Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Review - "True Blue: White Unionists in the Deep South during the Civil War and Reconstruction" by Clayton Butler

[True Blue: White Unionists in the Deep South during the Civil War and Reconstruction by Clayton J. Butler (Louisiana State University Press, 2022). Hardcover, map, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:x,172/238. ISBN:978-0-8071-7662-7. $45]

When secession became a reality, few leaders of the new Confederacy imagined that a sizable segment of the white population would maintain unconditional fealty to the Union. One the other side, many in the North, including President Lincoln himself, believed that a silent majority of pro-Union sentiment still existed in the post-secession South (it just needed outside assistance in order to reassert itself). Both assumptions proved false, but it is undeniable that the unconditional Unionist bloc of the white population residing below the Mason-Dixon Line played a critical role in shaping the war and its outcome. Thanks to modern research and writing, especially that published over the past few decades, these unconditional Unionists can no longer be regarded as significantly understudied. However, the topic is far from exhausted.

Due to their sheer numbers and influence (and the fact that hundreds of thousands served in the Union Army), the Unionists of the Border States and Upper South have received the lion's share of attention in the literature of southern unionism. Historically, the numbers and impact of the Deep South's unconditional Unionists paled in comparison, and, unfortunately, those and a host of other factors led to their not being a major focus of scholarly and popular historical research. It seems clear that it was in Louisiana and Alabama that the size and reach of southern Unionists had their greatest impact in the Deep South region. Examples of scholarly work that does exist in those areas include Michael Pierson's look at the Unionist influence on the 1862 fall of New Orleans in his book Mutiny at Fort Jackson (2012) and Art Bergeron's editing of Louisiana Unionist guerrilla Dennis E. Haynes's memoir A Thrilling Narrative (2006). Among Alabama studies are a pair of excellent books of recent vintage, Margaret Storey's Loyalty and Loss (2004) and Christopher Rein's Alabamians in Blue (2019)1. Making its own major contribution to the study of these Unionist individuals and groups where they were large enough, and situated favorably enough, to make a significant impact on events during and after the war is Clayton Butler's True Blue: White Unionists in the Deep South during the Civil War and Reconstruction.

In its discussion of the origins of Deep South Unionism, Butler's analysis persuasively rejects domination of conventional predictors for southern Unionism (ex. northern connections, past Whig political affiliation, and residing in areas peripheral to the plantation economy). Instead, the author maintains that the great diversity of class, background, and political affiliation (ex. many were Douglas Democrats) present in his sample forces us to look more toward individual motivation on a case by case basis. Of course, that can apply to all southern Unionists, but Butler notes that unionism crossing boundaries of class and party was far more notably pronounced in Deep South adherents than it was among those from the Border States and Upper South. Though resentment against the planter class, family loyalty, etc. certainly were important considerations, it was an uncompromising faith in the federal Union and the unconditional imperative to uphold it, wherever that originated, that was the only characteristic broadly common to Deep South Unionists.

Butler's contrasting picture of northern and southern perceptions of Deep South Unionists is just as insightful. While Deep South Unionists, aside from isolated stories of infamous "scalawags", made few inroads in the popular imagination over the decades following Reconstruction and into the next century, Butler demonstrates that during the war they were very much in the minds of numerous northern politicians, newspaper editors, and religious leaders. Given their vulnerable location in the very heart of the Confederacy and the stories of their harassment and worse, these Unionists were frequently upheld as the highest exemplars of American patriotic virtue. Assisting them became both moral imperative and justification of the larger war effort. Hopes were also pinned on them for being the leaders of a reconstructed South once hostilities ceased. On the other side, Confederate partisans reviled these men as possessing the lowest form of treason, their mere existence constituting a fifth column that was a mortal threat to the war effort, Confederate sovereignty, and white solidarity. Like perhaps no other group, the patriotic loyalty of Deep South Unionists was viewed by northerners as the best of the best and by Confederate southerners the worst of the worst.

