The Debate About Lincoln: What did Southern Unionists Think of the Great Emancipator?

By Renee Sheridan

What is a Southern Unionist?

The election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 can easily be seen as the straw that broke the camel’s back and immediately led to the Confederate states seceding from the Union. With Lincoln winning zero percent of the popular vote in many of the Southern states, it is easy to believe that he was universally rejected by the South.[1] However, Southern Unionists—Confederate citizens that sympathized with the Union—did reside within these states, and many of these unionists even believed that they were the majority.[2] Even within this unique group of Unionists, there is also a strong disconnect between those who supported Lincoln and those who did not.

Electoral map from the Election of 1860, Wikimedia Commons

The Peculiar Institution

From examining these Southern Unionists and their opinions of Lincoln, I have found that the issue of slavery was a common theme that contributed to their opinions of him. On average, those Southern Unionists that supported Lincoln also held strong views against slavery. On the other hand, Southern Unionists that either rejected Lincoln or were indifferent towards him either supported slavery or thought that it was not a large issue that needed to be resolved. There is no strong evidence to suggest that many Southern Unionists changed their opinions on Lincoln over the course of the war. By discovering what these “rebels among rebels” thought of Abraham Lincoln, who was already a controversial man during his day, we can learn more about their motivations for opposing the Confederacy and even more about the demographics of the South. By understanding the differing motivations and opinions of Southern Unionists, we can also realize that the political climate of the South during the war was far more diverse than anticipated.

Constitutional Unionists and Those Who Rejected Lincoln

Since the beginning of his candidacy, self-declared unionists sought to oppose Lincoln and his Republican alliance.[3] John Bell, a Southern Unionist, represented the “Constitutional Unionist” party, a party what wished to oppose secession and preserve slavery at the same time.[4] These “Constitutional Unionists” feared that the Southern states would secede if Lincoln was elected, due to the Republican party’s largely abolitionist platform.[5] Unionists residing in both the Northern and Southern states belonged to this new Constitutional Unionist party, and those living in the South would later unwillingly find themselves a part of the Confederacy.[6] This new party chose Tennessee Senator John Bell to run against Lincoln in the election of 1860.[7] Since Bell and the Constitutional Unionist party aimed to remain neutral over the issue of slavery, they were against the Republican Party’s aim to abolish slavery.[8] They chose to ignore the issue of slavery in hopes of not further agitating the South and therefore avoiding war, similar to William G. “Parson” Brownlow of Tennessee.[9] Brownlow, a rather militant Unionist, believed that “slavery had very little to do with inaugurating armed secession.”[10] Instead, he argued that it was poorly-behaved secessionists constantly being agitated by abolitionists—perhaps including Lincoln— that were to blame.[11] This again points to the clear division between abolitionist Unionists who sided with Lincoln and those who did not side with him because they wished to avoid the slavery argument altogether.

John Henning Woods and Pro-Lincoln Unionists

Those loyalists who most enthusiastically backed Lincoln also held equally strong opinions against slavery and the division it caused. This created an even more harsh divide between the slaveholding and non-slaveholding South. John Henning Woods, a Tennessee native who remained loyal to the Union while begrudgingly fighting for the Confederacy, is a prime example of a Southern Unionist who supported Lincoln.[12] Woods’ memoir tells the story of his wartime experience and his time spent imprisoned by Confederates.[13] In this memoir, Woods explains that he was “conscientiously for Hon. Abraham Lincoln in 1860, but [he] was in a locality where a Republican scarcely dared to express himself by vote or word.”[14] Woods goes on to flagrantly back Lincoln and even praise him in his memoir as well.[15] Woods also strongly opposed slavery and believed that it was a “sore bone of contention in the country, interrupting the peace and harmony of the states.”[16]

Elizabeth Van Lew, another Southern Unionist, was a fierce abolitionist and resented the South’s hatred of Lincoln and the Union.[17] While her Confederate counterparts supported Slavery and viciously mocked Lincoln, Van Lew found it difficult to hold her tongue.[18] “This heavy heart pulsing and looking upon Slavery as it really is”, Van Lew laments in her memoir, “No pen, no book, no time can do justice to the wrongs it honors.”[19]

Elizabeth Van Lew, Wikimedia Commons

In her book The Free State of Jones, Victoria Bynum notes how Newt Knight, a Southern Unionist, was not a wealthy Southerner, and therefore did not own any slaves.[20] Consequently, he “felt that the [twenty negro] law wasn’t fair”, and because of this, he eventually “called himself a Union man and was a full-fledged Republican”, thus supporting Lincoln.[21] This is important because wealthy slaveowners that owned enough slaves to benefit from this law and escape the draft would not have spoken out against it, but the less wealthy lower class that did not own any slaves would likely have suffered more because of it. By rejecting slavery and remaining loyal to the Union during the war, these unionists had a stronger sense of loyalty to Lincoln as well.

Other Unionists simply backed Lincoln because they shared the same values concerning the legality of secession. Because of this, their support for Lincoln was not quite as strong as that of Woods or Van Lew. In his memoir, Bokum Hermann, a German immigrant that came to America before the war, tells his story of how he was treated as a unionist living in Tennessee.[22] In this memoir-style pamphlet, Hermann recalls how a fellow unionist friend of his was stopped by Confederate soldiers and asked if he was for Lincoln. His friend then calmly stated that “I am for the Union […] and if Lincoln is for the Union, then I am for Lincoln” (18). This transitive attitude is a stark contrast from that of Van Lew or Woods. To be fair, Hermann’s friend may have repressed some emotion out of fear of repercussion, however it is important to note that he made no mention of slavery. Instead, he highlights how important the preservation of the Union is to him.

