Reluctant Confederates: Upper South Unionists in the Secession Crisis. By Daniel W. Crofts. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

            While the Deep South quickly commenced on the secessionist path following Lincolnís victory in 1860, the Upper South reacted very differently.  These differences resulted from the different fundamental nature of nature of Upper South political, social, economic and cultural life.  Daniel Crofts illuminates much of these differences in his work Reluctant Confederates, demonstrating furthermore why the upper South finally left its Unionist sentiments to follow along with the Deep South.

            The upper South in the late 1850s still had a vibrant two-party system, in contrast to the deep South where all opposition had to the Democrats had disappeared.  Following Lincolnís election, the Opposition forces and former Whigs coalesced into a new party, the Unionist party, even if largely informally.  Likewise, the secessionist Democrats largely evolved into the Southern Rights Party.  The Unionist two major groups:  unconditional Unionist and conditional Unionist.  The unconditional Unionist opposed secession.  The conditional Unionist desired a negotiated settlement, but absolutely opposed forceful reunification.

The Upper South contained large areas where the plantation system had not taken hold.  As such, a different culture and economic society took place.  North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia opposed the Deep Southís desire for free trade and resumption of the African slave trade, which would hurt the upper Southís manufacturing and Virginiaís slave trade.  The Upper South had adopted more democratic constitutions in the previous years, removing property based voting barriers, while the Deep South still maintained undemocratic aristocracies such as South Carolina.  The non-slaveholding citizens did not feel common cause with the Deep South regarding the protection of slavery, but felt closely the issue of Southern Honor and largely opposed coercive efforts against reunification methods. 

The Unionists attempted to reach a compromise between the North and Southern Rights Democrats during the early months of 1861.  Leading Unionists such as Congressman Gilmer of North Carolina and Senator Johnson of Tennessee and Senator Crittenden of Kentucky worked for compromise, largely envisioned along the lines of the Missouri Compromise.  The major sticking point became extension of slavery into the territories, including after acquired territories.  The Republicans expressed willingness to protect slavery in the Southern States, but viewed a limitation to further expansion as the minimum compromise.  The Southern Rights adherents viewed a restriction of the expansion of slavery as conceding fundamental Southern Rights as upheld in the Dred Scott decision. 

The Unionist movement won solid victories in the votes concerning the Secessionist Conventions in the early months of 1861.  These victories did not truly reflect that the Upper South rejected the Deep South.  Instead, these victories reflected the desire to remain in the Union with a compromise solution to the slavery issue.  Some northerners misread these victories as a rejection of secession, allowing them to reject reasonable compromise.  Southern Rights adherents reacted to the severe loses by reframing the debate from protection of slavery to defense of Southern Honor, as well attempting to force the Upper South to choose sides in the looming conflict.

Moderate Republicans worked diligently to resolve the crisis without war.  William Seward and Charles Francis Addams worked to resolve the situation.  Seward successfully convinced Lincoln to modify his Inaugural address to reflect a more conciliatory tone.   Republicans aimed to contain the expansion of slavery, not forcefully end the practice.  However, the Southern Rights Democrats viewed any limitation as a violation of their rights, rejecting reasonable compromise in order to pursue their own independence.

Lincolnís decision to attempt to re-supply Fort Sumter did not weaken the Unionist resolve.  The bombing of the fort did not change destroy the Unionist sentiment.  Only the Proclamation for the 75,000 troops pushed the Unionist back together with the secessionists.  They felt betrayed by Lincoln, who they saw as destroying any attempts at compromise by the call for troops.  They refused to cooperate in conquering a fellow southern state.  The three states moved from being strong Unionists to secessionist in only a few days.  The Unionist party disappeared, except in Eastern Tennessee and Northwest Virginia.  Most Unionist joined with the Southern brethren in the Confederate cause and the Unionist party largely disappeared.

Crofts, while setting forth the proposition that the Upper South remained with the North until Lincolnís Proclamation, sees the war as avoidable in the short term.  Seward and the moderate Republicans understood the secessionist movement and its concerns.  They worked strongly for a compromise and hoped that the Unionists could be neutralized during any conflict, or even united in support with the North.

