy all over the South in “Yeoman Discontent in the Confederacy,” Civil War History, 8 (Sept. 1962): 259-268.

15 Quote from Ambrose, “Yeoman Discontent,” P. 265. In the course of the way North Carolina lost 125,000 men to the army–a number larger than the state’s voting population–and sustained one-fourth of the Confederacy’s battle deaths, but had only minor representation in the councils of the government in Richmond, according to Lefler and Newsome, North Carolina, pp. 430-431 and 440-441. Joseph Carlyle Sitterson documents the indifference of nonslaveholders to secession, despite a mass campaign by secession backers to whip up popular support, in The Secession Movement in North Carolina, (1939), P. 105 passim.

16 According to numerous accounts, the failure of the Confederacy in North Carolina was a heavy blow to the Southern cause. See Paul Escott, After Secession, P. 133; Bardolph, “Inconstant Rebels,” p. 168; and Roberts, “Peace Movement,” p. 198. The Zebulon Vance quote, emphasis in the original, is in Otto H. Olsen, Carpetbagger’s Crusade: The Life of Albion Winegar Tourgee (1965), P. 38.

17 Clement Eaton reviewed the presidential and secession votes throughout the South and concluded that it was unlikely that the majority of Southern whites ever favored secession before the war and that most secession conventions refused to submit the issue to the people for precisely this reason. See A History of the Old South, 3rd ed. (1975, orig. ed., 1949), pp. 490, 492-494, 496-504, 507, 510.

18 Testimony of Jinsey Jones in the case of Samuel Sullivan, Oct. 15, 1873, Goldsboro, Duplin Co., N.C., before the Southern Claims Commission, Claim No. 41,473, settlement 1534, RG 217, NA. Standard quote from Sitterson, Secession Movement, p. 248.

19 Testimony of Joseph Fisher, Feb. 14, 1874, Rowan Co., Claim No. 41,430, sett. 1512; Summary Report in case of Micajah Wright, Dec. 2, 1875, Guilford Co., Claim No. 41,479, sett. 1538; testimony of Bryant Scott, Mar. 5, 1875, Scottsville, Wayne Co., Claim No. 41,472, sett. 1531. (Testimony is in claimant’s own case, unless otherwise noted.) All in RG 217, NA.

20 Testimony of Henry Howell, Richard Harrison, and Charles Fulgham in the case of Howell, Sept. 9, 1874, Goldsboro, Wayne Co., Claim No. 41,445, sett. 1518, RG 217, NA.

21 Summary Report in the case of Harriet Howell, and statement of U.S. special agent, July 20, 1874, Wayne Co., Claim No. 37,001, sett. 5093, RG 217, NA.

22 Testimony of Jackson and Anderson Jones in the case of Jackson, Apr. 4, 1873, Lexington, Davidson Co., Claim No. 37,450, sett. 5634, RG 217, NA.

23 North Carolina Yearly Meeting of Friends, A Narrative of the Cruelties Inflicted Upon Friends of the North Carolina Yearly Meeting During the Years 1861 to 1865, In Consequence of Their Faithfulness to the Christian View of the Unlawfulness of War (1868), pp. 12-14. For a recent description of the Heroes of America, see William T. Aurnan and David D. Scarboro, “The Heroes of America in Civil War North Carolina,” North Carolina Historical Review, 58(Oct. 1981): 327-363.

24 Testimony of Henry Raines, Sept. 5, 1873, Goldsboro, Claim No. 37,003, sett. 5082; and testimony of William McCanless, Dec. 3, 1872, Danbury, Stokes Co., Claim No. 41,448, sett. 1532, RG 217, NA. Marc W. Kruman, in “Dissent in the Confederacy: The North Carolina Experience,” Civil War History 28(Dec. 1981): 293-313, concludes that the loss of freedom symbolized by the draft and the suppression of civil liberties during the war, more than any other factor, caused the revolt of white Southerners against the Confederacy.

25 Summary Report in case of William Wade, Dec. 14, 1876, Cumberland Co., Claim No. 37,051, sett. 6134; Summary Report, Joseph Leonard, Dec. 14, 1874, Davidson Co., Claim No. 37,451, sett. 5636; testimony of Phillip Mock, Aug. 26, 1872, Forsyth Co., Claim No. 43,455, sett. 2990; testimony of Gideon Bray in the case of Daniel Squires, June 6, 1872, Shiloh, Camden Co., Claim No. 41,474, sett. 1533, all in RG 217, NA.

26 Testimony of Ransom Jinks, Sept. 19, 1871, Wake Co., Claim No. 36,664, sett. 4699; see the case of William McCanless, previously cited, fn 24; Summary Report, B.L.D. Williams, Dec. 14, 1876, Wake Co., Claim No. 43,481, sett. 3018; testimony of William Harrel in the case of Susan Whitehead, Mar. 19, 1874. Green Co., Claim No. 41,481, sett. 1374; testimony of Miles Sneed, Oct. 9, 1871, Murphy, Cherokee Co., Claim No. 43,458, sett. 3001, all in RG 217, NA.

27 Summary Report, Green Burgess, Dec. 2, 1875, Cherokee Co., Claim No. 41,418, sett. 1643; testimony of Maurice Howell, Wiley Crumpler, and John Robinson in the case of Bryant Scott, Wayne Co., previously cited, fn 19, ibid.

