Unionism in Virginia during the Civil War


Unionists in Virginia supported the United States government during the secession crisis, the American Civil War (1861–1865), or both. Representing a minority of white Virginians and an overwhelming majority of both free and enslaved African Americans, Unionists articulated their beliefs through a range of actions. Some explicitly supported the ideals of the Union; others defined their Unionism as a rejection of slavery. Many Virginians feared the economic consequences of secession, while African Americans saw Unionism as an opportunity for personal liberty. Just prior to the war, Unionism had been particularly strong in Virginia, but by the time the question of secession was put to a referendum, Unionist influence had declined sharply. Most Unionists lived in the state’s western counties, although their antipathy to secession had less to do with slavery than with the undemocratic political advantages enjoyed by slave owners. Unionists flourished in Union-occupied areas of Northern Virginia and fought guerrilla actions in Southwest Virginia. Ethnicity and religion played an important role in formulating Unionist or anti-Confederate actions, with pacifist Germans sometimes refusing to serve in the Confederate armed forces. In Richmond, Unionists formed a spy network, and across the state slaves deprived the Confederacy of critical labor by running away. All of these efforts contributed to the eventual Confederate defeat.

Definitions of Unionism

Prominent Unionists

What it meant to be a Unionist shifted over time, by region, and across demographic lines. At its core, Unionism represented support for the United States against the efforts of Virginia and several other Southern states to secede and form a rival federal government. John S. Carlile, who became a founding father of West Virginia, described secession as “self murder” and “an insult to all reasonable living humanity, and a crime against God.” At the same time, Carlile never wavered in his support for slavery, just as John Minor Botts, a Richmond Unionist, could at once own slaves and be considered for a post in Lincoln’s cabinet. Most white Virginians considered secession and slavery to be separate concerns, and indeed Virginia’s Protestant churches opposed secession and supported slavery with the same moral certainty, at least until the war’s first shots were fired.

Antislavery principles did drive some white Unionists, however. Elizabeth Van Lew, for example, learned to detest slavery while studying at a Quaker school in Philadelphia, and during the war she ran an underground spy network in Richmond with Botts and others. The injustice of slavery was also Virginia Unionist Moncure Daniel Conway‘s chief concern. Others, such as Waitman T. Willey, worried less about the propriety of slavery and more about the huge political advantages bestowed on slave owners, who, by virtue of their human property, enjoyed better representation in Congress and the General Assembly.

Martin R. Delany

For some white Virginians, then, Unionism was rooted in political and sectarian issues; for others, it carried a moral component. Still others defined their interests economically. They worried that a break with the United States would ruin industrial communities such as Lynchburg, which had strong economic ties to the North. Free and enslaved African Americans, meanwhile, viewed Unionism as a natural extension of their concerns for personal liberty. E. G. Corprew, a Baptist minister, lobbied for emancipation during the war; Mary Richards Bowser spied for the Union; and Martin R. Delany served as the U.S. Army’s first black field officer.

White women were at the forefront of still another kind of Unionism, one that defined itself in opposition to the policies of the Confederate government rather than in support of the United States government. As the war dragged on, women on the home front experienced acute privations and many denied their support to the state and federal government. On April 2, 1863, for instance, women in Richmond rioted in response to food shortages.

Among Virginia’s Indians, the Pamunkey were the most ardent Unionists, acting as army guides and river pilots. Caroline Bradby Cook, mother of the civil rights activist George Major Cook, cooked and washed for Union soldiers during their occupation of Indian Town, King William County. “My sympathies were on the side of the Union from first to last,” she later wrote. At least some Virginia Indians fled to Canada during the war, returning only after the Confederate surrender.

Secession Debate

Virginia's Ordinance of Secession

Unionism was strong in Virginia during the run-up to war. On April 4, 1861, delegates to the Virginia Convention in Richmond voted 90 to 45 against withdrawal from the Union. Even as the delegates continued to debate, however, events turned the tide in favor of secessionists. Fort Sumter, off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina, fell to Confederate forces on April 13, and on April 15 President Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 troops to put down the insurrection. On April 17, the convention reversed itself, approving the Ordinance of Secession by a vote of 88 to 55. Still, nearly 40 percent of the voting delegates resisted leaving the Union, and the convention agreed to put the matter before a statewide referendum on May 23.