Geography as a Factor

Along with slavery, there is also a strong correlation between geography and positive opinions of Lincoln among Southern unionists. It is important to note that Woods was traditionally from Tennessee, a more “northern” Confederate State.[23] Woods was also a relatively middle-class man who received an education, yet married into a farming family in Alabama.[24] Elizabeth Van Lew was from a relatively upper-class Southern family from Richmond, and while her family did own slaves, she was sent North to Philadelphia to be educated.[25] Having a Northern education, and not a Southern one, surely would have influenced her views on slavery and Southern life as a whole. It is also noteworthy to mention that Hermann was a German immigrant that originally lived in the Northern United States when he first arrived, and then he later migrated to Tennessee.[26] Similarly to Van Lew, Hermann would have also had a different upbringing than that of a white man living in Mississippi. Here, there is a direct correlation between Southern Unionists who were subjected to more “Northern” ways of life and therefore rejected the idea of secession and other Southern ideals. By rejecting secession and, in some cases, slavery, these unionists found themselves supporting Lincoln, even though some supported him more strongly than others.

Map of the Confederate States of America, Wikimedia Commons


Southern unionist’s support for Lincoln during the Civil War was largely influenced by the issue of slavery. Those who backed Lincoln and his abolitionist policies also tended to be exposed to the “Northern” way of life, whether that was through a Northern education or living in a more “Northern” Southern state. There were two major schools of thought within Southern unionist groups that refused to support Lincoln. Many Unionists that opposed Lincoln, declared that the divisiveness that Lincoln and abolitionism had brought forth were the causes of the war. These people recognized the class differences and social issues that arose from the peculiar institution, and therefore wished to remain moderate. There were also unionist groups that rejected Lincoln and additionally rejected the primarily Northern notion that slavery had created two distinct societies in America, due to the fact that they themselves were supporters of slavery.[27] This is significant because we can infer these unionists’ motives for actually being unionists.


Further Readings

Victoria Bynum, The Free State of Jones, (Chapel Hill North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2003).

Daniel W. Crafts, Reluctant Confederates: Upper South Unionists in the Secession Crisis, (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1989).

William C. Harris, “The Southern Unionist Critique of the Civil War”, (Civil War History 31, no.1, 1985: 39-56).

James L. Huston, “Southerners Against Secession: The Arguments of the Constitutional Unionists in 1850–51.” (Civil War History 46, no. 4 ,2000: 281-299).

Don Green, “Constitutional Unionists: the party that tried to stop Lincoln and save the Union.” (The Historian 69, no. 2, 2007: 231+. Academic OneFile).

“A Plea for Southern Unionists, by One of Them,” (New York Times: New York, New York, Aug. 14, 1862).

Bokum Hermann, The Testimony of a Refugee from East Tennessee. (Philadelphia. 1863).

Elizabeth L. Van Lew and David D. Ryan, A Yankee Spy in Richmond: The Civil War Diary of “Crazy Bet” Van Lew, (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books. 1996).

John Henning Woods Papers, Ms2017-030, Virginia Tech Special Collections, Blacksburg, Va.


[1]John Woolley and Gerhard Peters, “Election of 1860”, The American Presidency Project,

[2] “A Plea for Southern Unionists, by One of Them,” New York Times, (New York, NY), Aug. 14, 1862.

[3]Don Green, “Constitutional Unionists: The Party That Tried to Stop Lincoln and Save the Union,” The Historian 69, no.2 (2007): 231,

[4]John Bell, Record, (Washington, DC: National Executive Committee of the Constitutional Union Party, 1860).

[5]Green, “Constitutional Unionists,” 231.




[9]William C. Harris, “The Southern Unionist Critique of the Civil War,” Civil War History 31, no.1 (1985), 42,

[10]William G. Brownlow, Sketches Of the Rise, Progress, And Decline of Secession; With a Narrative Of Personal Adventures Among Rebels (Philadelphia: George W. Childes, 1862).

[11]Harris, “The Southern Unionist Critique of the Civil War,” 42.

[12]John Henning Woods Papers, Ms2017-030, Virginia Tech Special Collections, Blacksburg, Va.


[14]Ibid., Vol. 1, 79.


[16]Ibid., Vol. 1, 16.

[17]Elizabeth Van Lew, A Yankee Spy in Richmond: The Civil War Diary of “Crazy Bet” Van Lew, ed. David A. Ryan, (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1996,) 31.


[19]Van Lew, Yankee Spy, 33.

[20]Victoria Bynum, The Free State of Jones, (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 98.


[22]Bokum Hermann, The Testimony of a Refugee From East Tennessee, 1863, 4,;view=1up;seq=20.

[23]Ibid., 3.

[24]John Henning Woods Papers, Vol. 1, 6.

[25]Van Lew, Yankee Spy, 5.

[26]Hermann, Testimony of a Refugee, 4.

[27]Harris, “The Southern Unionist Critique of the Civil War,” 40.


About the Project

This page was created as part of an undergraduate research seminar taught in the Virginia Tech History Department by Professor Paul Quigley in Fall 2017. Views and opinions belong to the student authors.

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