Author Interview--Christopher Rein (Alabamians in Blue)

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we feature Christopher M. Rein to talk about his book Alabamians in Blue: Freedmen, Unionists, and the Civil War in the Cotton State, which came out in 2019 with Louisiana State University Press.

Chris Rein is Managing Editor of Air University Press in Montgomery Alabama. Before that, he worked for over two years at the Army University Press and taught both at the U.S. Air Force Academy and the Air Command and Staff College. He has also published The North African Air Campaign and edited Weaving the Tangled Web: Military Deception in Large-Scale Combat Operations.

To start the interview, Chris, could you explain to our readers what attracted to Alabama Unionists and what your book's argument is?

CMR: My interest in the military service of Alabama's black and white Unionists grew out of my 2001 MA thesis at LSU (https://digitalcommons.lsu.edu/gradschool_theses/748/) on Unionist military service in the Trans-Mississippi West. In that project, directed by Dr. William Cooper and advised by Dr. Charles Royster, and building on work on southern dissenters by Carl Degler, I argued for the incredible diversity of Unionists across the south, not just in traditional strongholds in the Appalachians and Ozarks. In Louisiana, freedmen, Cajuns, and southern yeomen from Huey Long's native Winn Parish, among other places, joined Germans from the Texas Hill Country and Tejanos from the Rio Grande Valley, Native Americans from the Indian Territory, and Unionists from northern Arkansas in offering their services to the Union Army and contesting Confederate control of the region. Various life events, including the military response to the 9/11 attacks (I was still on active duty and teaching ROTC at Southern University at the time) interrupted further work, but my doctoral work at KU, teaching a course on the Civil War at the Air Force Academy, and a relocation to Alabama in 2014 all rekindled my interest in the topic while giving me access to many of the repositories I needed to complete the work. Benefiting from the incredible work done on the environmental history of the Civil War in the intervening twenty years by Lisa Brady, Kathryn Shively Meier, Ken Noe, and others, as well as Bill Freehling's seminal 2001 work The South vs. The South and Margaret Story's indispensable Loyalty and Loss, I argue that the American Civil War, like most wars, was as much a contest for resources as an ideological struggle, especially in the disputed no-man's land between Union and Confederate lines. Southern slaveholders fomented the rebellion in order to maintain their access to uncompensated labor of their slaves while simultaneously placing levies on the labor and resources of southern dissenters, through the conscription and confiscation acts. Former slaves actively worked to undermine this system, by depriving the Confederacy of their own labor and by seeking shelter, safety, and succor in Union garrison cities in and around the state. At the same time, Unionists driven from their homes by both Confederate oppression and a severe drought that struck Alabama in the summer of 1862 also formed refugee communities in places such as Corinth, Mississippi and Nashville, Tennessee. There, they both offered their services as soldiers in the Union Army, primarily in units that specialized in intelligence collection and logistics support, securing access to life-sustaining resources and facilitating the liberation of their home state. Thus, the efforts of Alabama's Union soldiers, as well as that of their refugee families, offers one of the first cases of a biracial coalition, alongside active intervention from the federal government, that helped usher in a progressive change in Alabama, one that presaged the Civil Rights Era 100 years later.

Your coverage of both black and white Alabamians joining the U.S. military was interesting; however, it seemed the white Alabamians were able to create local identity units (i.e. First Alabama Cavalry) whereas blacks were grouped into the USCT. Obviously, that was U.S. policy, but does that indicate deeper issues with Civil War policy toward white southerners, especially in the border region on the Tennessee or Florida side of the state? On a different note, your comments remind a little about the Free State of Jones across the border in Mississippi, did something similar form in Alabama?