In the weeks leading up to the referendum, the influence of Unionists waned dramatically. Virginia initiated military action against the United States by claiming the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. The state also offered to join the Confederacy and host its capital in Richmond. Some journalists went so far as to link a vote against secession to treason. On May 10, the Staunton Vindicator proclaimed that a “no” vote “will be regarded as an endorsement of Lincoln’s policy to overrun and devastate our homes and heritage.” (Augusta County had sent three Unionist delegates to Richmond in February.) On May 17, the Vindicator‘s editor issued a warning to men of the county who might vote against secession: “We look upon such conduct as treason, and deserving the halter.”

On May 23, Virginians voted overwhelmingly for secession, with Unionist votes against it accounting for just 13.9 percent of the vote certified by the governor (125,950 to 20,373). Unofficial tallies suggest that Unionists polled at 20 percent (128,884 to 32,134), and many Unionists claimed to be the victims of intimidation. Voting was not secret, and Joseph Miller claimed that he voted for secession in Page County only out of fear. William H. Sours recalled a similar experience: “I feared that I would be arrested if I spoke much.” Their recollections came after the war as they attempted to persuade the U.S. government of their Unionist credentials in order to be compensated for lost property. Other Unionists, like the future Confederate general Jubal A. Early, voted for secession once it became a foregone conclusion. Even many erstwhile antisecessionists prioritized unity in the South and in Virginia over maintaining the national union.

Two other Confederate states held secession referendums: Texas on February 23, 1861, and Tennessee on June 8 of the same year. The votes were much closer than in Virginia. In Texas, 46,153 men voted in favor of secession (75.8 percent) and 14,747 (24.2 percent) against it. In Tennessee, the vote was 104,913 (69 percent) to 47,238 (31 percent).

Southern Claims Commission

President Ulysses S. Grant

The best measurement of widespread support for Unionism in Virginia can be found in applications submitted to the Southern Claims Commission. Created in 1871 by the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant, the commission provided a means for southern Unionists to be compensated for certain kinds of property officially confiscated or destroyed by Union troops during the war. From 1871 to 1880, southerners submitted 22,298 claims. Because many were not accompanied by any supporting evidence, only 16,995 claims were officially considered. Of these, 7,406, or about 44 percent, were approved for a total of $4,636,920.69. Virginia ranked behind only Tennessee in the total number of claims, at 3,197.

The Southern Claims Commission rejected most claims, largely because claimants found it difficult to prove either their loyalty or that their property loss fit the requirements. The bar for establishing one’s Unionist credentials was set extraordinarily high. For the purpose of considering claims, commissioners assumed that everyone who had lived in the Confederacy during the war was disloyal. This included all foreign nationals; they were excluded from making claims because, by the logic of the commission, they would have returned to their country of origin had they not supported the Confederacy. In addition, any of the following could disqualify a claimant outright: voting for secession, holding civil or military office during the war, providing aid or supplies to the Confederacy, or engaging in business to supply the Confederacy. All justices of the peace or any other minor-office holders were thus excluded from compensation, as was anyone who had paid taxes (or a tax in kind), which was considered by the commission to be providing aid or supplies.

The commission required at least two witnesses to testify on behalf of the claimant, which often proved difficult. Former Confederates did not want to speak in support of their Unionist neighbors, and in some cases neighbors motivated by personal disputes purposely torpedoed claims. The commission also collected newspapers and official papers looking for evidence of “traitorous” activity, such as a week or two of required home guard duty. Finally, the commission required claimants to present receipts from the Union troops who had confiscated supplies or destroyed property. An improper or invalid receipt—which might include an illegible receipt or one written by someone other than a commanding officer—could disqualify a claim. Incidental damages, such as unauthorized foraging, unauthorized destruction of property, and so on, were not covered by the commission.

The records of the Southern Claims Commission can be helpful in demonstrating how and where Unionism manifested itself in Virginia. At the same time, there likely were many more white Unionists in Virginia than the 3,197 whose claims were heard after the war.


Enslaved Population in Virginia

Unionism was strongest in Virginia’s western counties, which had close economic ties to Ohio and Pennsylvania. Slavery was weaker in this part of the state, but western politicians were motivated not by slavery but by the political advantages slavery afforded to slave owners in the state’s eastern counties. Land was more plentiful and valuable in the East, and, until 1851, voting rights were linked to land ownership. With land came slaves, whose numbers contributed to better representation in Congress for the East. Eastern wealth also was preserved through a constitutional provision, overturned in 1861, capping the value of slaves for tax purposes at $300. With political power ensconced in the East, western internal-improvement and infrastructure projects that, ironically, might have oriented the western economy eastward were nixed. As a result, calls for the secession of western Virginia, dating back to 1828, were now replaced with appeals to Unionism—all of which amounted to the same result.