28 Testimony of Rev. Benjamin Arey in the case of Joseph Fisher, Rowan Co., previously cited, fn 19. See also J.G. deRoulhac Hamilton, “The Heroes of America,” Publications of the Southern History Association (1907) on the rituals of the Heroes.

29 Testimony of Martin Jones in the case of Caleb Idol, June 6, 1872, High Point, Forsyth Co., Claim No. 43,449, sett. 3763; testimony of William Daniel in the case of Bryant Scott, previously cited, fn 19. W. G. Crawford and Tandy Kiser belonged to the Heroes but kept their opinions to themselves. Nonetheless, they did aid deserters and Union army soldiers who escaped from the Confederate prison at Salisbury, N.C. Testimony of Crawford, Apr. 12, 1872, Wayne Co., Claim No. 36,995, sett. 5088, and testimony of Kiser, Dec. 5,1872, Forsyth Co., Claim No. 41,447, sett. 1516, in their own cases. A11 RG 217, NA.

30 Auman and Scarboro, “Heroes of America,” p. 327. Testimony of Benjamin Rose, June 14, 1875, Wilkes Co., Claim No. 43,462, sett. 3004; Summary Report, Jeremia Cole, Dec. 20, 1875, Buncombe Co., Claim No. 41,421, sett. 1502; Summary Report, William Brown, Dec. 4, 1876, Buncombe Co., Claim No. 43,435, sett. 2932; testimony of Robinson in the case of Bryant Scott, previously cited, fn 19, ibid.

31 Letters quoted in John G. Barrett, The Civil War in North Carolina (1963), p. 191, and in Ambrose, “Yeoman Discontent,” p. 267. Testimony of Sarah Bailey, May 8, 1874, Raleigh, Wake Co., Claim No. 41,330, sett. 1961, RG 217, NA.

32 Testimony of Henry Williford in the case of William Wade, Jan. 27,1873, Cumberland Co., Claim No. 37,051, sett. 6134; testimony of Silas Rose in the case of James Blyth, Apr. 9, 1876, Murphy, Cherokee Co., Claim No. 43,436, sett. 2942, ibid.

33 For examples of the suppression of anti-slavery opinions, see Johnson, Ante-Bellum North Carolina, pp. 567- 577, 580-581; and Sitterson, Secession Movement, pp. 118- 119, 122-123. Worse incidents occurred elsewhere in the South; see Clement Eaton, The Freedom-of-Thought Struggle in the Old South (1940; reprint ed., 1964).

34 For an account of one of the atrocities in the mountains, in which a band of Confederate soldiers massacred 15 unarmed civilian Unionists, see Phillip Shaw Paludan’s Victims, A True Story of the Civil War (1981).

35 Testimony of Louisa Stiles, Nov. 27, 1871, Murphy, Cherokee Co., Claim No. 43,474, sett. 3006, RG 217, NA.

36 Testimony of James Roberts, June 6, 1873, New Bern, Carteret Co., Claim No. 11,461, sett. 1529; Summary Report, Cecilia Stanton, Dec. 20, 1875, Carteret Co., Claim No. 41,469, sett. 1668; testimony of Griffin Jennings in the case of Nancy Lister, Feb. 1, 1872, Elizabeth City, Pasquotank Co., Claim No. 36,524, sett. 4428, ibid.

37 Testimony of Henry Covert, n.d., Craven Co., Claim No. 10,416; testimony of Charles Long, Mar. 27, 1873, Chapel Hill, Orange Co., Claim No. 43,453, sett. 2983; testimony of Melinda Howell, May 31, 1871, Washington, D.C., in the case of B.L.D. Williams of Wake Co., previously cited, fn 26, ibid.

38 Testimony of Joseph Hendrix, June 13, 1874, Jerusalem, Davie Co., Claim No. 41,444, sett. 1657; testimony of Daniel Horn, Feb. 19, 1873, Fayetteville, Sampson Co., Claim No. 43,470, sett. 2971; deposition of W.W. Holden, May 12, 1874, in the case of James Buck, Raleigh, Wake Co., Claim No. 41,417, sett. 1836, ibid.

39 Testimony of Michael Shuping in the case of Lewis Jacobs, Feb. 4, 1874, Salisbury, Rowan Co., Claim No. 36,750, sett. 4570; testimony of Thomas Woody, Feb. 29, 1872, Roxboro, Person Co., Claim No. 2081, sett. 590, ibid.

40 Testimony of Polly Johnson in the estate of her husband Barney, Oct. 9, 1871, Raleigh, Wake Co., Claim No. 48450, sett. 2890, ibid. Poleman Tarr and Nicholas Jinkins felt all the leaders of the rebellion should be hung, and Duncan McPherson considered the plan to kill Jefferson Davis. Mildred Waters expressed the opinion that if the Confederacy won, “I know so from the threats they made … they would hang us high as Haman.” Summary Report, Poleman Tarr, testimony taken in Gibson, Tenn., Claim No. 41,542, sett. 1761; testimony of Thomas Austin in the case of Jinkins, Apr. 19, 1873, Caldwell Co., Claim No. 37,089, sett. 5295; testimony of James Cates in the case of Duncan McPherson, Oct. 9, 1874, Richmond Co., Claim No. 41,460, sett. 1493; testimony of Mildred Waters in the case of Freeman Smith, May 31, 1873, Goldsboro, Lenoir Co., Claim No. 37,455, sett. 5638, ibid.

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.

Permission to use this article on my website was granted by Mr. Honey on 3/28/09 by email.