CMR: The African-American units that were eventually subsumed into the USCT originally had state identities (First Alabama Infantry, African Descent, etc.) but the larger bureaucracy of the War Department eventually erased these state identities, not unlike what happened to volunteer units during World War I (when, for example, the Fourth Alabama Infantry became the 167th Infantry Regiment of the United States Army). The white First Alabama Cavalry did retain its state identification throughout the war, and into the post-war period. I think the conditions of recruitment of USCT regiments (largely from "contraband," or, more properly, as Amy Murrell Taylor has recently argued, refugee camps) across the South tended to blur regional identity, but many northern-raised USCT regiments (such as the famed 54th Massachusetts, along with Philadelphia's 25th USCI) managed to retain their affiliations with their home states. Many of the soldiers in USCT units officially credited to Alabama actually came from other states, especially after the regiments moved to places such as Memphis and Nashville. The effort to nationalize the USCT stemmed from positive intentions, primarily to give the federal government the responsibility for organization that normally fell to state governors for volunteer regiments. The white Unionist regiments, especially those without a reorganized state government, lacked the formal support that northern-raised regiments enjoyed as a result of having a functioning, loyal state government and stable communities.
I think the "Free State of Winston" has strong parallels to the "Free State of Jones" that Vicky Bynum and others have done so much to increase our awareness of. Both communities opposed secession and resented being forced to support it with their lives and the products of their own labor. In terms of demographics, though, the Free State of Jones arose from "piney woods" communities of the coastal plain that approximated Unionists from the Wiregrass region of Southeast Alabama and Northwest Florida who eventually enlisted in the First Florida Cavalry (US). Winston County's Unionists had far more in common with the mountaineers of East Tennessee, and often had the same Appalachian origins that can be traced back to the Regulator movement in North Carolina. As far as the extant records can tell, Winston County never formally "seceded" from Alabama and, due to a minimal presence of antebellum slavery in the coves and hollows of Sand Mountain, lacked the biracial cooperation of its Mississippi cognate, but certainly corresponded, as Margaret Storey has argued, in the creation of kinship networks determined to resist the Confederacy. In my earlier research on Louisiana's Union units, I found several enlistees from Jones County who traveled to Fort Pike, Louisiana, guarding the entrance to Lake Pontchartrain, in order to enter federal service. So there is also a similarity with Unionists resisting at home for as long as possible, then being forced into exile at the nearest federal outpost and enlisting in the Union Army.

You mentioned these various Unionist communities and their enrollment in the military, but what happened to the families of the men who enlisted? How much support did they receive from the U.S. government? Was there something comparable to contraband camps for white Alabamians?

CMR: I think that's is one of the most significant differences between northern-raised regiments and the southern Unionist regiments, and one of the greatest commonalities for both black and white Unionists. While northern soldiers were far from their families and loved ones, southern Unionists often had their families with them in camp. Army authorities initially enlisted the First Alabama Infantry, African Descent (later the 55th USCI) specifically to serve as guards for the "contraband" camp at Corinth, a task white soldiers found distasteful. Many soldiers in the First Alabama Cavalry also had their families with them at Glendale, Mississippi, an outpost of Corinth along the Memphis & Charleston Railroad. While the presence of family could be a positive, as it encouraged soldiers to fight harder to defend their homes, it could also be a distraction, as soldiers might be more concerned about their families' welfare and safety than performing their assigned duties.
Families in garrison towns benefitted in many ways from their close association with the military, as the army generally had ample stocks of food, spare shelter (or the ability to commandeer it through force from the local populace) and surplus funds to devote to relief. The security it provided also allowed relief agencies, usually northern missionaries, to function as well. The army had an insatiable demand for labor, from cutting lumber to driving wagons to washing laundry, for which it could usually pay handsomely. But the army could also be a corrupting influence, luring refugee women into prostitution, spreading disease through poor sanitation, and exposing refugees directly to the violence of war. The Army forced black refugees to harvest cotton from abandoned plantations, which it then sold for their benefit, but also withheld a portion of their wages to provide support for those in the camp took sick or infirm to work. Soldiers could be sent on missions far from the camps, and refugee families risked their loss from either combat or disease. But families still behind Confederate lines often shared in these hardships without the benefit of mutual protection, access to resources, or male labor. Confederate authorities persecuted southern Unionists generally, but especially those who had family members in the Union Army, driving them from their homes and towards Union lines.

