Mississippi

A Remarkable Civil War Letter: William D. Fitzgerald, imprisoned Southern Unionist, to President Abraham Lincoln

I first encountered the following letter from William D. Fitzgerald to President Lincoln on Brooks Simpson’s Crossroads post, “Black Confederates and White Southern Unionists,” and then again on the Southern Unionists page of Facebook. William Davidson Fitzgerald was born and raised in Nelson County, Virginia. By 1860, he and his family lived in Tishomingo County, Mississippi, where he taught school. I have found no evidence that he owned slaves. Fitzgerald’s letter to the President, written during his imprisonment at Castle Thunder, the Confederate prison in Richmond, was sent only weeks before his death on 27 July 1863.

Several parts of the letter stand out: first, Fitzgerald’s unequivocal belief that the destruction of slavery should be a prime object of the war, and, second, his advice to Lincoln to financially compensate slaveholders who supported the Union as a strategy for maintaining their support. Finally, Fitzgerald speaks forcefully to the question of why a Southern white man might support the U.S. government over the Confederacy. I have bolded the section of the letter I find most fascinating: that in which Fitzgerald offers a class analysis of white men’s loyalty to the Union and his reasoning for why so many non-slaveholders nonetheless joined the Confederate army. 

Vikki Bynum

From William Fitzgerald to Abraham Lincoln, July 4, 1863

Castle Thunder

Richmond July 4 1863

As a Citizen of the United States I take the liberty of addressing you a short letter.

I am now, and for a considerable time have been incarcerated by the Enemies of our Country, in Castle Thunder, Richmond– Here I shall soon die; but before being consigned to my obscure grave, I desire as a Southern man to applaud and commend your efforts in the holy cause in-which you are engaged; not only of restoring the Union, but in rending the shackles of Slavery from millions of our fellow beings– Let me assure you that the prayers of thousands in the South ascend to heaven daily for your ultimate success, in the great work–

The heads of the wicked rebellion, and the public journals of the Country, would have the people of the North and of Europe believe, that the Southern people are unanimously in favor of a new government; but, Sir, a pretension more false was never promulgated– If the sense and will of the people, including the rank and file of the army, could be taken to-day, they would, by an overwhelming majority, declare in favor of the Union– Of the white population of the South more than two thirds of the adult males are non-slaveholders or poor– It is impossible for them to fraternize with such men as Jeff Davis, Yancey, Benjamin (Note 1), and their coadjutors– It would be unnatural for them to sympathize with this fratricidal rebellion, or revere an oligarchy founded on slavery, which the rebels leaders are seeking to establish– Slavery has been a curse of the poor white man of the south and he would be mad indeed to desire to perpetuate it– The wealthy planter has ever been the poor mans enemy and oppressor, and the latter would be too generous by half if he desired to increase his foes power over him– You may depend upon it that in general the rich of the South despise the poor, and the poor in return hate the rich–

True it is that the army of the Confederacy is composed principally of men non-Slaveholders but they are not in arms by their own volition.

True it is that at the beginning of the war war many volunteers from this class were raised; but they did not realize the fact that they were to fight against the United States, against the Union– We are a sensation people; and they were carried away by the excitement of the moment– The leaders induced them to believe they were merely going to repel another John-Brown raid– The deception then successfully practiced by the heartless traitors, enabled them afterwards to enforce the conscription, and now the people are powerless– But let the war for the Union be prosecuted, let your armies advance, and wherever they can promise security to the people you will find the masses loyal–

In conclusion I will venture a single suggestion on another point– It would be arrogance and folly in an humble individual like myself to presume to council the chief Magistrate of a great nation but having closely watched the progress of this war, and the policy of your administration, I may be pardoned for expressing the result of my observations, and a single suggestion–

Your Emancipation proclamation opened the grandest issue involved in this sanguinary struggle, and may prove the heaviest blow dealt the rebellion– But as I understand it, and as it is unwisely interpreted in the South, it frees all the Slaves within the territory to which it applies without offering any indemnity to loyal citizens– In this respect it is wanting– There are many loyal slaveholders in the South, and your proclamation has driven some, and will drive others over to the rebels– I know within my circle of acquaintances several with whom it has had this effect– In my own town two gentlemen, who before the proclamation were regarded as union men, and furnished substitutes to the rebels with great reluctance, immediately after the promulgation of the document, entered the Confederate service, one as a Colonel, and another as captain– Not only were these two men added to the rebel army, but the influence of their example was by no means insignificant–

Since then you can not desire the innocent to suffer for the misdeeds of the guilty, that the loyal should recieve — the wages of treason, let another proclamation be issued, promising loyal citizens of the South reasonable compensation for the slaves liberated, out of the confiscated property of the disloyal, and the two proclamations together will quickly prove, with assistance of the army now in the field, the heaviest blows, and the death blows of the rebellion–

Such is the belief of your dying, and,

Obedient Servant–

Wm Fitzgerald

Castle Thunder Prison, Cary St., Richmond, VA, 1865. Wikipedia file

For historians such as myself, finding the actual words of a white Southern Unionist is always exciting.  Fitzgerald’s contention that non-slaveholding whites “are not in arms by their own volition,” and that they were fooled by secessionists into fighting against their own government by exaggerated stories of impending raids by the likes of John Brown is an opinion that many disputed, then and now.

