Turning the Tide: The Reconstruction of Alabama's White Unionists

by Clayton J. Butler | | Tuesday, April 12, 2022 - 19:05

In October 1874, as Congressional Reconstruction tottered and its fate hung in the balance, Democrat and former Confederate general John Morgan exulted over the coming gubernatorial election in Alabama. “A great and mighty army,” he predicted, “marching beneath the white banner, and white to the core, is coming from the mountains to our relief.”[1] Many of those mountain men, Morgan knew, were former Union soldiers hailing from the state’s once anti-secessionist northern counties. A decade earlier they had put their lives on the line to oppose the Confederacy, but they now stood poised to deliver the state back to the Democratic Party, banish the agents of so-called Radicalism, and “redeem” it from Republican rule.

This move on the part of Alabama’s Unionists did not represent the U-turn it might seem to us now. It was simply a reversion to the political status quo antebellum. Unlike in the Upper and Border South, most white Unionists from the Deep South had been Democrats – not Whigs – before the war. Their return to the Democratic Party fold after the temporary realignment of the war years represents a crucial, if frequently overlooked, development in the course of Reconstruction. Former Unionists, and the communities that had fostered them, held the key to the electoral success or failure of the Republican Party – and thus Reconstruction – in Alabama. Ultimately, with the integrity of the Union secure, they made the fateful choice to ally themselves with their former Confederate foes to hold the color line against their Black former comrades, setting the stage for the establishment of Jim Crow and a further century of Black disenfranchisement and oppression. As Morgan predicted, Democratic candidate George S. Houston did indeed defeat the Republican incumbent David P. Lewis for the governorship in 1874, largely on the strength of the white vote in the northern counties. Alabama did not elect another Republican Governor until 1986.

David P. Lewis, the final bastion of Radical Reconstruction in Alabama state politics, had been a lifelong Democrat and a slave-owner up until the outbreak of the Civil War. Born in Virginia, he took law classes at UVA but settled permanently in Alabama, where he voted against secession in 1861 as a representative of Lawrence County. Like most other north Alabamians who opposed secession, including Jeremiah Clemens and fellow future governors Lewis E. Parsons and William H. Smith, he had supported Stephen A. Douglas for president in 1860. Douglas represented not only the northern but also the Unionist Democratic candidate: the one whose election would stave off secession and – unlike John C. Breckenridge or John Bell – had an actual chance of national victory. For those southern Democrats clear eyed enough to see that Breckenridge had no viable path to the presidency but who still balked at the prospect of disunion, Douglas became the only choice.

Douglas performed creditably in Alabama. He carried the counties of Lauderdale, Lawrence, Madison and Marshall – all in the Tennessee Valley – as well as Mobile, and fought to a virtual tie (44% to 44.3% for Breckenridge) in Morgan County. The “Little Giant” also made a good showing but ultimately came up just short in Walker (35%), Winston (37.7%), and Blount (42.6%) counties.[2] It was from these counties that the preponderance of Union soldiers from Alabama soon emerged.

The vast majority of white Alabamians who made the audacious decision to join the Union army did so because of a longstanding hostility toward the planter class which had arrogated to itself the lion’s share of political and economic power in the state and instigated secession and war.[3] Many suffered serious depredations at the hands of Confederate partisans before the arrival of Federal forces and took a measure of revenge whenever they had the opportunity—most notably when they rode in the vanguard of Sherman’s March to the Sea. Over the course of the conflict Alabama’s white Unionists by and large came to condone emancipation as a necessary war measure, just punishment, and future check on the Slave Power—but retained a deep-seated racism toward African Americans that the war did nothing to alter. For these atypical Alabamians, the salvation of the Union – with or without slavery intact – overrode all other concerns. In this respect they resembled the War Democrats, and found their political avatar in the most famous southern Unionist of all: Andrew Johnson.

For their uncommon and unconditional loyalty these Alabamians garnered the respect of many a grateful Northerner. At the end of 1864 a short profile of the First Alabama Cavalry (U.S.), the standard-bearer for white Unionists in the state, appeared in the New York Daily Tribune. In its ranks, wrote the correspondent, “are to be found some of the original true blue Southern Unionists . . . [and] it is needless for me to speak of the intelligence and patriotism of this patriotic body of Alabamians, for their severe denunciation of the rebellion and McClellanism is the best proof of that . . . All honor to the First Alabama Cavalry, and may their lives be spared to reap the rich reward of their unadulterated loyalty.”[4]

In the uncertain weeks and months after Appomattox and the return of peace, many Northerners – reluctant to hand the reins back to former rebels or over to recently emancipated former slaves – looked to white Southern Unionists to assume a leading role in the reconstruction of their states. And some did try. Almost immediately, however, Unionists found themselves overwhelmed by the return of unrepentant and rapidly rehabilitated former Confederates. President Johnson’s lenient policy backfired. Given an inch, the erstwhile rebels took a mile, reinstalled themselves in office, and once again began to harass and torment former Unionists. Backed into a corner, Unionists determined that real political power was the only way to adequately protect themselves. And the only way to secure political power was Black suffrage. The Alabama Union League framed the issue succinctly in early 1867 when it posited the question: “shall we have him [the freedman] for our ally, or the rebel for our master?”[5] As with emancipation, Black suffrage would serve as a means to an end, and not the end in itself. Thus, for a brief moment, former Unionists and former slaves came together as Republicans to break former Confederates’ stranglehold on Southern politics.[6]