Peter Pratt



Reluctant Confederates: Upper South Unionists in the Secession Crisis. By Daniel W. Crofts. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

            In November 1860 Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States. The following month South Carolina seceded from the Union, followed by six other states from the lower South. But the drive for secession was by no means universal in the slave states. Four states of the Upper South, Virginia Tennessee North Carolina and Arkansas, refused to secede.

            In his book Reluctant Confederates, Daniel W. Crofts examines the cases of three of these states, Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina from the election of Lincoln until the latterís call for 75,000 Ninety-Day volunteers in April, 1861. In the first chapter Crofts introduces the reader to the personalities that helped shape the Unionist movement in the Upper South in the crucial months of 1860-61. Beginning with Lincoln, Stephen Douglas and William H. Seward, Crofts makes his way down to such lesser-known figures as Congressman Robert Hatton of Tennessee and newspaper editor William P. Brownlow.

            From this background, he makes a compelling case for pre-secession political alignments as the main tool used by Unionists to keep their states in the Union. He argues that the people of the three states in question saw their world through fierce partisan lenses. Patriarchs of local communities often influenced how a town or county voted, and this combined with the sharp division between Democrats and moderates of the old Whig Party helped to stabilize the upper South during the secession crisis. Unlike the deep South where political dissent was not tolerated and the Democratic Party had long reigned supreme, the surviving two-party system of the upper South helped to blunt the secessionists in those areas.

            Crofts points out that in the 1850s moderates actually gained ground in the upper South. These moderates continued to hold substantial sway even after Lincolnís election and the secession of the deep South. As secessionists worked to pull these states out of the Union, moderates attempted to work with Republicans in the North to reach a compromise to avert civil war.

Crofts delineates three types of Unionists, unconditional Unionists, anti-coercionists and fast-ultimatimists. The latter were those who felt the Union could only be saved through swift compromise. He points out that of the three, anti-coercionists were by far the most common in the upper South, those who desired to remain in the Union as long as Lincoln took no action to coerce the seceding states into submission.  Nevertheless secessionists attempted to call conventions to consider secession in the states of the upper South.

            In the winter of 1860-61 these conventions boomeranged on the secessionists. Unionists, using the existing party structures, mobilized large pro-Union majorities in all three states. In chapter seven Crofts analyzes in detail the voting patterns of the upper South and comes to the conclusion that an entirely new party, a Unionist Party, was created from the elections. This party emerged from the coalition of former Whigs and moderate Democrats, many of whom had switched from a support of Breckinridge between November and January. However, despite their strong commitment to the Union, this new party needed cooperation from the Republicans to keep from falling apart.

            But Republicans were in no mood to compromise, spurred on by strongly anti-Southern sentiment from their constituents. Some conciliatory Republicans, led by Secretary of State William H. Seward attempted to persuade Lincoln to adopt a compromise position, but hard-liners in their own party led by Horace Greely and Francis P. Blair Sr. convinced Lincoln not to compromise. Finally at the eleventh hour, Lincoln agreed to make his inaugural address of a more conciliatory tone and even moved toward some compromise proposals such as the Thirteenth Amendment, which would guarantee the sanctity of slavery in perpetuity. The new Presidentís actions gave upper South Unionists reasons to hope.

            In one final twist of fate, Lincoln decided to resupply Fort Sumter in mid-April. This led to a Confederate attack on the beleaguered garrison beginning on April 12. But even in the aftermath of Sumter, Unionists in Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina refused to secede. It was only after Lincoln called on the states to supply their part of the 75,000 Ninety-Day volunteers that the anti-coercionist majorities in all three states swept them out of the Union.

            Reluctant Confederates is a watershed in the study of Southern history. Through meticulous research and detailed use of Clio metrics, Daniel Crofts succeeds convincingly in painting a portrait of moderates hopelessly trapped between two segments of the country already at war and forced to become reluctant Confederates.  


John R. Lundberg