Butler uses three mounted units raised in the Deep South [First Alabama Cavalry (U.S.), First Louisiana Cavalry (U.S.), and Bradford's Battalion of the Thirteenth Tennessee Cavalry (U.S.)2] to examine the Deep South Unionist experience in more detail. It's a fine lens through which to view the military contributions of these men as well as their backgrounds, their evolution on key issues related to the war, and the political roles assumed by many of these veterans during the postwar period. The scope of Butler's study precludes detailed descriptions of each unit's Civil War service, but readers are provided with a clear sense of the ways in which these units were used and the value Union military authorities attached to them. They were highly motivated and their local knowledge of both geography and customs made them effective scouts, resource hunters, and raiders. Some have claimed that southern Unionists were often more anti-Confederate than pro-Union, but Butler find that not be the case among the Deep South dissenters of his study (even within the ranks of the heavily foreign-born element of the First Louisiana), their words most frequently expressing a profound reverence for the Union that often bordered on the radical. The Louisiana, Alabama, and West Tennessee Unionists of his study were accepting of emancipation and black army recruitment, but their tolerance did not widely extend further beyond that into granting social and political equality to freedmen. Another trait shared by these men was the expectation that they would be rewarded for their loyalty with appointment to key posts in the postwar state government. Lest the reader detect too much self-gain into the motivation of these veterans, Butler properly frames such expectations within the context of the democratic patronage culture of the period. The inclusion of a West Tennessee unit in a study of Deep South unionism fits into Butler's desire to return to more fluid boundaries (in his opinion, sections of Arkansas and Tennessee were more representative of Deep South than Upper South societies and economies), but it also shows, through its brief discussion of Fort Pillow, the degree to which white southern Unionists, especially when fighting alongside black troops, were accorded special retribution by their enemies.

After the war, U.S. authorities followed through with their intention of using southern Unionists as the leadership nucleus through which states like Alabama and Louisiana would be welcomed back into the national fold. The book explains this process well, it being noteworthy how many First Alabama and First Louisiana veterans (such service being unmistakable evidence of unconditional loyalty) were assigned coveted government posts. At first, a tenuous coalition of homegrown "scalawags," northern "carpetbaggers," and freedmen maintained power during Reconstruction. However, as Butler explains, fissures in the alliance appeared rather quickly. In seeking to broadening their own political base through seeking out support from ex-Confederates, some high-level appointees angered their unconditional Unionist comrades who felt themselves owed such positions. It also increasingly became clear that most white southern Unionists, who supported emancipation and who were willing to fight alongside black troops during the war to restore the Union, were far less tolerant of extending full citizenship (in particular the right to hold office) to their former black comrades. According to Butler, that common racial divide along with persistent social ostracism and escalating organized violence, all combined with lukewarm federal protection, motivated many of these veterans to return to the Democratic fold and become partners, rather than opponents, in the so-called "Redemption" movement that was spearheaded by Southern Democrats who had no interest in immediately integrating freedpeople into the body politic of the postwar South. Butler is very likely correct that the North's disappointment in their previously idolized wartime allies and the renewed emphasis on white solidarity in the reconstructed South were principal factors in, if not burying the history of Deep South unconditional unionism, making the popular and scholarly recovery of that historical narrative a very slow process.

A creative blend of military, political, and social history, True Blue insightfully reintroduces the Deep South Unionist minority to the modern reader, explaining their background, their motivations, their wartime service, and their key involvement in the contingent twists and turns of Reconstruction and Redemption. Supplying an important piece of the puzzle when it comes to improving our understanding of that small group's outsized influence on the American experience of the latter half of the nineteenth century, this volume establishes author Clayton Butler as a major new voice in the evolving interpretation of the nature and historical impact of Civil War-era southern unionism more generally. Highly recommended.

1 - Mutiny at Fort Jackson: The Untold Story of the Fall of New Orleans (UNC Press, 2009), A Thrilling Narrative: The Memoir of a Southern Unionist (Univ of Ark Press, 2006), Loyalty and Loss: Alabama's Unionists in the Civil War and Reconstruction (LSU Press, 2004), and Alabamians in Blue: Freedmen, Unionists, and the Civil War in the Cotton State (LSU Press, 2019).
2 - The military, political, and social significance of these units certainly merits standalone study. Butler describes William Stanley Hoole's Alabama Tories: The First Alabama Cavalry, U.S.A., 1862-1865 (1960) as "somewhat boilerplate military history" (pg. 69) and Glenda McWhirter Todd's more recently published roster-history First Alabama Cavalry, USA: Homage to Patriotism (1999, R-2006) as "an amateur history," (pg. 1) so there appears to be ample room for a new, more scholarly treatment of this regiment. I am not aware of the existence of a book-length history of the First Louisiana (US). The Thirteenth Tennessee (US) is one of the featured regiments in James Alex Baggett's Homegrown Yankees: Tennessee's Union Cavalry in the Civil War (2009).

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