But it did not last. Conservatives countered with a sustained campaign of intimidation and social ostracism backed by the threat of violence from the Ku Klux Klan, which functioned as a paramilitary arm of the Democratic Party during these years. The tenuous alliance that made up the Republican coalition collapsed almost as quickly as it had come together. Many former Unionists began to recoil from their political détente with African Americans. The partnership, always vulnerable, began to fracture under severe pressure, and violence made the dysfunction decisive. Exploiting Southern Unionists’ anxiety and evident moral paralysis, an article in De Bow’s Review advised: “better the friendship of your neighbor across the road or in the next county, than your neighbor in Boston or New Hampshire. You cannot successfully oppose an overwhelming public opinion. Insist upon it, and sooner or later you go down. Acknowledge the fact . . . and you will be received back into the family fold.”[7]

Perhaps no development illustrates the final disassociation of white Unionism from Republicanism in the Deep South more effectively than the election of Democrat George S. Houston to the governorship of Alabama in 1874. Houston, a prewar lawyer, planter, and U.S. congressman, had also supported Stephen A. Douglas for president in 1860 and had voiced opposition to secession. Though not a strictly unconditional Unionist, Houston had taken no action to support the Confederacy. Maintaining a posture of neutrality, he chose to ride out the war at his home in Athens. His 1874 nomination for governor represented a deliberate play by Bourbon Democrats to win back the vote of the former Unionists of northern Alabama. He was a white supremacist who would hold the color line but one who did not come from the ranks of former Confederates inherently antagonistic to Unionists. Though some Democrats expressed reservations, uneasy about the fact that Houston was “popular with the tory element in north Alabama,” the gambit paid off.[8] Democrats picked up nearly 14,000 votes over their 1872 totals in the northern section of the state, while the Republican vote count remained roughly the same. Former Unionists had thrown their support decisively to Houston, returning to their prewar political home in the Democratic Party—in one fell swoop condemning both the Republican Party and the prospect of meaningful Black civil rights in Alabama for almost a century.

It can be difficult, but it remains crucial for us today to understand how Unionists could so directly and knowingly contribute to the disenfranchisement of African Americans during Reconstruction, on whose side they had ostensibly fought through four years of war. For most white Americans in the nineteenth century – and perhaps especially for most white Southerners – the salvation of the Union, the emancipation of enslaved people, and the subsequent achievement of civil rights represented distinct, separate causes that did not necessarily follow from one another. Many white Southern Unionists, satisfied that the integrity of the Union was no longer under threat, came to view Black suffrage as superfluous at best and, more often, as intolerable and insulting. As one Freedman’s Bureau official noted of former Unionists in Alabama, “there seems to be a strong desire to get back into the Union but they don’t want the black man to have anything to do with it.”[9] Without understanding how this is possible we cannot understand them, nor can we understand the course of American history that has brought us to where we are now. Alabama’s white Unionists fought on the right side during the Civil War – a brave and dangerous choice – but not, it would seem, for the reasons we would wish.

Author biography: Clayton J. Butler is a postdoctoral fellow at the Nau Center for Civil War History and the author of True Blue: White Unionists in the Deep South during the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Images: (1) Portrait of Governor David P. Lewis (Alabama Department of Archives and History); (2) Alabama in 1860, detail from “Map Showing the Distribution of the Slave Population of the Southern States of the United States Compiled from the Census of 1860” (Library of Congress); (3) Cover of True Blue: White Unionists in the Deep South during the Civil War and Reconstruction (Louisiana State University Press).

[1] Selma (AL) Argus quoted in Mobile Register, Oct. 4, 1874.

[2] Walter Dean Burnham, Presidential Ballots, 1836-1892 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Press, 1955), 492.

[3] A full explanation of their motivations, expectations, and experiences is beyond the scope of this short essay, though a growing literature exists for those interested to read more. See, for example, Margaret M. Storey, Loyalty and Loss: Alabama’s Unionists in the Civil War and Reconstruction (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2004) and Christopher M. Rein, Alabamians in Blue: Freedmen, Unionists, and the Civil War in the Cotton State (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 2019).

[4] Reprinted in the Sacramento (Ca.) Daily Union, December 28, 1864.

[5] Great Republic (Washington, DC), February 14, 1867.

[6] So-called “carpetbaggers,” the third element of the Republican triumvirate, often took leadership roles in Southern politics during Reconstruction – in fact, George E. Spencer, the New York-born colonel of the First Alabama Cavalry, served as U.S. senator – but Northern transplants never constituted a significant voting bloc.

[7] Anon., “A Talk with Radicals,” De Bow’s Review, XXXIV (1866), 346.

[8] R. K. Boyd to Robert McKee, Apr. 29, May 16, 1874, reel 1, McKee Papers, Alabama Department of Archives and History.

[9] W. T. Esoing to Charles Buckley, May 14, 1867, reel 3, “Unregistered Letters,” Records of the Superintendent of Education for the State of Alabama, RG 105.