Choosing Sides

Choosing Sides

by D. H. Rule

The United States is… The United States are…
The Confederates were lazy white racists fighting to preserve slavery The Confederates were noble knights of sterling character fighting to preserve states rights against Federal tyranny
The Unionists fighting to free the slaves, were patriots battling traitors The Northern Unionists were fighting to tyrannize the South and destroy its sacred heritage

That about sums up the two prevailing views of the Confederates and Unionists. To both sides I would say:


Our ten-second sound-bite driven world wants distinctive sides and clear, easy-to-define controversy. We want to rewrite history to fit what we wish had been rather than what was, or to create better villains than really existed. We want distinctive good guys and bad guys. As with everything, reality falls into the fussy boundary area between the sides.

The motives of the governments and grand ideals had little to do with how the individuals chose their side of the conflict.

In Missouri, in particular, choosing sides was far more complicated than perhaps anywhere else in the nation. If one was born and raised in Alabama, one almost inevitably went with the Confederacy. Likewise, a New Yorker born and raised, would almost inevitably be a Unionist. Missouri was a border state, not only between north and south, but on the border to the western frontier. Missouri had a mixture of people from diverse backgrounds.

For a person in Missouri the primary factors in choosing sides were:

  • Family heritage
  • Nationality
  • Opinion on preserving the Union
  • Opinion on the rights of states to secede
  • Opinion on preserving slavery
  • Opinion on abolishing slavery
  • Federal oppression
  • Practical, business reasons
  • Youthful rebellious spirit

The side a person chose can almost be told from the family’s history. If the family came to Missouri along the southern migration path—Virginia to Tennessee or Kentucky, then on to Missouri—the person usually went with the Confederacy. If the migration path was northerly, through Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois into Missouri, the person usually went with the Union. Family allegiance, and social and cultural upbringing, tended to be the influencing factors.

My research suggests that most Missourians chose sides based primarily on family affiliation with a region, northern or southern. Those who tended to identify themselves as “Southerners” went with the Confederacy while those who identified themselves as “Northerners” went with the Union. This was not an absolute, of course. Many of the most adamant Rebels I’ve researched were actually Eastern Yankees by upbringing.

National backgrounds was another factor. The Germans of St. Louis (of which there were many) were strongly Union based on their homeland’s recent experiences. By the same token, the Irish immigrants had powerful reasons to mistrust strong central governments, and to be wary of the signs of government oppression, and went strongly for the Confederacy.

Then, as in other parts of the country, the keystone issues of the conflict came into play—slavery and preservation of the Union.

The slavery issue had the devote extremists on both sides. These actually tended to be the fringe elements and of relatively small numbers. To be sure, they were vocal and vehement but, as with extremists now, were not representative of the mainstream. On one side were the hardcore abolitionists. On the other, were the equally stubborn proponents of slavery.

For most, the issues of slavery or abolition were matters of leaning rather than the sole deciding factors in which side they chose.

Missouri, though a slave state, was not as strongly entrenched either socially or economically as many of the deep south states. St. Louis had relatively few slaves, though it was a sales and transport hub by virtue of its position on the river.

Few who chose the Confederate side owned, or had ever owned, a slave. Yet many notable Unionists in St. Louis did own slaves, and some continued to do so throughout the war. James O. Broadhead, Union Provost Marshal, is quoted as having said, “every damned abolitionist ought to be hanged.” General U. S. Grant’s wife was a slave-owner.

A number of people who otherwise were in favor of slavery believed even more strongly that the Union should be preserved. Their counterparts believed that states had the right to secede. It’s been said that the difference before and after the War is that before we said, “the United States are,” and after we said, “the United States is.” For a huge number of people at this time patriotic allegiance was to their individual state, not to the nation as a whole.

Then, almost unique to Missouri, was the role the Federal government played in pushing people to the Confederate side. Absalom Grimes, who later, as he put it, “became very enthusiastic in the Rebel cause,” spend the early secessionist days of 1861 sitting it out in neutrality, expecting that the secessionist fuss would blow over in a few weeks. He and fellow river pilots, Sam Clemens (later Mark Twain) and Sam Bowen were pushed toward the Confederate side when Union General John B. Gray tried to impress them into service ferrying Union troops. All three went on to join an irregular Confederate unit in north-east Missouri. In later years Mark Twain would say he quit river piloting because the war ended that occupation. No, he could have continued piloting but he would not do so for the Union.  Yet Mark Twain was later known for his anti-slavery views and friendship with General/President Grant.He also didn’t like getting shot at and the pilot’s house on a steamboat was the easiest target.

Union General John Charles Fremont, and his successors, and martial law undoubtedly account for a number of people choosing the Confederate side. Missouri was under martial law throughout the war. The repression, and violations of Constitutional rights, was extreme. People were arrested and imprisoned without charges, sometimes just on the word of another claiming they had made “treasonable comments,” or for “hurrahing Jeff Davis.” Newspapers were censored and their editors arrested for printing any but approved material. Families of Confederates were targeted and treated abominably. Property was confiscated and women and small children were forced into exile. Due process of law vanished.

For a number of St. Louis business people, and their counterparts further north, the Mississippi River was the critical transportation route to the sea. If the river was cut in half by the formation of a new country, their lifeline was cut off.

Another factor in ‘choosing sides’ I must include is simply a youthful, rebellious spirit. Frontiersmen and pioneers tend toward a greater sense of independence and certainly have no fondness for taking orders from Eastern city people. Couple this with the general tendency of young men toward adventure and the Confederacy’s battle for independence must have seemed an exciting mirror to their own parent’s trek into the frontier and their grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ struggle against the British in the Revolutionary War.