Civil War myth versus Civil War fact

With the “speed teaching” that passes for American history courses today, the Civil War — if not the latter half of the 19th century — gets compressed into one semester. Even a dedicated teacher can touch only upon the high points and avoid the time-consuming nuances that Civil War buffs like us relish.

The high points often stress as fact certain myths that entered Civil War lore almost before the ink dried on Lee’s signature at the McLean House on April 9, 1865. Such myths were taught those of us who learned about the war during its centennial; 50 years later, the myths still persist.

Let’s examine a few:

Myth: Southern whites were monolithically pro-Confederacy.

Fact: Depending on which historian runs the numbers, somewhere from 20 percent to 33 percent of Southern whites remained loyal to the Union. Such Americans suffered public ridicule and societal shunning that would make the life of an ex-pat Amish seem easy. In late 1860 and early 1861 — and God help any Yankee caught preaching abolition below the Mason-Dixon Line after Fort Sumter fell — a suspected abolitionist or Lincoln supporter might be tarred and feathered or lynched. One account from Georgia mentions a Yankee book dealer arrested while discussing abolition with local slaves during winter 1860-61; he soon swung from a tree limb.

But pro-Union Southerners soon fought back. In strongly pro-Union eastern Tennessee — Knoxville, Johnson City, etc. — a violent guerrilla war broke out between Confederates and Unionists. The war split families and neighbors, spawned murderous deeds in the Great Smoky Mountains and on the Cumberland Plateau, and tied up Confederate troops needed elsewhere.

In North Carolina, local Unionists battled Confederate troops throughout the war, with the violence being particularly nasty in the Blue Ridge and the Great Smoky Mountains. In western Virginia, local Unionists wrested a state away from Virginia and blocked Confederate access to the Ohio River. In Mississippi, entire counties were “no go” zones for local Confederate militia and officials.

So many Southerners were pro-Union, in fact, that some 200,000 men with regional Southern accents enlisted in the United States Army during the Civil War.

Myth: Northern whites were monolithically pro-Union.

Fact: Many northern whites opposed the war even after Fort Sumter fell. The strong initial opposition lay with whites, drawn largely from the Democratic Party and certain religious groups, who opposed shooting at other Americans and wanted peace. Many Democrats supported the war effort, however, and whenever he felt the political pressure, Abraham Lincoln would appoint a leading Democrat either to high political or military office. Benjamin “Beast” Butler, a Massachusetts Democrat, was one of Lincoln’s first “political” generals.

Charles Jameson, a lumber merchant from Old Town, was a Democrat, and he served as the first colonel of the 2nd Maine Infantry Regiment. He led the heroic effort at Bull Run to recover the regiment’s fallen flags.

Northern white opposition to the war intensified as the casualty lists expanded and the 1863 draft started taking men not interested in serving their country. In time, whites who opposed the war were called “Copperheads” because they, like the namesake snake, blended into their surroundings.

Copperheads were particularly active in certain Maine towns, especially in the Kennebec and Androscoggin valleys. As happened in other loyal states, pro-Union men in Maine did not long suffer any shenanigans attempted by their pro-Southern neighbors.

Myth: Because more people lived in the North, the Union would inevitably win the war by fielding more troops than the Confederacy could.

Fact: This myth would make sense except for the ferocious fighting spirit displayed by the hard-core Southern soldiers. With its greater population, the North should have swamped the Confederacy’s thin gray (and butternut) lines.

But bad generals — McClellan, Burnside, Kilpatrick (nicknamed “Kill-cavalry” by the Union horsemen whose lives he wasted), McDowell, Hooker, and Pope, to name a few — cost the Union multiple opportunities to end the war sooner than later.

And Grant blew it during his spring 1864 Overland Campaign. Now three years old, the war had lost vital public support by that May. Then Grant marched his reconstituted Army of the Potomac into the Wilderness, emerged weeks later onto a James River pontoon bridge, and left behind 50,000 men dead, wounded, or missing.

That equals the combined populations of Bangor, Brewer, Hampden, and Veazie.

The horrible casualty lists and Union failures on other war fronts almost made George McClellan the next president after the 1864 election. He campaigned on turning the South loose and ending the war.

So, while the Union armies overwhelmingly outnumbered their Confederate counterparts in spring 1864, the high Union losses almost earned the South its independence.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.