The Confederate States of America, or “the Confederacy,” was a political entity formed on February 4th of 1861 after the southern states of the United States voted to secede from the Union on January 9th. It was a nation that fought a war against the Union for a total of four years and nine months. However, the Confederacy was eventually defeated, and on May 9th 1871 it surrendered its last outpost of resistance at Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina.
Just like the men who joined the Confederate army, the men who joined the Union army were fighting for many different reasons. Some wanted to fight for the right to vote, others believed they were fighting for the control of the west, and still others were fighting for the freedom of the slaves. But they all fought for something.
In the early 1800s, the South was a hotbed of conflict between states’ rights and the federal government in the run-up to the Civil War. By 1850, the United States was divided in half, with the states of the Old Confederacy fighting to uphold their sovereign rights and states like Massachusetts, New York and Connecticut attempting to enforce federal laws against the rebels.. Read more about georgia union regiments and let us know what you think.
General Sherman’s March to the Sea was led by Alabama cavalrymen.
When Major General William Tecumseh Sherman prepared to leave Atlanta in the fall of 1864, he chose the 1st Alabama Cavalry, a regiment of White soldiers drawn from the Confederacy’s heartland, to play a critical role in the upcoming campaign. Since the start of the war, the US military and political leadership had been looking for loyal white Southerners prepared to take the Union light to the heart of secession. The 1st Alabama would now assist in this endeavor. What were these men’s names? How did they come to vehemently reject the Confederacy and embrace the Union in its purest form? How does their role as the commander of Sherman’s army, assisting Uncle Billy in bringing his style of hard war to the Deep South, contribute to our understanding of one of the war’s most infamous chapters?
Sherman made it plain when he deployed the 1st Alabama that he was not fighting the South; he was fighting treason and betrayal. Many of the White Southerners who joined the 1st Alabama were enraged by the separatist planter class, which had amassed the lion’s share of political and economic power in the region and precipitated the crisis. Before the arrival of Union forces in 1862, a number of people had experienced significant depredations at the hands of Confederate partisans, and they sought vengeance whenever they could. When Sherman unleashed them in Georgia, he was determined to give them one.
The 1st Alabama Cavalry’s core came from the state’s northern region, for which it was called. In the winter of 1860-61, the upcountry counties at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains demonstrated a strong ambivalence—if not outright opposition—to secession, in contrast to the black belt of Alabama, which housed the majority of the state’s slaveowners and enslaved people. According to historian Margaret Storey, upcountry dwellers were frequently merely a sliver of “Alabama’s staple crop and slave economy,” and had significantly less contact with African Americans or anyone who were not smallholding farmers like themselves.
These men were all members of the 1st Alabama Cavalry. Captains Phillip Sternberg and Erasmus Chandler, from top left clockwise; 1st Lt. James Swift, who was killed in action near Joel’s Plantation, Ga., on October 26, 1863; and Major Micaiah Fairfield. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
Many hill country communities remained segregated. As a result, unlike in other sections of the Deep South, the election of a Republican president and the prospect of abolition of slavery—as unpleasant as the subject probably looked to them—did not amount to a reason for the dissolution of the Union. Northern Alabama’s geographical isolation, as well as its unique economic and social circumstances, generated a secret wellspring of Unionism in the Confederacy’s heartland. Many White Alabamians continued to reject the imposition of Confederate rule after the secession ordinance passed, even in the state where the country formally began, and welcomed the Union Army as liberators when elements first arrived in 1862.
William Gray, 1st Lt, was a quartermaster. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
Admiral Andrew H. Foote reported to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles in February of that year, after an early foray up the Tennessee River, that “Union sentiment in…North Alabama [is] very strong,” and that he would order an infantry regiment to accompany the next gunboat up the river, “which will aid the loyal people…to raise Union forces within their borders.” J.R. Phillips, a 26-year-old Fayette County farmer, was one of those hoping for such a chance. Over the course of 1861, he had received a great deal of abuse from Confederate neighbors, but he stated that he “cherished the hope that Uncle Sam would definitely put them all to death at an early day, and I stood it the best I could.” “It was firmly determined in my mind that I would never go back on ‘Old Glory,’” he added. I’d heard too much from my grandparents and Aunt Jennie about the hardships and sorrows they had during the Revolutionary War to ever take up arms against the ‘Stars and Stripes.’”