Your book extensively covers Alabama Unionists and their struggles, but I noticed that a significant number of foreign names (especially eastern European) appeared in association with the Alabama units, such as Alexander Asbóth, Wladimir Kryzanowski, or John Turchin, was there a specific reason for this?

CMR: The work covers military events in Alabama extensively and, since the Union Army contained a number of "Refugees of the '48," there was a high statistical probability that they would become involved in military operations in the state. Many of the soldiers in western armies came from Midwestern cities with expanding European immigrant populations, such as Cincinnati, Chicago, and St. Louis. Turchin settled in Chicago, earned a commission in an Illinois regiment, and commanded a brigade in Ormsby's Mitchel's division that liberated Alabama's Tennessee Valley in the spring of 1862. Similarly, the Hungarian-born Alexander Asbóth, who was instrumental in organizing the First Florida Cavalry in Pensacola (which contained a large number of Alabamians) settled in St. Louis and advanced rapidly in Union military circles. One of the advantages of command has always been the ability to place associates into positions, and Asbóth helped fellow Hungarian Col. Ladislas Zulavsky earn a commission in the 82nd USCI, which Asbóth then had assigned to his post at Pensacola. But I think there is strong evidence, as you've successfully argued in Liberty and Slavery, that many of these expatriates were especially sympathetic to refugee communities, seeing in them the same struggles they experienced as exiles from their own homelands.
Interestingly, in 1870, John Cullmann founded a German colony in Winston County with immigrants initially from Cincinnati's German community, some of whom had served in the state during the war. In 1877, Cullman became a separate county and the Cullman County Museum still honors the community's Unionist heritage today. (See Robert Davis' work on Cullman, including http://www.wallacestate.edu/Content/Uploads/wallacestate.edu/files/Genealogy/Cullman_Count...)

With the attention to the Free State of Jones but also the Dark Turn in Civil War military history, how would you like to see your work contribute to Civil War scholarship? What do you hope your greatest impact will be? Do you think your book will stimulate more work on Alabama Unionism, Southern Unionism, etc.?

CMR: That's a great question. I don't think we ever really know how, or even if, our work will influence the historiography, but I see the book aligning with recent works such as Joan Cashin's War Stuff, (released just as Alabamians in Blue was going to press), which illuminates the war's contest for resources (though my work suggests that civilians sometimes used the armies to gain resources), and William Marvel's Lincoln's Mercenaries, which emphasizes the more practical reasons why soldiers enlisted in the Union Army. I was also influenced by both Lesley Gordon's A Broken Regiment and Susannah Ural's Hood's Texas Brigade, both of which are excellent unit histories, but also raise questions about the apparent pointlessness of the sacrifices of the men in both units. Wars are always destructive, wasteful, "dark," and often counterproductive, but a far worse course of action would be to let those who threaten the use of violence to simply get away with it. Just as we must confront violent white supremacists and sexual predators today, so too did the nation have to call the Fire-Eaters and secessionists on their bluff, and the soldiers of Alabama's Union regiments were willing to do just that, even if the actual timing of their service was heavily influenced by material want. So I think balancing that discussion, between the ideological and economic incentives for service, might be a useful contribution to the field, as almost all wars are contests for resources at some level. I know graduate students at several institutions are already hard at work on other southern Unionist military units, including the First Florida and First Louisiana Cavalry regiments, and we continue to learn more about the various USCT units and their specific service, though additional holistic studies, such as one on the Department of the Gulf's Corps d'Afrique would be useful. The popularity of the film Free State of Jones helped to undermine the still-persistent UDC- and SCV-supported myth of a unified South in support of secession, and scholars are turning up more and more "Free States of Jones," or, at least, "Reluctant Rebels," across the South, which, I think, does much to explain the eventual collapse of the Confederacy in 1865. So it's a rich conversation, and I'm honored to have been able to contribute a verse.

Chris, thank you for this conversation and for taking the time to share some aspects of your book with us here on H-CivWar.