A History Lesson on Dissident Confederates

Something to think about on the 150th anniversary of the Civil War —
As politically divided as the United States is today, it was worse in the mid-19th century, as the North-South conflict over slavery came to a head. Of course, that issue was only resolved through a long and bloody Civil War. Even today, the breach has never fully healed in the South that made up the Confederacy, as that region still clings to a unique identity with widespread use of their symbol of rebellion, the Confederate flag.

What many people don’t realize, however, is the South was not monolithic in support for succession. The mountainous western part of Virginia did not share the sentiments of the rest of the state and eventually rejoined the Union as the state of West Virginia. There also were strong Northern sentiments in Tennessee, and the border states of Kentucky, Missouri and Maryland never even left the Union.

As proud as the South may be of its rebellious spirit, pro-Union sentiments actually reached into the very core of the Confederacy. Many in the South, from small farmers to government officials, hated much of what the South was fighting for. Certainly there were some who did not support slavery. Many of them held loyalties that were local and often very personal. One example was A. P. Dostie from Louisiana, who fled to Chicago when asked to sign a loyalty oath to the Confederacy. In fact, by the war’s end most Confederate states had had units in the Union Army drawn from their borders. The Atlanta Southern Confederacy newspaper lamented “If we are defeated, it will be by the people at home.”

Perhaps a more extreme example was the so-called Free State of Jones. Jones County, Mississippi was a pocket of Union sympathies. This area became a haven for Confederate deserters under the leadership of one Newton Knight, who became so enraged when Confederates confiscated his mother’s horse that he deserted his job as a hospital orderly and formed a “home defense band…to aid the Union.” This led to several skirmishes with Confederate troops. Knight survived the war and, because of the Union victory, was never punished.

Much has been written about the unpopularity of the draft in the North, including riots in New York City in 1863. But the Confederacy’s conscription laws were equally unpopular. Despite a long list of exemptions written into the law, some estimate half of the South’s designated draftees never reported. General Robert E. Lee wrote in January 1863, “More than once have most promising opportunities been lost for want of men to take advantage of them….”

These anti-Confederate sentiments were especially damaging in the field of espionage. Even the Confederate capital of Richmond contained a Unionist underground. Perhaps the most famous Union sympathizer was Elizabeth Van Lew, a spinster who lived in a hilltop mansion. Surprisingly, she didn’t try to hide her Northern sympathies. She used her own resources to aid Federal prisoners in Richmond prisons, supplying food, clothing and bedding and negotiating indulgences from the prison administrators. She also operated a spy ring that was regularly providing reports to the Union armies in the later years of the war.

Another key Union supporter was Samuel Ruth. As the superintendent of the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad, Ruth was in a unique position to help the Northern cause. During the Fredericksburg Campaign he was able to slow down Confederate Army shipments to Fredericksburg to the point that Confederate General Robert E. Lee complained about the railroad’s lack of “zeal and energy”. (Ruth got away with this because private shipments were more profitable and Confederate supply officers hadn’t provided the proper requisitions.) He also organized a spy ring to help the Union cause.

So the next time you see the Confederate flag, keep in mind the rebellion it stood for wasn’t nearly as united as popular culture would lead you to believe.
Channing, Steven A., ETAL, Confederate Ordeal: The Southern Home Front, Chapter 3: “The Fires of Dissent”, The Civil War series, Time-Life Books, 1984, 1989

Fishel, Edwin C., The Secret War For The Union: The Untold Story of Military Intelligence in the Civil War, New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1996.

“Free State of Jones”, Civil War Cards, Durham, CT: Atlas Editions, 1995

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