Johnson City, Tennessee, is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. There will be a wide variety of activities and events, and the Johnson City Press is coming out with some great articles! However, Brandon Paykamian's November 16 piece "Unionists in East Tennessee and beyond: the myth of Confederate hegemony in the South," disingenuously leads readers down a well-worn path that misses some very important steps. You can read the entire article here.
Paykamian asserts that "Confederate hegemony during the Civil War is a historical revisionist myth." Just when did this myth begin? Jefferson Davis certainly knew that not everyone living in the South was a part of one big, happy family. He engaged in spirited correspondence with North Carolina's Zebulon B. Vance regarding the habeas corpus actions of Chief Justice Richmond M. Pearson; the election of 1863 ushered in several peace candidates into the Confederate Congress; and the September 29, 1864, letter from South Carolina Representative William W. Boyce claimed the President had created a "centralized military despotism" over constitution, state, and individual. Those are just a few examples. That's not to say that the North was also united in its prosecution of the war. Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus in the first days of the war, authorizing military commanders to arrest those suspected of disloyalty between Washington, D.C., and New York City. At one time, one third of the general assembly in Maryland was under arrest. Historians do not know exactly how many people Lincoln's administration arrested during the war, but estimates vary from just over 13,000 to as many as 38,000 people. "Copperheads" in the North were, in some areas, quite numerous and outspoken in their opposition to the war and to the Union and, of course, draft riots like the famous New York violence speak to the complexity of the period.
|Washington County from an 1865 map.|
The idea that there were those in the South who were not supportive of the Confederate cause was evident early on in the historiography of the time period. Edward Pollard, writing in The Lost Cause in 1867, mentions "a certain Union party in some of the States of the Confederacy," and then comes down hard Governor Brown of Georgia. Joseph Denny, Story of the Confederate States (1898) and Henry Eaton, History of the Southern Confederacy (1966) both make mention of Southern Unionists. (This conversation could go on and on.) While there are undoubtedly some writers who gloss over the discord throughout the South during the war years, everyone understands that the South was not uniform in its support of the Confederacy, just as Northerners were also complex and diverse.
Paykamian continues: "During the Civil War, Washington County was a Union stronghold, much like other regions of Central Appalachia, where plantations were few and far between in comparison to the rest of the state." Wait... he just wrote about the "the myth of Confederate hegemony." Are we going to now lump all plantation owners, i.e., slave owners, as a hegemonous group fighting against the Union? That's problematic because there was a sizable chunk of Southern slave owners who fought against the Confederacy. Andrew Johnson owned slaves, as did T. A. R. Nelson and David Bell. In Washington County, Thomas Reeves, Federal recruiter, owned slaves. In fact, of all those counties in far eastern Tennessee, Washington County contained the most slaves: 1,268.
"Washington County, in particular, was home to just as many — if not more — Unionists as it was to Confederates," Paykamian writes. And that may be true. But to my knowledge, no one has ever actually tried to count the number of Union and Confederate soldiers from Washington County. Washington County had a sizable pro-Confederate population. When the first Tennessee vote regarding secession was held on February 8, 1861, Washington County men cast 891 votes for secession, while 1,353 voted against. Research has shown that Lincoln's call for troops in April 1861 pushed many lukewarm Unionists over the edge and into the ranks of the Southern Confederacy. Company B, 19th Tennessee Infantry, Companies G and I, 29th Tennessee Infantry, and Company K, 63rd Tennessee Infantry were all made up of men from Washington County. There are probably others.
As a sign of internal dissatisfaction with Confederate policy, Paykamian writes "In the same year of the conscription act, food riots broke out all over the south, when hordes of hungry rioters – some armed – ransacked stores and warehouses looking for anything to eat." Yes, food riots did break out, but not the same year that the Conscription Act was passed. It was passed in April 1862. The more famous food riots took place in Salisbury, North Carolina, in March 1863; Richmond, Virginia, in April 1863; and Burnsville, North Carolina, in April 1864. Despite much searching, I could find no food riots in Jonesborough or Washington County.
Several years ago (2001), the Washington County Historical Association released a 1,290 page history of Washington County. In an era with fewer and fewer county histories being written, it is a superb book. My late friend Jim Maddox wrote the chapter on the War and Washington County. It is a great chapter. However, it would have been great to dig a little deeper into those numbers. Just how pro-Union was Washington County?