Friday, April 11, 2014

Voices of Southern Dissent

I currently reside in Virginia.  I have a son who was born here.  But I struggle with the state's Southern identity, an identity which, for many, is bound up in the American Civil War and the experience of secession.  I don't mean to suggest that all Virginians are racist or that Southern pride is nothing more than support for slavery.  But, because the Confederate rebellion was a part of Virginia's history, many Virginians feel the need to support it or at least remain silent on the matter.  As someone opposed to the rebellion of the Southern states and their practice of slavery, I find this position problematic.

But I think it is worth mentioning that the South was not monolithicly pro-secession in the 19th century and thus need not make a pro-secessionist bent part of its identity today.

Consider, for example, the Loudoun Rangers, a cavalry unit raised in 1862 in northern Virginia, a unit which fought on behalf of the Union and tangled with Mosby's partisans.

Or let us consider Texas, a state which was my adoptive home for eight years.  Sam Houston, one of the founding fathers of the Republic of Texas, was elected governor in 1859.  Houston was no liberal humanitarian: although he enjoyed warm relations with the Cherokee Indians, he owned slaves and opposed abolitionist efforts to free them.  However, he saw secession as ill-advised and treasonous.  When a Texas convention voted for secession and subsequent accession to the Confederacy, Houston refused to recognize the moves, calling them illegal.  Houston was eventually removed from office for refusing to take the Confederate oath.  He explained:
Fellow-Citizens, in the name of your rights and liberties, which I believe have been trampled upon, I refuse to take this oath. In the name of the nationality of Texas, which has been betrayed by the Convention, I refuse to take this oath. In the name of the Constitution of Texas, I refuse to take this oath. In the name of my own conscience and manhood, which this Convention would degrade by dragging me before it, to pander to the malice of my enemies, I refuse to take this oath. I deny the power of this Convention to speak for Texas....I protest....against all the acts and doings of this convention and I declare them null and void.
This is the kind of political idealism - whatever the costs - that Southerners love.  It is also deeply Unionist.  Regarding the war to come, Houston proved himself more clear-sighted than his opponents:
Let me tell you what is coming. After the sacrifice of countless millions of treasure and hundreds of thousands of lives, you may win Southern independence if God be not against you, but I doubt it. I tell you that, while I believe with you in the doctrine of states rights, the North is determined to preserve this Union. They are not a fiery, impulsive people as you are, for they live in colder climates. But when they begin to move in a given direction, they move with the steady momentum and perseverance of a mighty avalanche; and what I fear is, they will overwhelm the South.
Houston and the men of the Loudoun Rangers were rare, but not unique.  North Texas was full of German and Czech settlers - some of them refugees from the revolutions of 1848 in Europe - who supported the Union.  West Virginia was so off-put by the war of secession it seceded from rebel Virginia.  In addition to the many African-American units raised from among the freed slaves of the South, white Unionist forces were also raised.  The 1st Alabama Cavalry was formed in 1862 by men who opposed secession - most from Alabama, but some from elsewhere, including Georgia.  The regiment fought in various campaigns and was present for the surrender of the rebel Army of Tennessee in 1865.  Arkansas raised eight white regiments and six colored regiments for the Union.  Similar units were raised in Louisiana and North Carolina.  Tennessee formed upwards of 30 regiments in the service of the Union.

I am looking forward to reading David Downing's A South Divided: Portraits of Dissent in the Confederacy.  This is a Southern legacy I may be able to embrace and teach to my children.

Quotations are from James l. Haley, Sam Houston, University of Oklahoma Press (2004), by way of the estimable Wikipedia, which also supplied the image.

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