US Civil War: former slave-holder joined the Union Army? True or trope?
April 29, 2021 9:36 AM   Subscribe

I'm doing some research into an oral history story that says: person X was a slave-owner/enslaver who, at the outbreak of the Civil War, was so outraged by secession that he freed his slaves and joined the Union Army. Are there confirmed real stories of this happening? Or were there fictional/popular stories like this, that might've been the source of a trope that got incorporated into this family myth?
posted by LobsterMitten to Grab Bag (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: This article suggests that there were as many as 300,000 soldiers from the Confederate states and the Union slave owning states in the Union army. It goes on to suggest that very few of them would have been slave owners but not that none of them were.

Preston Blair, was not in the Union army but was a slave holder who supported the Union and apparently by 1862 told the people he enslaved that they could "go when they wished".
posted by plonkee at 9:59 AM on April 29, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: A couple of terms to use that might aid your search: War Democrats (not necessarily southerners or abolitionists, but Democrats who broke from the party and advocated an aggressive stance towards the Confederacy), and Southern Unionists. The most prominent of either was Andrew Johnson, who was a slave holder, but became Lincoln's vice president and, of course, the 17th president after Lincoln's assassination. He never served in the military, though.

Just briefly going through the list of people under Southern Unionists, Fielding Hurst was a slaveholder who served as a colonel in the Union cavalry. I can't find if he freed his slaves, though.

James Madison Wells created an unofficial force to fight Confederate soldiers; he supported emancipation after the war but I don't know if he freed his slaves prior.
posted by lharmon at 10:02 AM on April 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: In terms of general plausibility, southerners (and people married to southerners) definitely joined the Union army at outrage over secession. And many slaveowners people had just a single household enslaved person, so freeing one person and hiring them at a salary wouldn't have been much of a sacrifice. And many Union soldiers became strongly anti-slavery in the course of the war. So I feel certain this happened.

If the image is a plantation owner freeing hundreds of their slaves and joining the army: that might be a total myth. There weren't many plantation owners, and in modern terms it'd have been like walking away from billions.

So far I haven't found anything specific to what you're looking for than Farragut's an example of a soldier who fits the general phenotype (southerner who joined the Union navy) but I can't find any reference to him or his wife owning slaves.

Grant himself owned a slave, and supervised more through his wife's family. But he emancipated his slave in 1859 (before the war) and his in laws were absolutely not early emancipators.
posted by mark k at 10:27 AM on April 29, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Several bios say William Hugh Smith had been a slave holder in Alabama sometime before the war, opposed secession, fled north, recruited soldiers for the Union, and accompanied Sherman's march to the sea. But maybe the differences between his story and your oral history also highlight what's likely to have been mythologized.
posted by Wobbuffet at 10:39 AM on April 29, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: James G. Birney was an abolitionist, and a slave holder at different points in his life; his sons William and David were Union generals.
posted by Iris Gambol at 10:49 AM on April 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Union General George Thomas (the Rock of Chickamauga!) was from a southern Virginia plantation owning family and, at least according to his Wikipedia article, owned slaves before the Civil War. He was in the U.S. Army when the war broke out and remained loyal to his country. There's no indication that he freed any of his slaves.
posted by Jasper Fnorde at 11:03 AM on April 29, 2021 [3 favorites]

Have you looked at the 1860 US Census to see if this person did in fact own slaves just before secession and how many? And the 1850 Census while you're at it. Have you found documentation for this person in the Civil War?
posted by mareli at 5:43 AM on April 30, 2021

Link for searching 1860 Census.
posted by mareli at 6:44 AM on April 30, 2021

Response by poster: Yeah, I've done those and other searches to figure out if it's true in this case. I've confirmed person X served for several years in the Union Army, and I can't yet find any evidence of him owning slaves. But records are imperfect and absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence.

If the slave-owning part isn't true, then someone made it up and passed it along. I want to understand that possibility, and maybe see if there is a time period where this story would be likely to have gotten started (eg if this were the plot of a popular novel of 1890 or whatever). If there's no clear source of it as a trope, then maybe it's more likely true.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:27 AM on April 30, 2021

That's why I linked to the Birney family -- Birney Sr. was born in Kentucky, owned slaves via inheritance, and later acquired more enslaved people from his wife's dowry. He still authored anti-slavery literature and was the abolitionist Liberty Party's candidate for president in 1840 and 1844. Sr. died in the 1850s, but if there were enslaved people considered as part of his estate, his sons may have been legal slaveholders at some point.

TL:DR look at person X/their family for any ownership history, inheritance/estate legal issues like probate filings, etc. Look at marriage and birth records, too, on the off-chance the 'freed slaves' in this story were his wife and children.
posted by Iris Gambol at 11:17 AM on April 30, 2021

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