“Turncoat Virginians”

When reviewing a Confederate unit history recently, I ran across a remark made by the contemporary author (not a person who actually lived during the Civil War) about the men of Samuel MeansLoudoun Rangers (see this link for an interesting history of the unit… strange to say, the author of this article also uses the word “turncoat” in reference to the Loudoun Rangers). The Loudoun Rangers were, for the most part, Virginans (at least Co. A… Co. B consisted of more Marylanders) from Loudoun County (and the surrounding area) who not only refused to buy into the idea of secession, but were members of a unit in the service of the Union army. Means’ unit was an example of what I consider Southern Unionism taken to the “nth” degree.

When we really take time to consider these Unionist Virginians, were they really “turncoats?”

Well… I have to say that the word “turncoat” is a poor choice. According to the Second College Edition of The American Heritage Dictionary, “turncoat” is defined as “One who traitorously switches allegiance.” At what time did these men switch allegiance? Virginia was a state of the United States… and when had these men, ever, sworn allegiance to Virginia? For that matter, when did they swear an allegiance to the United States? But, before I digress…

Since the men of the Loudoun Rangers did not wear Confederate uniforms before they donned the blue uniforms, the word “turncoat” doesn’t fit.

Maybe some Virginians who bought – lock, stock, and barrel – into the idea of secession and Confederacy, considered these Unionist Virginians as“turncoats,” because the Confederate-leaning Virginians saw things as state first, country second.

On the other hand, the Unionist Virginians of Means’ command probably saw the secessionist Virginians as turncoats, having turned against the United States… the Unionist seeing things as country first, state second.

Bottom line is that the word “turncoat” equates to “traitors.”

Before I go any further, let me be clear here… I’m not going to entertain any comments about the legality of secession, so please don’t submit any. Moving on…

If these dueling Virginians saw each other as traitors, then it was their perspective at the time of the war and I can’t possibly dispute how the two parties judged each other, but I can be suspicious of a contemporary author using the phrase “turncoat Virginians.”

First, I’ll give the author the benefit of the doubt. It may be that the wording is used to immerse the reader more in the mindset of the Confederates who are at the focal point of this work. (I’m personally a big fan of virtual reality in narrative design, but I’m not sure I’m buying it here). The book is a Confederate unit history and the Confederates (or some of them) may have seen the men of the Loudoun Rangers as turncoats against Virginia. Yet, there is no evidence (quotes from the Confederates as to their opinions of Means’ men) anywhere in the text of the book to show that the Confederate Virginians described the Unionist Virginians in blue as “turncoats.”

So, did the author go a little too far? Is this an indication of the author’s personal “sympathies” for the Confederates as well as an indication of a little animosity toward the Loudoun Rangers? Is this an indication that the work is about a “bushel” short of objectivity? Does the author inappropriately weave this sympathy into the history to invoke a sympathetic feeling in the readers for the Confederates and animosity for the Loudoun Rangers?

Unless I can ask the author specifically what his/her intent was in saying this, and because there is an absence of any quotes from the Confederates identifying the Rangers as “turncoats,” my first inclination is to suspect the author of failing in the delivery of objective history. At least it doesn’t appear to be history delivered in a manner for the reader to read, consider, evaluate, and form opinions on his/her own.

Some say that objectivity truly isn’t possible, but would you prefer lack of objectivity being transparent or opaque?

This post is dual posted in Cenantua’s Blog.

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13 Responses to ““Turncoat Virginians””

  1. Marilyn F Marme Says:

    I would agree that the unit was not “turncoats” in any sense of the word, but instead remained loyal to the union when it was extremely difficult to do so. Case in point is my recently discovered ggg grandfather William D Fitzgerald, who was imprisoned in the infamous Castle Thunder in Richmond and died there from starvation, for “disloyalty” although he was not officially charged or tried, as far as we know. During his time there, he wrote a letter to Abraham Lincoln expressing his loyalty to the Union, and his belief that many poor white Southerners, who did not own slaves and had nothing in common with the Sessessionist leaders, had been duped into joining the Rebellion. This letter can be found on the Library of Congress website and is a well-writtten articulation of the Southern Unionist position during the war (1863).

