Thursday, March 29, 2007

Off the topic. . .A Question of Loyalty

Maybe it's just me. . .

But I've always had trouble accepting the common explanation as to why some of the best military men of the Civil War cast their lot with the Confederacy. Seeking to understand just why it was that officers such as Robert E. Lee and Tom Jackson resigned from the US Army and why they led armies in an attempt to destroy the Union, we are told that these men always had a higher sense of loyalty and devotion to their state (read Virginia) than to the nation. Perhaps I just don't understand, but it seems to me to be a weak argument.

If, as the explanation goes, we are to believe that this was a commonly-shared sentiment of 19th century Americans, then why is it most frequently, maybe exclusively, used to explain the decision of Virginians to take up their swords against the United States? Seldom have I ever heard that say, oh, James Longstreet wrestled over his decision to resign but ultimately decided to do so because he was a South Carolinian (or Georgian) first, and an American second. The same can be said about other non-Virginia Confederate officers. . .Lafayette McLaws, for example. Did he feel a higher duty to Georgia? Or Braxton Bragg. . .did his loyalty lie with North Carolina? I just never really bought this explanation.

Of course, if, and I stress IF, state loyalty superceded national loyalty, then how do we explain the recruitment of 37 units of (west) Virginia soldiers that fought for the Union? Or the 56, yes, I said Fifty-Six, infantry, cavalry, and artillery units that were mustered into Federal service from Tennessee?
And how about those officers that in some quarters are viewed as "traitors;" Southern-born or Southern-raised army officers that remained in the US Army following secession. Of course, the most famous was George H. Thomas, but there was also Jesse Reno, Winfield Scott, John Newton, and Benjamin Prentiss. All of these men were native Virginians. Were they not properly infused with the Virginia-first, US-second mentality?
George Thomas
Jesse Reno
And let's not forget about David Farragut from Tennessee, the Birney brothers, David & William, from Alabama, John Fremont and Montgomery Meigs, both born in Georgia, Stephen Hurlbut, of South Carolina, and also John Gibbon. Though born near Philadelphia, Gibbon spent most of his childhood in North Carolina. Four of his brothers fought for the Confederacy, but Gibbon remained loyal to the US.
Now, I'm trying to think of Northern-born Confederate officers, but, off the top of my head, can only come up with Roswell Ripley, born in Ohio.
It is for these reasons, and others as well, that I have never bought into the concept of a higher sense of devotion to one's native state as the sole explanation as to why some fought for the CSA and not the USA. But, of course, I could be wrong. Perhaps Lee and Jackson did feel this way. But I do not believe that such sentiment was widespread, and certainly not universal in the South. And, just one more thought, was Robert E. Lee fighting just for his native state? If the CSA had proved triumphant, wouldn't Virginia then become just another state in another nation?


SayHiThere said...

David and William Birney were sons of abolitionist, James Birney. Their father had been out of the South for about thirty years. I would not count these generals as southern since I don't think that was their background.

James Birney lived in Cincinnati and Bay City, Michigan as well as in New Jersey after he left Alabama.

John David Hoptak said...

Thanks sayhithere
I appreciate the information and your comment.

Kyrnt said...


Cross-border loyalties were quite common. You cited a few examples of Southern men loyal the Union. The most famous example in the opposite direction is Lt Gen John Pemberton, defender of Vicksburg. He was born in Philadelphia but married a Virginian.

It is a bit paradoxical to simultaneously state that state loyalty is not understood and delcare it to be a "weak argument," don't you think?

Cory Newby

John David Hoptak said...

Mr. Newby~
Thanks for your comment....I don't know how I missed Pemberton. Especially since I'm a Pennsylvanian myself!! Thanks for the comment....
Oh, and another Northern-born COnfederate officer I forgot was Josiah Gorgas, Chief of CSA Ordnance...
John Hoptak

Anonymous said...

Benjamin Franklin "Grimes" Davis (Alabama born Mississippian)is said to be the only regular army officer born in the Deep South to remain loyal to the Union (Generals in Blue), but elsewhere I have read that Davis was "one of only two Mississippians in the regular army who had remained loyal to the old flag".

Anyone know more about this?

REDTROOP said...

I live in England and although i'm loyal to my Queen and Country if, it came to a fight against my home county of Gloucestershire i couldn't fight against my own family and friends. Also it's easyer to see the goverment as the bad guys espically if they seem far removed from your everyday life.

Mark Saha said...

From a strictly military standpoint Lee was a handicap to the Confederacy because he wouldn't take his armies out of Virginia except to invade the North.

The Confederacy was in collapse on the Mississippi in 1863. Longstreet believed they should send help there rather than embark on the Gettysburg campaign -- which as a military operation was vague in purpose and lacked an objective.

Some other states also placed limits on where their soldiers could be sent to fight. These regional loyalties made it difficult for the South to fight a strategic war in the best interests of the Confederacy.

Just as an example, Virginia was not all that important to the survival of the Confederacy. But the collapse in the West cut off all manpower and resources west of the Mississippi. Lee devoted himself to defending a state that didn't matter, while others that did fell like dominoes.

Simon Mawson said...

Just came across your blog, and I know I am late to the game but the list of Norther-born officer serving with the south is a long one:

Samuel French (New Jersey)
Lemuel Grant (Maine)
Bushrod Johnson (Ohio)
Archibald Gracie (New York)
Albert Pike (Massachusets)
Zebulon Pike (Maine)
Cludius Wistar Sears (Massachusetts)
Samuel Cooper (New Jersey) Highest ranking Confederate
Martin Luther Smith (New York)
Franklin Gardner (New York)
Otho Strahl (Ohio)
Shoup (Indiana)
Ruggles (Massachusetts)

It is interesting how many of these officers served in the Western Theater (and how many of them served in the Vicksburg/Port Hudson Campaign)

I've also found it interesting the common thread between Northern and Southern officers that fought on the opposite side of their birth, was Mariage, and time spent in the south.

Samuel French is an interesting case study, he married a rich Mississippian and moved south. His income was substansially based on slavary, so to a large extent his decision to fight was economic. (He also spends a lot of time in his memoirs claiming that Middle New Jersey was "Southern" and therefor he was not switching sides)