Voices in the Wilderness: Southerners who Opposed Secession

James L. Petigru (1789-1863) argued for decades for the preservation of the Union.

Each April on the anniversary of the first shots of the Civil War, many romanticize the Confederacy and the Lost Cause. Given the extensive coverage of famous battles, generals, and the devastating loss of life, we might be forgiven for ignoring many interesting subtleties that contribute to the larger picture of the Civil War. For instance, we rarely hear about those southerners who opposed secession and were pro-Union in the Civil War. Many assume that, in 1861, every southerner was crowing for States Rights and eager to sever ties with her mother country. Exploring lesser known details, like the Southern Unionist movement, can contribute to a better understanding of our complex past.

One brilliant legal mind, South Carolinian James L. Petigru (1789-1863) argued for decades for the preservation of the Union. He was politically active in the 1830s in opposition to Nullification and throughout the decades leading to Secession in the 1860s. In 1847, when Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts visited Charleston, it seems Petigru was involved in Webster’s visit to reaffirm good will between Massachusetts and South Carolina after sectional rifts resulted during the Nullification crisis.

Petigru obituary in the Nashville daily union, March 28, 1863.

In 1861, Petigru argued a case questioning the constitutionality of the Sequestration Act and the Confederate Government when he was served with a writ of garnishment instructing him to turn over his property to the newly formed Confederate Government. Despite the fact that it seems J. L. Petrigru spent his career as a political minority, an epitaph in the Nashville Daily Union, March 28, 1863 remembered the great man as “Faithful Among the Faithless…in the [Nullification crisis] of 1830-33 and in the secession movement of 1860-61, Mr. Petigru held fast to his loyalty to the Union [at] the sacrifice of popularity.” He might have gotten the last laugh when he surmised that secession was a “Lost Cause” prior to the war, remarking that “South Carolina is too small to be a republic, and too large to be an insane asylum.”

To read more articles about James L. Petigru, perform a search yourself in Chronicling America. Search All States, narrow the Date Range to 1836-1865, and enter Petigru in the Search box.

Governor Sam Houston (1793-1863) was removed from office when he refused to take the Confederate oath.

In March 1861, Sam Houston was asked to step down as Governor of Texas when the state legislature seceded from the Union and he refused to take the oath of the Confederacy. In the White Cloud Kansas Chief paper on April 4, 1861 they note that “Old Sam Houston retains his patriotic streak longer than had been expected and will not aid in secession.” Another article in The Perrysburg Journal (Perrysburg, Ohio) on April 11, 1861 recounts Governor Houston’s protest upon being removed from office.

When asked about his opposition to secession, Gov. Houston prophetically told his fellow Texans their future. “Let me tell you what is coming. After the sacrifice of countless millions of treasure and hundreds of thousands of lives, you may win [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 [and] 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” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sam_Houston).

To find similar articles about Sam Houston in the Civil War era in Chronicling America, try searching All States, Narrow the Date Range to 1861 to 1865, and enter Sam Houston in the Simple Search box.

Elizabeth van Lew (1818-1900) served as a Union spy while residing in Richmond, Virginia.

Other less famous individuals maintained allegiances to the Union during the Civil War. One woman, Elizabeth van Lew (1818-1900), nicknamed Crazy Bet, acted as a Union spy in her hometown of Richmond, Virginia. She also operated a larger spy ring that infiltrated the Confederate Department of the Navy and the Confederate Department of War. A retrospective article in the Washington times (Washington, D.C.), June 29, 1902, describes in detail her various accomplishments as a spy. Her obituary explains further her involvement in the war, keeping in contact with General Grant himself whenever his movements brought him near to Richmond.

Other southerners who sided with the Union acted as spies, such as one Mrs. Thompson, whose husband joined the 1st Tennessee Union cavalry and served in the Union army. While living in east Tennessee, she acted as a spy on many occasions and working in concert with her husband she was able to assist in the recruitment of 900 men to the Union army.

To find similar articles like these, try searching in Chronicling America for All States, Narrow Date Range to 1861 to 1865, and search Union Spy in the simple search box. To include retrospective articles, you might expand the Date Range from 1861 to 1922.

Many other southerners publicly maintained their allegiance to the United States and followed the Union into the Civil War. General Winfield Scott, a Virginian, and Brigadier General Montgomery Meigs from Georgia, both career U.S. Army men, chose to stay with the Union Army at the outbreak of the war. Governor Francis Pierpont, a native Virginian, became the Civil War era governor of West Virginia when that entire section of Virginia broke away from the state of Virginia at the outbreak of war. He also served as the Reconstruction governor of all of Virginia after the Civil War. North Carolina Governor William Holden became an outspoken opponent of the war and a leader in the North Carolina Peace movement during the Civil War. And native Virginian, John Minor Botts, who was arrested in 1862 for “manifesting Union proclivities” remained neutral and chose not to fight against his home state of Virginia.

The 1866 Convention of Southern Unionists was held in Philadelphia.

There are countless examples of individuals who bravely chose the unpopular path of resistance to Secession and the Confederacy. Try some searches yourself and you will doubtless find more fascinating accounts like these! The following terms might be a good starting point for your own searching in Chronicling America: Anti-secessionist, Unionist Democrats, Southern Unionists, Southern Loyalists, Union Loyalists, Lincoln Loyalists. Let us know if you find an article you’ve just got to share!

1. Photo of James L. Petigru, Courtesy of University of South Carolina Digital Collections.

2. Obituary of James L. Petigru, Courtesy of Chronicling America, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83025718/1863-03-28/ed-1/seq-2/.

3. Photo of Governor Sam Houston, Courtesy of ETV, http://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/people/d_h/houston.htm.

4. Photo of Elizabeth van Lew, Courtesy of Chronicling America, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn87062245/1902-06-29/ed-1/seq-28/.

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