Yet Fitzgerald was not alone in that view. During the same year in which he wrote to Lincoln, John A. Beaman of North Carolina wrote his governor that “farmers and mechanics” were ready to “revolutionize” rather than fight a slaveholders’ war. Guerrilla leader Newt Knight echoed Beaman in 1892 when he expressed regret that Southern nonslaveholders did not launch a successful uprising against the slaveholders who had “tricked” them into fighting their war. (note 2).  In 1912, Madison Bush (who would be mayor of Laurel, Mississippi, by 1920) agreed with Newt, telling the Jones County D.A.R. that ordinary white men and boys had initially joined the Confederacy only because “they thought it was big to get the big guns on.” (note 3).

These are but a few of the pro-Union and anti-Confederate words uttered by Southern men and women, whites and blacks, that are buried in documents, memoirs, and letters throughout archives and attics of the South.  Many Southerners viewed support for the United States government as the true sign of patriotism and loyalty; many (including a good number of slaveholders) viewed secession as utter madness. 

Footnotes:

1. Here, Fitzgerald refers to William L. Yancey, prominent leader of the Southern secession movement and member of the Confederate Senate in 1862, and Judah P. Benjamin, former U. S. Senator from Louisiana who served as Confederate Attorney General, Secretary of War and Secretary of State.

2. Bynum, Long Shadow of the Civil War, pp. 15, 96

3. Bynum. Free State of Jones, p. 95

The original copy of William D. Fitzgerald’s letter is in the Lincoln Papers at the National Archives (Series 1. General Correspondence. 1833-1916). For more on Fitzgerald, see Carman Cumming, Devil’s Game, The Civil War Intrigues of Charles A. Dunham; also Scribd.com, “New Details Emerge on the Life and Death of William D. Fitzgerald in the infamous Castle Thunder.”

My thanks to Marilyn Fitzgerald Marme, Fitzgerald’s ggg- granddaughter, for posting his letter online and allowing me to post it on Renegade South.

Vikki Bynum

8 replies »

  1. The work that Southern historians are doing to bring to light the full scope of thier Southern heritage, Union as well as Confederate, is important to those such as myself whose heritage is Northern and Union. The romantic “lost cause” perpective has had its influence in the North as well. Some of that has to do with how both sides dealt with the aftermath of the war. It is in reading letters like this, that helps me put my ancesters’ Union service in a more balanced and realistic historical context. Thank you.

    • Thanks for your comment, Bill. Yes, the “Lost Cause” perspective, which really came into its own around the turn of the twentieth century, has had a tremendous impact on what people think they “know” about the Civil War past of their ancestors. Furthermore, the enduring popularity of the Lost Cause premise that slavery did not cause the war, or that desertion and dissent were the province only of cowards, demonstrates the saying that “the past is a foreign country.”

      Vikki

  2. Yeah, I would dispute Fitzgerald’s contention about the composition of the army, etc. What I find interesting–aside from how articulated his class consciousness is–is his sympathetic observation about southern slaveholding unionists. Here is where southern anti-Confederates had a unique and far more pragmatic view of abolition in general–their slaveholders are not abstract, and have to be compromised with.

    • Hi Chris,

      After posting this, I thought about how historians have commented that Lincoln overestimated the numbers of white Southerners willing to rise up against the Confederacy given the chance. Fitzgerald’s comment that the “masses” of Southern men were ready to do so may have been one of those letters that contributed to that overestimation.

      I too was struck by Fitzgerald’s passionate denunciation of slavery followed by his recommendation that slaveholders loyal to the United States be compensated by the U.S. for the loss of their slaves. I agree that his advice to Lincoln represents a realistic, pragmatic assessment of what it would take for the Union to hold the support of that class.

      It’s interesting that Fitzgerald had a better grasp of the fragility of the South’s Unionist coalition in regard to slaveholders. Seems he desperately wanted to believe that class resentments among the farmers and poor folk could be elevated to a revolution of sorts from below. He wouldn’t be the first–or last–over the span of history to make that mistake.

      Vikki

  3. I would say that the Confederate Government was actively suppressing Southern Unionists by putting them in prison without formal charges (habeus corpus suspension — like the Union government),and letting them starve to death as they did with William Fitzgerald! I doubt he was the only one. The response that John Letcher (governor of VA at the time and a boyhood friend of Fitzgerald) gave for his continued imprisonment was that Fitzgerald was said to have voted for Fremont (first anti-slavery candidate of the Republican Party) in 1856 and that he had helped his son escape conscription. And for that, Letcher literally said he could go to hell.

    • Marilyn,

      Thank you for this additional information about the brutal treatment of your ggg grandfather. There is no doubt that extreme measures were taken by Confederate authorities and vigilantes to quash Unionism; examples of such, like that of Unionist activity, are scattered throughout documents, letters, and court records.

      Vikki

  4. William D also had personal knowledge of the reasons many non-slaveholding Southerners joined the CSA. While one son did escape to West Virginia and join the Union Army; another son, my GG grandfather Alfred M Fitzgerald, joined the 23rd Mississippi, CO D out of Tishimongo.Consequently, he was captured at the Battle of Fort Donelson and held as a Prisoner of War at Camp Douglas in Chicago, where many confederates perished because of the brutal conditions. He did survive, and was exchanged in late 1862, presumedly to rejoin his unit. Alfred deserted the CSA and was captured again by the Union Army near Tishimongo in Mid-July 1863. Ironically enough, just at the time his father was dying at Castle Thunder! Alfred signed a loyalty oath to the Union and became a Union scout.

    • Marilyn,

      Your family’s story has many similar elements as those found in “divided” families throughout the South. So much of what determined a man’s decision was dictated by circumstances that could be quite fluid. It certainly resonates with many of the personal stories Ed Payne has recently uncovered for his Renegade South posts on Unionism in Piney Woods Mississippi.

      Thank you again for sharing your family’s story. How wonderful that so much of it was preserved through the generations.

      Vikki

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