The Union Army had gained a foothold deep within the Confederacy by the summer of 1862, following a series of hard-fought triumphs, and could boast more than 100,000 soldiers in Mississippi alone. As a result, besieged Unionists began to emerge out the woodwork. Colonel Abel D. Streight, like Foote, felt compelled to comment on the tenacious Unionist spirit he witnessed. “There could be at least two complete regiments raised of as fine and genuine men as ever defended the American flag,” he stated, if a sufficient force could be assembled in that part of the country to protect these people. For a year and a half, they have been cut off from all connection save with their adversaries, and yet they remain solid and true.”
As soon as Federal troops had firmly established themselves in Corinth, Miss., White and Black Unionist refugees began to pour into the lines, many risking their lives. By the fall, there were enough volunteers to form a regiment. The 1st Alabama Cavalry was established in October and mustered into service on December 18 as part of a larger reorganization that resulted in the formation of the 16th Corps. Brig. Gen. Grenville M. Dodge, ever clever, led the charge, eventually appointing one of his understudies, George E. Spencer, to command the regiment. One of those who made it through the lines was J.R. Phillips, who enlisted in Company L. “One cannot imagine how joyful and fearless we all felt once we were in uniform, mounted, well armed, and equipped with everything we needed,” he remembered. We had the impression that we could beat the entire Rebel Army.”
The 1st Alabama’s first raid ended in failure when its leader, Colonel Abel Streight, was duped into surrendering. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
Initially, the 1st Alabama Cavalry engaged in typical mounted assignments such as reconnaissance and short-range raids. In April 1863, several companies of the 1st participated in Streight’s Raid, an ill-fated cavalry operation aimed at destroying portions of the Western & Atlantic Railroad running between Atlanta and Chattanooga. Poorly planned and executed (the men rode mules), it ended in embarrassment. Four regiments of Confederate cavalry led by Brig. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest quickly caught up with Streight and pursued him and his men across Alabama. Through a clever piece of deception typical of Forrest, the Confederates tricked Streight into thinking he was outnumbered and induced him to surrender his command near the Georgia border.
When it was discovered that among those captured were White Alabamians fighting for the Union, the Confederate press denounced them as traitors and Tories. “No punishment is too severe for such wretches,” the Montgomery Daily Advertiser exclaimed incredulously, “and if justice has her own, they will soon grace the gallows.” Northerners, as despicable as they were, were “angels of light in comparison to the craven scoundrels who have turned against their own mother, and participated in the work of plunder and outrage on their neighbors,” the editorial stated.
The existence of these internal opponents perplexed and enraged Confederates. After engaging with the 1st Alabama near the Mississippi line in October 1863, Brig. Gen. Samuel W. Ferguson was perplexed by the fact that he had encountered “men wearing the enemy’s uniform, killed—as some were—within [a] half mile of their own houses” in the “very heart of the Confederacy.” Ferguson reported to his boss, Maj. Gen. Stephen D. Lee, that he had “effectively destroyed the First Alabama Tory Regiment,” which was incorrect. When he gave ineffective resistance to Sherman’s march into Georgia, he would run across them again.
While serving in the 1st Alabama, Sergeant Madison Barton carried this Smith carbine. Barton’s four brothers and three brothers-in-law all enlisted in the 1st, demonstrating the regiment’s close family ties and how united certain families in Alabama’s upcountry were in their opposition to the Confederacy. (Photo: Morphy Auctions, www.morphyauctions.com)
As the war progressed, the 1st Alabama became more involved in hard battle tactics. Colonel Spencer told a “rough” pro-Confederate Alabama woman that his regiment was “the children of Israel bringing the plague on them” at one point. The regiment was placed under General Sherman’s command in 1864, and they continued to sharpen their infamous reputation throughout the battle against Atlanta. They served in Resaca, Dallas, Kennesaw Mountain, and Jonesboro, establishing a reputation as a dependable and competent cavalry force. Sherman had both symbolic and logistical reasons for selecting a section of Company I as his personal escort when he called upon the 1st Alabama to play a significant role in his March to the Sea.