At the Virginia Convention, 78 of 152 delegates hailed from west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and, of those, 63 voted against secession on April 4. Delegates from east of the Blue Ridge, where the enslaved population was much larger, voted for secession 30 to 27. On April 17, western delegates voted against secession by a margin of nearly two-to-one, and after refusing to adjourn the convention, they reorganized the state government and eventually established West Virginia.

While the largest share of all Virginia Unionists resided in what became West Virginia, significant numbers of Unionists lived in other parts of the state. An especially large concentration resided in counties bordering the District of Columbia. A disproportionate number of claims to the commission came from residents of Alexandria, Fairfax, and Loudoun counties, all areas occupied by Union forces beginning early in the war. The presence of Union troops created the circumstances for property seizure while also contributing to an environment in which Unionists felt safe in expressing their support for the United States.

Southern "Volunteers"

Although delegates from southwestern Virginia largely voted for secession in 1861, Unionism increased there during the war, manifesting itself as much in opposition to Confederate policy as in loyalty to the United States. On April 16, 1862, the Confederate Congress passed the First Conscription Act, the first military draft in United States history, and southwestern Virginia became a haven for draft opponents and deserters. It also became a stronghold for a secret Unionist society, the Order of the Heroes of America, also known as the Red Strings (after their means of identifying themselves).

Formed in north central North Carolina, the Heroes of America spread through Appalachia, pledging support to Confederate deserters and Union prisoners of war. Local forces proved largely unable to control runaway soldiers, and amid stories of harassment from loyal Confederates and complaints from Robert E. Lee that deserters were encouraging his men to leave their units, the Confederate government deployed troops in 1864 to an area that included Floyd and Montgomery counties. Confederates forces, commanded primarily by Brigadier General John Echols, attempted to restore order but largely failed. They typically ended up harassing the families of deserters, and because of the persistent inability to capture deserters or combat the pro-Union Heroes of America, Confederate president Jefferson Davis, on November 9, 1864, requested that the Confederate Congress suspend the writ of habeas corpus in Floyd County. The Confederate Congress refused.

Ethnicity and Religion

In addition to geography, Virginia Unionism was also shaped by ethnicity and religion. This was most evident among Shenandoah Valley residents of German ancestry, particularly those members of pacifist religious denominations. The Mennonites, Amish, and Dunkards, for instance, had left Europe not wanting to be caught up in various wars or be forced to serve in the armed forces. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Quaker William Penn had encouraged these groups’ migration to Pennsylvania, and many moved down the Valley Road into Virginia after the American Revolution (1775–1783). In Rockingham County many members of these denominations filed for exemption from serving in the Confederate army. If drafted, they hired substitutes. Confederate general Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson promised to assign religious objectors as teamsters, but he still faced a critical manpower shortage in Rockingham in 1862, at least part of it due to the religious objections of local Germans.

Ethnicity and religion also shaped the only white Union military unit raised in Virginia, the Loudoun Independent Rangers. The cavalry battalion hailed from the western portion of the county, home to many Germans and Quakers who placed greater importance on loyalty to the nation than to the state. The unit engaged in operations in Loudoun, confronting Confederates in locations such as Lovettsville, Middleburg, Upperville, and Waterford, before serving with Union armies during the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864. The Independent Rangers often clashed with the Confederate 35th Battalion Virginia Cavalry—popularly known as the “Comanche”—from the eastern part of the county and led by Elijah V. White. The Loudoun Independent Rangers accounted for the majority of the approximately 800 white Virginians directly mustered into Union service during the war. All Confederate states except for South Carolina raised at least one formal white unit for the Union cause, but Virginia provided comparatively few such soldiers. North Carolina raised 3,200 men, Louisiana 5,488, and Tennessee 24,940.

At the outset of the war, Richmond was home to 1,623 native Germans, and most of them initially supported the Confederacy for economic reasons. (Company K of the 1st Virginia Infantry Regiment, Company K of the 15th Virginia Infantry Regiment, and Company H of the 19th Virginia Infantry Regiment were all majority-German units.) Many German Unionists fled to Union-occupied Alexandria, while those who remained in Richmond found their loyalty increasingly under suspicion. On August 8, 1861, the Confederate Congress passed a law requiring all male noncitizens aged fourteen years or older to swear a loyalty oath or risk imprisonment and deportation. A second law, passed on August 22, allowed foreign-born Confederate soldiers to become citizens only if they renounced all other allegiances, including to the Roman Catholic Church. Early in 1862, Congress passed still another law barring the foreign-born from citizenship. Although Jefferson Davis vetoed this bill, growing antiforeign sentiment caused additional Germans to flee Confederate jurisdictions.


