It wasn’t unusual for Americans to have conflicting loyalties during the Civil War. Northerners were often sympathetic to the Confederate cause, and many poor, non-slaveholding regions of the South were equally reluctant to join the rebellion against the United States. These “Southern Yankee” hotbeds supplied thousands of troops to the North, and some even went so far as to declare neutrality or secede from the Confederacy altogether. Below, learn the unusual stories behind six Civil War-era Southern territories where Unionist sentiment was most widespread.
Scott County, Tennessee
In June 1861, Tennessee became the last state to separate from the Union after voting in favor of secession. The lion’s share of the opposition to the vote came courtesy of the flinty residents of East Tennessee, who were mostly small farmers and mountain people who viewed the affluent, slave-owning planters in the West with contempt. Nowhere was anti-secession sentiment stronger than in remote Scott County, where Unionist Tennessee Senator and future President Andrew Johnson gave a speech just before the referendum. Spurred on by Johnson’s claim that “it is not the free men of the north that [secessionists] are fearing most but the free men South,” some 95 percent of Scott’s citizens voted against the measure—more than in any other part of the state. Later that year, Scott’s county court carried out its own act of rebellion when it approved a resolution to separate from the rest of Tennessee and form the “Free and Independent State of Scott.” The region went on to become one of the main sources of volunteers for the Union’s 7th Tennessee Infantry Regiment, and served as the site of several small but bitter guerilla skirmishes. Amazingly, Scott County would remain an unofficial sovereign entity for 125 years until 1986, when it was readmitted to the state of Tennessee by a formal resolution.
Virginia was home to the capital of the Confederacy and supplied many of its most famous generals, but it also boasted one of Dixie’s most ardent contingents of Unionists. The Old Dominion had long been politically split between wealthy plantation owners in the East and working class farmers and miners in the West, and the tumult of the Civil War only drove an even bigger wedge between the groups. Most Westerners didn’t own slaves—only 4 percent of Virginia’s bondsmen were located there—and they were even more fed up with state appropriations for education and infrastructure, which tended to favor the East. The tensions came to a head shortly after Virginia’s secession in May 1861, when a group of Western politicians began calling for a “New Virginia” that would remain loyal to the Union. Following a pair of meetings in the town of Wheeling that May and June, the Westerners formed the so-called Restored Government of Virginia and elected a new governor. The United States was quick to recognize the movement, and after a public referendum, the new state of West Virginia was admitted to the Union in June 1863. Many West Virginians were still split over the Civil War—the state supplied roughly as many troops to the South as it did the North—but the breakaway was nevertheless a major political coup for the United States. Virginia would later try to repeal West Virginia’s statehood and annex some of its counties after the war, only to be overruled by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Winston County, Alabama
Legend has it that the hill people of Winston County were so opposed to the formation of the Confederacy that they seceded from Alabama and set up their own postal system and army under the banner of the “Free State of Winston.” In truth, the sparsely populated northern county never separated from its home state. It was, however, one of the strongest pockets of pro-Union activity in the Deep South. Most of Winston’s subsistence farmers didn’t own slaves, and they saw Alabama’s secession as an illegal act. Christopher Sheats, the county delegate to the state’s secession convention, was one of the only a few who voted against the ordinance, and he was so outspoken that he was briefly thrown in jail on charges of treason. Shortly after the measure passed, Winston’s residents held a famous meeting at a local tavern and floated the idea of breaking ties with Alabama. While they never formally seceded, many of the county’s young men hid in the hills and forests to avoid conscription by the Confederate army, and others fled north and fought for the Union. By the war’s end, Winston had supplied twice as many soldiers to the North as it had the South.
Jones County, Mississippi
The story of Jones County, Mississippi’s Unionist activities has long been clouded by myth and legend, but most historians agree that this small, wooded backwater was the site of some particularly violent resistance to the Confederacy. The pro-U.S. movement in Jones first crystallized a few years into the Civil War, when the county became a haven for young men who had grown disillusioned with the Confederate cause and deserted the army. Led by a mercurial local named Newton Knight, the runaways organized into a Unionist guerilla outfit called the Knight Company and took to harassing nearby Confederate units. Whether Knight and his band were a principled resistance group or mere bandits has been a matter of debate, but there’s no doubt they succeeded in stirring the political pot. The group effectively disabled the county government, and at one point, its activities sparked rumors that Jones County had seceded from the Confederacy and was flying the stars and stripes over its courthouse. The Knight Company’s disruptive reign continued until April 1864, when Confederate Colonel Robert Lowry used bloodhounds to track the guerillas and drive them from their hideout in the swamps. Newton Knight later resurfaced, however, and after the war, he assisted in U.S. reconstruction efforts in Mississippi.
Searcy County, Arkansas
Even as Arkansas joined in the Confederate march to war, many counties in the Northern part of the state remained ambivalent about separating from the Unites States. Isolated Searcy County was one of the few districts whose delegate originally voted against secession (the vote was later changed in the interest of unanimity), and the mountain community was teeming with Union sentiment. In November 1861, Confederate authorities arrested several dozen Searcy County natives after they were discovered to be part of a clandestine, pro-Union organization known as the Arkansas Peace Society. The prisoners were branded as traitors and marched to Little Rock, where most agreed to join the Confederate army in exchange for clemency. Some later deserted, and other Searcy County men fled north or hid out in the Ozarks to avoid conscription by the Confederacy. Still others switched sides and joined up with the Union, and the region eventually supplied as many as six companies’ worth of troops for the U.S. war effort. Like many backwoods communities, Searcy was also the site of intense guerilla activity. As the war progressed, it played host to bloody skirmishes and looting by both pro-Union and pro-Confederate bushwhackers.
Texas Hill Country
Texas only supplied roughly 2,000 troops to the North compared to more than 70,000 for the Confederacy, yet historians estimate that as many as a third of its citizens continued to support the Unites States after secession. This region of south central Texas was home to some of the Lone Star State’s most hardline Unionists. Its residents included a large contingent of German immigrants, many of them liberal intellectuals who had fled their home country after a failed revolution in 1848. The German transplants typically considered slavery immoral, and many refused to take an oath of loyalty to the Confederacy or join its army. The Hill Country’s resistance put a strain on its relationship with its Confederate neighbors, leading to acts of brutal violence on both sides. The most notorious incident came in August 1862, when around 65 German Unionists tried to flee Texas for Mexico, where they planned to sail for U.S.-held New Orleans. When they stopped to camp along the Nueces River, the Unionists fell under ambush by around 100 Confederate cavalrymen. Nineteen Germans were killed in the initial attack, and several others were later executed as traitors to the Southern cause.