JACK NEELY: Was The South Ever Confederate Anyway?
The Civil War is a big bagful of ironies and paradoxes, and not a recommended study for folks who like to keep things simple. It would be a particular challenge for anyone to survive the 1860s in Knoxville and either idealize one side or demonize the other. It took a later generation, one that didn’t remember the war, to glorify it.
I do want to point out something provable. Whether the Confederate flag is an irredeemably racist and oppressive symbol or not, the Confederacy is not “the South.” It is not “the South now,” certainly. It was not even “the South” in 1861. The conflation of the Confederacy with “the South” began, I suspect, as some tired editor’s attempt to make a headline fit.
People of European and African ancestry have been living in the South for 400 years. The Confederacy lasted for four years, about 1 percent of that time. And even during that 1 percent, a large proportion of the people who lived in the South—perhaps even a majority—were skeptical of the Confederacy. . . .
The Confederacy was not universally popular, even in the South. It would be difficult to prove that as much as half the people who lived in the South in 1861 were fond of the Confederacy. Sam Houston, who grew up in East Tennessee and spent his entire life in the South—except when he was in D.C., representing Southern states in Congress—despised the Confederacy and denounced it publicly. David Glasgow Farragut and Gen. William Sanders—whose last names survive in multiple institutions in Knox County—both grew up in the South and fought against the Confederacy. Sanders, who’d spent most of his life in Kentucky and Mississippi, was killed by Confederate bullets. Several of Knoxville’s fiercest Unionists, Parson W.G. Brownlow, William Rule, and Thomas Humes, were lifelong Southerners.
It might take years to do a thorough study on the subject, but judging by what we know of those who favored secessionism or the Union, here in East Tennessee at least, Confederate sympathies didn’t necessarily suggest Southern roots. Many of Knoxville’s notable Confederates were immigrants from Switzerland, Germany, or Ireland. John Mitchel, probably Knoxville’s most nationally famous secessionist—editor of The Southern Citizen, which advocated slavery—was an Irish revolutionary Unitarian who’d spent several years in prison in Tasmania and never laid eyes on the South until 1853. J.G.M. Ramsey, the secessionist most influential locally, was from a Pennsylvania family. Father Abram Ryan, Knoxville’s “Poet-Priest of the Confederacy,” grew up in Maryland and Missouri, son of Irish immigrants. Thousands of New Yorkers, many of whom had never seen the South, were Confederate sympathizers.
Meanwhile, many of Knoxville’s Unionists grew up in multi-generational Tennessee families. Did Southern heritage even play a role in affiliation with the Confederacy? Here in Knoxville, a demographic study might even prove the opposite. Maybe it was the people with the deepest roots here who were most skeptical of the noisy rebel bandwagon.
In any case, in 1861 more than 30 percent of Tennessee’s Southerners voted against secession, against joining the Confederacy. Well over 30,000 Tennesseans took up arms against the Confederacy.
Yes, but the important point is letting low-information white Democrats feel superior.
UPDATE: Oh, look: Here’s one of those now. Though to be fair, I considered using the “outside agitator” line myself.