    • Thank you for that comment Marilyn! Where was Fitzgerald from and do you know the circumstances (any account?) of his being taken by Confederate officials?

      • Marilyn Marme Says:

        Yes, the story of William Fitzgerald is described in the book called Devils Game The Civil War Intriques of Charles A Dunham by Carman Cummings (pub 2004) on pages 53-55. According the the book, Dunham actually smuggled out the letter and sent it to Lincoln with a cover letter. Dunham wrote about Fitzgerald in under an alias that was published in the New York Herald in Oct 1863. Although Cummings is very suspicious of Dunham’s veracity (he was convicted of perjury after the War), the story does dovetail with the Faily’s oral history.

  2. Marilyn Marme Says:

    William Davidson Fitzgerald was from Nelson County, Virginia. One of his sons did join the West Virginia Union militia. Another son, my gg grandfather, was conscripted into the 23rd Mississippi Confederate infantry.

  3. Marilyn Marme Says:

    I have received an email from the author of Devils Game, which I would like to discuss with you, Robert. We are researching the other letters that are mentioned in the book, one to General Winder and one to Governor Letcher. The Winder letter is a the VHS. Also I found a possible letter to William Huntington from Fitzgerald pre-Civil War, which could be illuminating. Letchers correspondance is archived at the Virginia Library — not sure when we can get someone there to look. I am in CA, so not feasible for me. The Lincoln letter can be found online here:
    http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/mal:@field(DOCID+@lit(d2466600))
    William D Fitzgerald is also cited in the book George W Alexander and Castle Thunder by Frances Casstevens.

    • This is very interesting, Marilyn. I’d like to look into this further in order to develop a story around it all. Regretfully, I won’t be making a trip to Richmond anytime soon, but will check with someone to see if he can help with the letter there.

      • Marilyn Marme Says:

        Thanks so much. We have so much more info than just a few days ago. First we have a copy of W. Fitzgerald’s letter to Winder. So sad — broke my heart! Also Carman Cumming send me the complete text of the 1863 New York Herald article written by Charles Durham under a pseudonym about William’s death. The article adds more details than the excerpt in the book., including the full text of the heartless letter Gov. Letcher wrote to William Fitzgerald, his friend from Wahington Academy. Love any help you can give !

  4. Where and how can I get a listing of Virginians who served the Union ?
    I am certain from my research that some families here in Gloucester County provided sons to the Union forces, but as yet I have not found a “solid” reference source online.

    Thank you,
    Cy Rilee

  5. james fitz Says:

    hello marylin..william davidson fitzgerald is an ancestor of mine and i would realy like any information you have on him..if you could email it to me it would be greatly appreciated..thank you

  6. Janet Hill Says:

    I am the gg granddaughter of Mary Elizabeth Fitzgerald Anderson Fitzgerald who was a sister to William Davidson Fitzgerald’s wife, Sarah Ann Clarkson Fitzgerald. I knew that William died in Castle Thunder having been labeled a traitor to the South. I also knew that he graduated from Washington College and have a lot of information about the family. I already had a copy of the letter that William wrote to Lincoln from prison, but did not know about the other letters or information about him being included in books, newspapers, etc. I intend to do more research in that area. I would really like to exchange some family information with you if you are interested in doing that.

  7. Lilliann M. Robertson Says:

    I, too, am a ggg daughter of William D. Fitzgerald. My research has shown me a man of pride, a love of his family. He never owned a slave and did not believe in its practice. Therefore, he did not want to leave his family to fight in a war he did not believe in. He did not deserve to die of starvation for defending the way of life he and his ancestors believed to be right. I admire him for sticking to his ideals. He should be honored for bravery instead of being labeled a turncoat or a traitor. Lillian Meeks Robertson, dau. of Mamie Bell Fitzgerald, gg daughter of Achilles Washington Fitzgerald, Nelson County, Virginia

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