The 1st Alabama frequently led Maj. Gen. Francis P. Blair Jr.’s marching column. “The First Alabama Cavalry…moving in advance,” was a recurring phrase of Blair’s instructions, and the unit consistently led the 17th Corps en route to Savannah. The 1st, as part of the vanguard, was frequently given orders to secure towns, ferries, bridges, and railroads ahead of the main host. The destruction and capture of Confederate property seemed to give the men a great thrill. When they were given permission to express their frustrations on their late countrymen, they sometimes went overboard in their thirst for vengeance.
Spencer’s guys even received official approval for their actions. The reprimand said, “The major-General commanding directs me to say to you that the outrages perpetrated by your command during the march are becoming so common, and are of such an exacerbated type, that they demand some stern and immediate manner of punishment.” He will bring every officer in your regiment under arrest and report them to the department commander for dishonorable dismissal from the army until the pillaging of residences and wanton destruction of property by your regiment ceases immediately.” The 1st became famous on the March to the Sea because they “felt they had a right to respond for the way pro-Confederate southerners had pillaged their family homes, imprisoned family members, and driven them from their communities,” according to historian Joseph T. Glatthaar.
The campaign was something of a homecoming for Lieutenant David R. Snelling, commander of Company I. Before the war, Snelling worked as a colporteur in central Georgia, where he “knew every stream and cross-roads” and “kept by the side of ‘Uncle Billy’ the whole trip, to post the old man.” Snelling’s uncle had forced him to work in the fields with his slaves when he was a child, instilling in him a strong loathing for both planters and slavery that led to a lifelong commitment to Unionism. Conscripted in 1862, Snelling, like many of his compatriots, joined the Confederate Army before deserting and joining Union forces later that summer. He joined the army as a private and advanced through the ranks to become a lieutenant.
He took advantage of the March to the Sea in Baldwin County near Milledgeville, and went out of his way to organize a raid against his uncle’s property. Sherman later wrote in his memoirs about the incident:
Lieutenant Snelling, who led my escort, was a Georgian, and he recognized [an] old negro, his uncle’s favorite slave, who lived approximately six miles away; however, the old slave did not know his young owner in our uniform at first… Snelling’s face caught his attention, and he went to his knees, thanking God that he had found his young master alive and well with the Yankees. Snelling enquired about his uncle and his family, and he requested permission to give his uncle a visit, which I gave without hesitation.
Snelling led a detail to the scene of his prewar misery and had his men steal as much food as they could carry before destroying the cotton gin. “The uncle was not pleased, by any means, to find his nephew in the ranks of the host that was desolating the land,” Sherman wrote.
Sherman did not punish the 1st for its ostensibly spiteful devastation in the end. In general, it was in line with his policy. “The fact is,” writes historian Terry L. Seip, “Spencer and his soldiers were pretty much doing what Sherman wanted done, and the regiment remained in the vanguard.”
However, leading the line entails some risk. As the regiment reached Savannah on December 8, a “torpedo”—or mine—exploded in its path, killing Lieutenant Francis W. Tupper’s horse and shattering his leg. Tupper survived the wound, but his leg was amputated. Sherman came shortly on the scene and saw that “a torpedo trampled on by [Tupper’s] horse had burst, killing the horse and actually blowing off all the flesh from one of his legs.” When he penned his memoirs, Sherman was still concerned by the episode, declaring, “[T]his was not fighting, but murder, and that made me extremely angry.” Sherman then sent a troop of Confederate prisoners forward to work as minesweepers, “so that they can either blow their own torpedoes or detect and dig them up.” They pleaded vehemently, but I stood firm in my command and couldn’t help but giggle at how carefully they walked down the street.”
