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Southern Unionists and Why They Fought

“I come from the banks of the sparkling Shenandoah, “daughter of the stars,” as its name imports. I live within a day’s march of the Thermopylae of Virginia. That valley, now beautiful and peaceful “as the Vale of Tempe, may be a very Bochim– a place of weeping.” Those green fields, where now “lowing herds wind slowly o’er the lea,” may become fields of blood. Can you blame me,then, if I wish to try all peaceful mean, consistent with Virginia’s honor, of obtaining our rights, before I try the last resort? I promise you, when the contest does come, if come it must, the people whom I have the honor to represent on this floor, will meet it like men.” -Hugh Mortimer Nelson’s speech at the Virginia Secession Convention

Hugh Nelson, owner of Long Branch from 1842 to his death in 1862, was voted Clarke’s Constitutional Union Party delegate to the Virginia Secession Convention in 1861. Virginia voted to secede on April 17th, 1861, and Nelson organized the Clarke Cavalry later that June. Despite his readiness to lead Virginian troops into battle against the Union, Nelson’s speech reveals that he was in strong opposition of secession: “I pray to God,” Nelson said to the other convention delegates, “that the time may not be far distant when all our difficulties will be adjusted, and we shall again be a united, prosperous and happy people.” Though he did not wish to separate from the United States of America, Nelson also believed that Virginia, along with other Southern states, required “constitutional guarantees” from the Union. Those, he urged, could be solved through compromise and not bloodshed. Nelson succumbed to the dangers of campaign life and died of typhoid on August 6, 1862.

Hugh Nelson is not the only Virginian who fought for his state despite opposing secession. In a letter to his son, soon-to-be famous General Robert E. Lee states: “As an American citizen, I take great pride in my country, her prosperity and her institutions, and would defend any State if her rights were invaded. But I can anticipate no greater calamity for the country than the dissolution of the Union. It would be an accumulation of all the evils we complain of, and I am willing to sacrifice everything but honor for its preservation. I hope, therefore, that all constitutional means will be exhausted before there is a resort to force. Secession is nothing but revolution.”

Why did these and other men fight for the Confederacy if they were against its very existence? Both Nelson and Lee mention honor. Indeed, many recruitment posters played on the idea of honor as well. Men were called to defend their brothers, their wives, their sisters, and the land they called home. Recruitment posters such as the one below bore heavily upon the conscious of many young Virginian men.

A Virginian Recruitment Poster
A Virginian Recruitment Poster

To refuse to defend one’s state was considered equivalent to sitting back and allowing the invaders to kill one’s brothers and rape one’s sisters and wives. This and other posters made it clear that dying an honorable death fighting for one’s homeland was preferable to living as a traitor and a coward. Local social pressure to join the war effort was also high and had a large initial impact on joining the army. Young men often enlisted simultaneously with the other men from their town– joining in arms the same friends they had known since their childhood days for their greatest adventure yet.Those who stayed home were shunned. Men who refused to fight often found themselves labeled as undesirable bachelors not worth marrying. They were known to receive women’s drawers; not as a romantic invitation, but as a disdainful assessment of their manliness. Of course, men joined for more practical reasons as well: men who joined were promised bounty and, at times, military furnishings.

And so these men known as Southern Unionists marched off to fight a battle they did not believe in. Some fought for honor, their families, and their homes. Others fought for adventure and the promise of money. Some fought to avoid the scorn that came with refusing to fight. No matter what reason lay behind their enlistment, though, none of the Virginian men could have anticipated how dearly they would pay. Matched by only one other Confederate state in number of casualties, Virginia would bury over 30,000 of its men.

-Casey Marion, Long Branch Plantation Intern

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