If Unionists near Washington, D.C., and in southwestern Virginia were the most open about their activities, surely the most secretive den of Virginia Unionism was located in Richmond. After the Peninsula and Seven Days’ campaigns failed to capture the Confederate capital during the summer of 1862, Richmond Unionists, including Charles Palmer, John Minor Botts, Franklin Stearns, Frederick W. E. Lohmann, Christian Burging, William S. Rowley, and Elizabeth Van Lew, intensified their efforts at aiding U.S. interests. No single factor tied these individuals together. Lohmann and Burging were German and Rowley a Northerner. Business interests connected some, but not all, Richmond Unionists, and a few, like Botts, had been members of the once-strong Whig Party.

Libby Prison Tunnel

During the war, these men and women joined together primarily in an attempt to aid Union prisoners being held in Richmond prisons. They eventually made contacts in the Union army, including Union general Benjamin F. Butler, and established an extensive spy network in the city headed by Van Lew. In February 1864 they may have provided assistance for fifty-nine Union officers who escaped from Libby Prison. A failed Union raid on Richmond the following month resulted in the death of Union colonel Ulric Dahlgren; handwritten orders reportedly found on the colonel’s body called for the burning of Richmond and the assassination of Jefferson Davis and his cabinet. Van Lew and her spies—disturbed at what they perceived to be the Confederates’ mistreatment of his corpse—found, unearthed, and secretly reburied Dahlgren’s body. When Confederate authorities agreed to transfer Dahlgren’s remains north, they found the grave empty. “Dahlgren had risen,” exclaimed the Richmond Examiner, “or been resurrected.”

African Americans

Medal Awarded U.S. Colored Troops

African Americans likely comprised the largest share of Virginia Unionists. At least 5,723 black soldiers were mustered into service with the United States Colored Troops in Virginia, although Virginia-born and -raised black troops—especially former slaves who may have fled from the state or been sold to other parts of the Confederacy—likely joined in other locations, as well.

According to the 1860 census, Virginia was home to 58,042 free blacks, and they were almost unanimous in their support of the Union during the war. Elizabeth Wingfield, of Dinwiddie County, whose husband was enslaved, supported the Union army because “I thought they had come to free all the colored people & give them their rights.” Isaac Pleasants, of Henrico County, believed that “it was to the interest of all colored people to be in favor of the Yankees as I had an idea that slavery was a good deal at stake in the conflict between the states and that the success of the North would improve the condition of the slaves, at least.”

African Americans Working for the Union Army

Unionist efforts by free blacks in Confederate jurisdictions were difficult. All free blacks risked enslavement, and white Virginians looked on them with suspicion. Authorities evicted a free black family living near Deep Bottom on the James River based on suspicions that the blacks were providing information to Union gunboats. Many free blacks were impressed into service for the Confederacy despite their Unionist sympathies. Some, like Pleasants, deserted their posts. Those who made their way to Union jurisdictions often labored for the Union army as teamsters, guides, cooks, and washers.

African Americans used the disruptions of war to escape enslavement. John M. Washington, of Fredericksburg, tricked his owner into believing that Washington wanted to follow him south and out of Virginia. “I made him believe I was most anxious to go,” Washington wrote in a memoir published in 1872. “In fact I made them believe that I was tereblely afred of the Yankees, any way.” Biding his time, Washington was able to attach himself to Union troops who arrived in Fredericksburg in April 1862. He served as an army guide after that.

African American Refugees

Every Virginia slave who, like Washington, fled to Union jurisdictions reduced the labor power of the Confederacy. Even the substantial population that remained enslaved advanced the Union war effort by providing military intelligence, assisting Union soldiers in finding hidden Confederate supplies, and helping captured Union soldiers to escape to Northern lines.

Unionism was an important factor in Confederate defeat. The establishment of West Virginia deprived the Confederacy of population and resources, as did runaway slaves, many of whom enlisted to fight against their former masters. Some historians argue that, even in those counties that remained in Virginia, the presence of Unionists caused a significant diversion of Confederate resources and manpower and provided significant aid and information to Union forces.

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APA Citation:
Wolfe, Brendan. Unionism in Virginia during the Civil War. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/unionism-in-virginia-during-the-civil-war.
MLA Citation:
Wolfe, Brendan. "Unionism in Virginia during the Civil War" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 19 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2024, May 03
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