“Leave-aloners” and Southern Unionism

It’s not some new revelation of mine, and I’ve often thought that some folks have misunderstood me when I talk about Southern Unionism, but reluctance amongst Southerners was not always an indicator of Unionism. Granted, there were indeed Southern Unionists, and there were different levels of Southern Unionists, some even being unconditional Unionists. Then, there were also those who embraced the Confederacy. Somewhere in-between these Unionists and Confederates were a people who have been overlooked, perhaps even more so than Southern Unionists. I call these people, the “leave-aloners.”

Who were the “leave-aloners”? They were people who, in some cases like Jimmy Stewart in the movie Shenandoah, wanted no part in the war, whether that be in blue or gray. They were concerned with that which was theirs. The problem with this was that the war, or more accurately, some of the people who went one way or the other (blue or gray), wouldn’t allow these “leave-aloners” to remain… left alone.

Between peer pressure and the Confederate conscript hunters, it was hard for a reluctant Southern man to remain out of the Confederate army (… to say nothing of the pressure applied by some women… but, that’s another story). On the other hand, I’ve encountered situations in which Southerners got so fed-up with the pressures of the Confederate conscript hunters and/or depredations at the hands of the Confederate army (yes, the Confederate army wasn’t always nice to its own people) that they became refugees, went to the Union army, and sometimes opted to don the blue uniform. Sometimes it was a measure to avoid the hunters and/or to simply survive… and sometimes it was a means to get back at those who had made life so difficult on the homefront.

Likewise, the depredations at the hands of Union army were enough to push a “leave-aloner” over the edge and join the Confederate army. Some of these same people, however (as well as some who had enlisted earlier on), eventually couldn’t quite grasp the concept that by serving 100 (as in the case of Virginians fighting in Virginia… although I have seen desertions of Virginians when under 50 miles of home) or over 1,200 miles away (as in the case of Texans fighting in Virginia) how they were helping to defend hearth and home. In this case, the occasional AWOL and, in some cases, eventual desertion, must have seemed a better alternative to serving so far away from the family and farm. The problem with these desertions is that we don’t always understand if those who deserted did so because of this exact reason which I cite here, or whether they deserted because they became disaffected/disillusioned with the Confederacy…. or, wait for it… if they were Southern Unionists at the beginning of it all.

Yes, I’ve digressed from the focus of this post… “leave-aloners”, but this brief discussion of “leave-aloners” serves as a vessel to bring us to the reality that confronted the reluctant Southern age-eligible-for-service male. It also reminds us that we most certainly should avoid thinking that being Southern automatically meant “being for the Confederacy.”


6 Responses to ““Leave-aloners” and Southern Unionism”

  1. Marilyn Marme Says:

    Interesting. I expect the majority of people just wanted to be “left alone” especially because the actual number of slaveholders, even in the South, was such a small percentage. My ggg grandfather, who was an active Southern Unionist and Abolitionist from Virginia, had 3 military age sons. One of the “charges” against him was that he encouraged his sons to evade conscription. Family history says the oldest son (named after Henry Ruffner ) did avoid conscription by whupping the officer who tried to pick him up and then hiding out. The second son (my gg grandfather) joined the MS 23rd CSA Infantry, was captured by the Union, imprisoned at Camp Douglas then exchanged. Later, back in MS, he deserted near his hometown, was picked up again by the Union, signed a loyalty oath and became a Union Scout. (He deserted the CSA at the exact time his father was dying in Castle Thunder). The third son escaped to West Virginia and fought for the Union.

    • While I think there were quite a few folks who wanted to be left alone, I don’t think we will ever quantify them in specifics. Because of many of the things that I mentioned in the post, it is very difficult to figure out what, specifically, was at the core of motivation or reluctance in many. Without diaries and letters that specify what they felt, we have to read other evidence, and, I think that, in most cases, we will have to remain with “it appears” or “it seems from other evidence that” when it comes to trying to grapple with these things.

      Additionally, there were plenty of non-slaveholders at the opening of the way who were quite enthusiastic about going to war for the Confederacy. I don’t think that slavery or the aspiration to become a slaveholder was at the top of the list for most of the common folks who became privates. Likewise, there were slaveholders in Maryland who were enthusiastic about supporting the Union… and slaveholders in the deeper South who can be counted in the list of Southern Unionists.

      • Many of the Unionists in northwest Alabama did indeed want to be left alone. Many of them were of Scots-Irish descent and stated their ancestors came to this country from Scotland and Ireland looking for a place to worship as they pleased, and America embraced them and allowed them to do that. They also stated their grandfathers fought too long and suffered too much for this country during the Revolutionary War and they refused to fight against the same country and would not fire on “Old Glory”, the Flag of their forefathers. Some also stated their ancestors helped settle and form this country and it was unthinkable for them to fight against that same country. Hundreds of them fled to the mountains hiding out in the “Old Rock House” and other caves. However, they were finally found by the Confederates and ordered to join up with them or be shot. Many escaped while others joined just long enough to escape, make their way to the Union lines and join the Union.

  2. Kevin Ellis Says:


    Some enlightening reading on the subject;

    War at Every Door; Partisan Politics & Guerrilla Violence in East Tennessee 1860-1869 by Noel C Fischer

    The Civil War in North Carolina; Soldiers’ and Civilians’ Letters and Diaries 1861-1865, Volume 2: The Mountains, edited by Christopher M Watford

    Bushwhackers, The Civil War in North Carolina, The Mountains,
    by William R. Trotter

    The Thrilling Adventures of Daniel Ellis, the Union Guide, Daniel Ellis ( Overmountain Press )

    • Thanks, Kevin. I have links to one or two of these in my side-bar, but appreciate the reminder to folks that there are good sources out there about Southern Unionism.

  3. Some of the same things happened in Texas, especially the GermanTexan families, who just wanted to be left along, they had no reason to fight aganist the Union,, but the CSA sent troops an they fought, with many of the German Texans being killed, an some fleeing to Mexico. There were pitched battles within the state, not just minor skirmishs. Very little history is written about these problems.
    Many of these were my relatives.

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