This one incident notwithstanding, the 1st Alabama faced only sporadic opposition and relatively little danger on the March to the Sea. Confederate Brig. Gen. Samuel W. Ferguson, who believed he had destroyed the “Tory regiment” in October 1863, led some of the cavalrymen who feebly harassed the Union forces, but by the winter of 1864 the tables had turned. Confederate resistance proved ineffectual and made little dent in the men’s morale. After securing the surrender of Savannah around Christmastime, Colonel Spencer wrote to General Dodge, now commanding the Department of Missouri in St. Louis, informing him that, “we have had a delightful trip & all enjoyed it.” Without a hint of modesty, he added that he had “done all the fighting that was done by our Column (the 17th Corps) & have made a reputation for both myself & Regiment.” On December 27, when Sherman formally reviewed the troops, Blair placed the 1st Alabama Cavalry at the head of the line—in a hard-earned place of distinction and source of pride for the loyal men of the Deep South.
A brief profile of the regiment was published in the national press at the end of the year. “Let me say a few words on behalf of the courageous First Alabama,” a New York Daily Herald correspondent started, “for it has rarely, if ever, earned recognition for its meritorious services.” Colonel Spencer was commended as a “distinguished [and] efficient” leader in the article, which highlighted the odd regiment’s accomplishments in the Atlanta Campaign and the March to the Sea when it “rendered conspicuous service.” “Some of the original true blue Southern Unionists can be found in the ranks of this regiment,” the article concluded, and “it is unnecessary for me to speak of the intelligence and patriotism of this patriotic body of Alabamians, for their severe denunciation of the rebellion and McClellanism is the best proof of that, but their exemplary military record I deemed worthy of more than passing notice.” All praise to the 1st Alabama Cavalry, and may their lives be spared so that they may reap the great rewards of their unwavering devotion.”
The postwar years, on the other hand, was virtually as tough for these Yellowhammer State Unionists as the war itself had been. Despite a brief period of ascendancy during the Radical phase of Reconstruction, during which Colonel (now General) Spencer became Alabama’s first Republican Senator, Democrats had regained control of state politics by the middle of the 1870s, and former Unionists were once again relegated to the margins of society. Their failure to forge a durable social and political alliance with African Americans paved the way for the old Confederacy’s “redemption,” leaving them on the outside looking in, feeling as if they had fought on the losing side of the war and being treated as such.
White Alabama Unionists founded Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) posts in the late 1800s, but their adherence to stringent segregationist practices rapidly alienated them from the national network of Union veterans. “Such intimate comradeship as our order inspires, will not tolerate the introduction of this element into our ranks…at least here in the South, where the matter of race enters so largely into the themes affecting man’s pleasure and success,” the senior vice-commander of Alabama said in 1891. In the Deep South, White Union veterans demonstrated that they were prepared to wear the same uniform in combat but not in peace. Alabama’s Union veterans felt no need to defend the civil rights of their African-American former colleagues against their mutual former opponent when they united to celebrate their service. Many G.A.R. members outside the former Confederacy disagreed, claiming that one of the values instilled by Union victory was (at least de jure) equal legal standing under the law.
White Unionists in the Deep South began to slip out of Civil War memory as they refused to embrace their black fellow-Union warriors and were rejected by both their unrepentant and redeemed former Confederate neighbors. Today, there is little apparent indication of the persistent White Unionism that existed in the Confederacy’s heartland, and they are largely forgotten. White Southerners, on the other hand, played an important role. Some even marched through Georgia with Sherman, and they should not be forgotten.
Clayton J. Butler received his Ph.D. from the University of Virginia in 2023 and is now a postdoctoral scholar at the Nau Center for Civil War History. He is now working on his first book, which is being published by Louisiana State University Press under contract.
One of the problems with history is that it has become too mainstream. Most of us don’t realize how many people actually were part of history. Around the turn of the 19th century – the time of the Civil War – the United States had a “peasant army” of 50,000 who had had only twelve years of formal education, and were armed by their states and militias. They were assigned to serve as drill sergeants and to help with the transport and supply of this “peasant army”.. Read more about what were southerners called in the civil war and let us know what you think.
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