Commemorating CHM: The Fourth Side


The historian Margaret Storey was nice enough to send me a note on a CHM post in which I argued that African-Americans constituted a third side in the War. Storey argues for a fourth side--white Unionists in the South who resisted secession and, at times, collaborated with slaves (and escaped slaves) against the Confederacy. Storey's book discusses Unionists in Alabama. I'll have more on it after I've had a chance to check it out.

The basic math will be familiar to most Civil War nerds. Slavery was most practiced in the low-land areas where planters could create these broad sprawling plantations. In the hilly Appalachian regions there were very few planters, and thus slavery didn't take root on a large-scale. (I'm surely simplifying here, and I'd welcome someone smarter than me explaining the problems of setting up a plantation in the mountains.) Not only were these people less likely to be slave-owners, they were less likely to live around big planters and thus be drawn into the web of systemic white supremacy. (Think yeoman farmers serving on slave patrols, for instance.)

So when the Civil War broke out, many of those living in the Appalachian region (West Virginia, western North Carolina, east Tennessee and Alabama) really had no tangible reason to fight. In the geography of Southern unionist you see another refutation to the notion that the Civil War wasn't about slavery. The areas of the South that most resisted secession tended to be the areas where the lowest slave populations was the lowest.

Anyway, here's a nice entry on the 1st Alabama Calvary, a Union regiment comprised mostly of southern loyalists who resisted secession. Also there's some great info on Chris Sheats who was imprisoned by the Confederates for most of the war on the charge of treason (!!) because he refused to go along with secession. I love the logic here:

We agree with Jackson that no state can legally get out of the Union; but if we are mistaken in this, and a state can lawfully and legally secede or withdraw, being only a part of the Union, then a county, any county, being a part of the state, by the same process of reasoning, could cease to be a part of the state.

Again, not to simplify things, but Southerners in search of a counter-narrative don't have to look far. It's all out there. A quick note of sadness, or rather silly romanticism. Thinking about a time when white Appalachians and black slaves were allied makes you despair about what's happened since. Again it's romantic and silly, and maybe a bit Marxist, but also human.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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