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W&L's Myers Tells Untold Story of Southern Unionists in New Book

Southern Unionists of the Civil War were erased from history by writers of the Lost Cause, who promoted the mythology of a united Confederacy. Now Barton A. Myers, assistant professor of history at Washington and Lee University, tells the story of one state’s Unionists in “Rebels Against the Confederacy: North Carolina’s Unionists” (Cambridge University Press).

Myers “demonstrates the impact of Unionism on the course of the war in North Carolina and provides a model for careful analysis of opposition experience in wartime,” says Aaron Sheehan-Dean of Louisiana State University.

“I was surprised and shocked at the extent of the disruption caused by the Southern Unionists on the home front,” recalled Myers. “For years, Civil War historians have thought that the reason why the Confederacy fell apart in late 1864 or 1865 was primarily due to what was happening on the battlefield in Northern Virginia. Now we’re finding out that there was another military story going on back home that was just as interesting, just as violent and ultimately just as disruptive for the Confederate cause.”

Myers diverges in his ten-year study from earlier studies of Southern Unionists in the scope and depth of analysis he brings to the subject, blending the techniques of social, political and military history. He focused on North Carolina, where Unionists composed between four and six percent of the white male population and 35 out of 90 counties were embroiled in some type of guerrilla warfare.

Myer’s extensive sources included the case files of the Southern Claims Commission. It was set up after the Civil War by the U.S. government to remunerate Southerners who had been loyal to the Union but whose property had been confiscated by the Union Army. He also read memoirs, diaries, and military papers by Unionists and Confederates, and examined hundreds of enlistment and pension records of the 10,000 Union soldiers who were born in North Carolina.

“I was able to take a collection of several hundred of these people and then go deeper into the manuscript collections within the North Carolina Archives and the National Archives, in D.C.,” said Myers. “I was compelled by their stories after I started to read them, and I thought that this story really needs to be told—where the Southern Unionists went, how they ended up resisting and the problems they encountered during the four years of war.”

The Confederates never understood the resistance of the Unionists as a major military problem, found Myers, instead viewing them as criminals and disruptors of local order. “Some of the testimonies I read were very ugly, jarring and depressing,” said Myers. “White Unionists faced constant suspicion, threats of violence, charges of treason, torture and sometimes death.”

One story that struck Myers and that he described as fairly typical, concerned 16-year-old Unionist Willie Barrow. To keep him from being conscripted into the Confederate army, his Unionist stepmother resorted to hiding him in a cave and disguising him in his twin sister’s clothing.

Approximately one third of the people in Myer’s study were, at some point, arrested or imprisoned by the Confederate Army with the hope of taking them to fight in Virginia, such as two Quaker brothers—pacifists—who were captured and tortured by the Confederate Army.

The Unionists fought back in a variety of ways.

Some joined the Union Army, serving in eight regiments, four black and four white. Others created clandestine political networks and secret organizations within the South, such as the Heroes of America, which numbered approximately 10,000 people. They also fought back at the local level, resisting the Confederate draft laws, refusing to use Confederate currency and attacking the Confederate Army.

Myers found that it wasn’t until the 1930s that scholars in the South wrote about the disaffection and disloyalty among white Unionists. “It was then that I started to ask where the Southern Unionists were in the source material. Had someone suppressed this story? Those questions prompted me to write the book,” he said.

With a major economic decline in the South after the war, Southern Unionists continued to be persecuted for their wartime beliefs after the restoration of white democratic government in the South. Many of the Unionists became Republicans and thus targets of the Ku Klux Klan.

“But perhaps the worst thing that was done to these people was that their entire story was erased at the hands of people like Zebulon Baird Vance, the Confederate war governor of North Carolina, who essentially wrote his state’s version of Confederate history, omitting the story of all resistance on the home front,” said Myers.

Myer’s earlier book, “Executing Daniel Bright: Race, Loyalty, and Guerrilla Violence in a Coastal Carolina Community, 1861–1865,” won the 2009 Jules and Frances Landry Award for the best book in Southern Studies published by Louisiana State University Press. He has received a fellowship from the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, a Russell Weigley grant and an Andrew W. Mellon research fellowship.

Myers teaches the American Civil War, war and society, the U.S. South and public history at Washington and Lee. He received his B.A. from the College of Wooster and his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Georgia, Athens. He was also a Miller Postdoctoral Fellow in military history at Cornell University.