Rebels against the Confederacy: North Carolina’s Unionists by Barton A. Myers (review)
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Rebels against the Confederacy: North Carolina’s Unionists. By Barton A. Myers. (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Pp. xv, 288. $90.00. cloth)

There is an enduring myth that the Confederacy united all white southerners against perceived northern aggression. However, as recent scholars have shown, the South was a multifarious place, with devout Confederates certainly, but also defiant Unionists, as well as many caught in the middle. Barton Myers’s new study focuses on North Carolina Unionists, individuals who, he maintains, have been often overlooked and understudied. Previous local and regional accounts have provided us with a sense of North Carolina’s complex Civil War story. However, Myers contends that his book is more expansive in scope and depth of analysis. Noteworthy, too, is Myers’s emphasis on cultural identity. “These Unionists,” he writes, “rebelled against what they viewed as a false Southern Confederate identity” (p. 9).

That identity as a southern Unionist, though, is not easy to define or even prove. Myers finds varying definitions for Unionism and factors to explain why some North Carolinians remained staunchly loyal to the United States. Unionists were often nonslaveholders, former Whigs, older and from the middle or business class, but not all. Many came from the state’s “no man’s land,” six counties in northeastern North Carolina that endured occupation by both Confederate and Federal troops (p. 57). African Americans, too, made up what he deems “two distinctive political coalitions, one anti-Confederate and one actively Unionist” (p. 9).

The Southern Claims Commission papers form the bedrock of Myers’s study. This collection is rich in personal stories and riveting accounts, but Myers is careful in his selection, resting many of his arguments on 362 “allowed claimants” from the state (p. 218). As he describes in an appendix, the process to apply for a claim, and thus prove one’s loyalty to the Union, was often a laborious one, with numerous questions and sworn outside testimonies required. Myers discovers [End Page 97] that examining the disallowed claims reveals a “far murkier and more complex world than the simple outline of loyalty in much of the Civil War historiography” (p. 231). As Myers suggests, strict lines were not always apparent between Confederates and Unionists. States, communities, and even families were bitterly divided in North Carolina.

Myers identifies three inner conflicts that convulsed the state: “raiding warfare,” a “people’s war,” and the “partisan ranger conflict” (p. 150n60). Participants included pro-Confederate guerrillas, anti-Confederate irregulars, as well as Unionist civilians caught in the middle. And in the end, the Confederate government (and state officials) could not assert control over that much inner turmoil.

Rebels against the Confederacy is richly researched and well written. Yet perhaps its most valuable contribution has to do with broader questions of Confederate nationalism and unity. In light of the state’s inner conflict, Myers argues that North Carolina Unionists “played a role in the defeat of the Confederacy through their involvement in the three irregular wars that drew off important resources from the battlefield” (p. 152). To be sure, North Carolina Unionists or any southern Unionists did not determine the outcome of the war. Nonetheless, they did potentially shorten it. And that in itself is significant in terms of lives lost and suffering endured.

In his final chapter, Myers tracks what happened to many Unionists during the postwar era, discovering that their hardships often continued in the form of violence, illness, displacement, and challenges from the very government in which they had placed their faith. To add insult to injury, their existence, let alone their sacrifices and struggles, have largely vanished from the public record. The Lost Cause had no place for southern dissent. [End Page 98]

Lesley J. Gordon

LESLEY J. GORDON is a professor of history at the University of Alabama. She is, most recently, the author of A Broken Regiment: The 16th Connecticut’s Civil War (2014).

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