Confederates from Iowa:

Not to Defend, but to Understand

Category: Aftermath of Ft. Sumter

Robert E. Lee’s Private Unionist Beliefs

Friends comfort each other in hard times, and sometimes they bare their souls.  Robert E. Lee discussed his Unionist beliefs (held before and after the Civil War) with his friend, former Iowa U.S. Senator George Wallace Jones, who had two sons in the Confederate Army.

Political record

Lee wrote Jones on March 22, 1869:

… I was not in favor of secession and was opposed to war.  In fact, I was for the Constitution and the Union established by our forefathers.  No one now is more in favor of that Union and that Constitution, and as far as I know, it is that for which the South has all along contended; and if restored, as I trust they will be, I am sure there will be no truer supporters of that Union and that Constitution than the Southern people.

But I must not wander into politics, a subject I carefully avoid, and return to your letter.

Robert E. Lee in U.S. uniform (Library of Congress)

Lee added greetings and a benediction:

Please present my kindest regards to every member of your family, especially to your brave sons who aided in our struggle for States rights and Constitutional Government.  We failed, but in the good Providence of God, apparent failure often proves a blessing.  I trust it may eventuate so in this instance …

With my earnest prayers for the peace and happiness of yourself and all your family, I am with true regard, your friend and servant.

R.E. Lee

Robert E. Lee (Library of Congress)

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Loyal or not? Virginia-born Iowa Democrat in the spotlight

After Ft. Sumter, Iowans roared, Punish the Rebels!   Republicans and Democrats flocked to enlist in the Union Army.

Gov. Samuel J. Kirkwood called a special session of the state legislature.  He wanted a legal framework for enlisting regiments and funding the war.

James H. Williams (courtesy Phil Williams)

James H. Williams (courtesy Phil Williams)

Republicans suspected state representative James H. Williams of disloyalty because he was a native Virginian.  Even more damning, Williams’s father was a Virginia legislator who called for that state to secede.

One of Williams’s constituents, Dewitt C. Cram, confronted Williams in a public letter on May 3, 1861.

Declare yourself like a man!

Cram asked Williams:

1.   Are you a believer in the Constitutional right of secession, as distinguished from the right of revolution, and as maintained by Southern Statesmen of the Jeff. Davis order?

2.  Does a citizen of Iowa owe superior allegiance to the general Government?

3.  Does a citizen of Iowa, born and bred in another State, owe any allegiance of any sort to the State of his birth, as against the State of Iowa or the general Government?

4.  Will you sustain the State or general Government in any measures adopted … to maintain the Union by force if needed, and to put down the Southern rebellion?

5.  If you deny the right of secession, as a remedy for alleged grievances, found in the Constitution, and place this rebellion upon the right of revolution, is it your opinion that the Seceding States have so far exhausted all Constitutional and peaceful remedies … ?

No answer – and Cram follows up

A week later, May 10, 1861, Cram stated:

“So far no answer has appeared … I … have a right to know the opinions of him who represents me …

If Mr. Williams be a believer in the doctrine of secession as a constitutional right, and that the State of his birth has superior claims upon him as against the State of Iowa, or the general Government, then he ought not to take a seat on our Legislature …

Private thoughts

Williams soon went to Des Moines for a special legislative session.  He wrote in his diary:

I go most reluctantly to the legislature.  Want to be home, to get ready to go to Va & espouse her cause.

Williams waited two months to indirectly answer Cram.  On July 11, 1861, Williams stated:

I am a citizen of Iowa; I have not gone to Virginia …   I have written nothing to favor violations of the Constitution in any quarter …

Williams celebrates

After the legislature adjourned, Williams returned to Dubuque and, on July 22, 1861, learned about the first battle of Bull Run (Manassas).  He wrote in his diary:

About 3 1/2 ock, the News the glorious victory was received.  Took the biggest drink of brandy &c.

Fateful choice

Two days later, James H. Williams took a train to Virginia.  In November 1861 (some four months later), he became a recruiter for Chew’s Battery, 7th Virginia Cavalry.

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