Confederate Migration in the Post-Bellum South

For 150 years the idea of the unreconstructed rebel has run consistently through popular literature and film and the clichéd caricature is no better illustrated than through such exaggerated creations as Yosemite Sam as we have just seen. Yet as those of us who have travelled to the South will readily attest Yosemite Sam is not that fictitious. Sad but true. The notion of the unreconstructed rebel took root almost as soon as the banners of the Confederate armies were lowered. At Appomattox soldiers purportedly pleaded with General Robert E Lee to keep fighting. In Arkansas, rather than surrender, Jo Shelby led his command into Texas, threw his brigade’s Confederate colours into the Rio Grande and with a band of intrepid followers crossed into Mexico. In August 1865 the Southern Colonization Society was formed in South Carolina to assist Southerners to emigrate to escape the odious oppression of Yankeedom. In December 1865 the first southern settlers arrived in Brazil. The song I’m A Good Ol’ Rebel, sung so lustily most recently by half the Roundtable membership, was penned in 1866 and became quickly embedded in the oral traditions of the South.

For many Southerners, if not most, the very idea of reconstruction was anathema to their hopes for life in the post war South. Some Southerners were undoubtedly deluded enough to think that life in the post bellum era might return to some semblance of their ante bellum lives. Of course the abolition of slavery meant that could never be. The passing of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the constitution in conjunction with the military occupation of the Confederacy ensured that radical change would take place. However the spectacular failure of reconstruction with the resurrection of the white hegemony in the South and the subsequent blatant disregard for the civil rights of African-Americans reflect an irrefutable proof that in southern minds generally the South remained defiantly unreconstructed.

Today I want to explore some broad examples of southerners who abandoned their homeland, for such emigrants surely represent the most sincere of unreconstructed rebels. From our own local civil war history in regard to veterans buried in Australia we know that Australia was a destination for some old Confederates in the post bellum years but so too were many other countries. For the first part of my talk I want to concentrate on some of the significant journeys of Confederate post war emigrants and assess that experience as well as give an idea of the numbers involved. These journeymen represent only a fraction of the southern population and are in that sense quite unique, contribute markedly to the quixotic notion of the self-exiled unreconstructed rebel, but are clearly not reflective of the majority of southerners in the post war South. The second part of my talk I want to devote to analysing population figures throughout the South with particular emphasis on the location of the encampments of the United Confederate Veterans (UCV). The majority of southerners remained in the South after the war but it is evident that there was some migration within the South during and after reconstruction. Whether these movements represent attempts at escape from the tyranny of Northern rule or are simply indicative of economic imperatives is open to question.

Of the 540 known civil war veterans buried in Australia only 55 are Confederates. Given that there were roughly 2.5 Union soldiers to each Confederate these figures are disproportionate. All things being equal one would expect a similar ratio in the number of civil war soldier emigrants from America. We can only guess at the reasons for this disparity. One possibility is that ex-Confederates were too impoverished to make such a journey. Another is that Southerners may have been too pre-occupied in the rebuilding of the South to see emigration as a solution to their ills, if indeed they even thought of their lives as being particularly disadvantaged. Other destinations included Canada, Cuba, Jamaica, Egypt, Venezuela, Japan and British Honduras; By far the two most popular destinations were Mexico and Brazil and the southerners that came to reside in these places became known as Confederados.

The selection of Mexico and Brazil may well have been inspired, to some small degree, by the widely held pre-war beliefs of America’s Manifest Destiny. Quite apart from that, Mexico’s attraction was obvious due to its proximity and a pre history with which many southerners were conversant, a history that was not necessarily particularly positive from the Mexican perspective. The most high profile of the southern immigrants to Mexico was General Jo Shelby. Rather than surrender his command to the Yankees he road south with the intention of offering his legion to Mexico’s Austrian born Emperor Maximilian. Maximilian’s hold on Mexico was tenuous at the time with opposition coming from Benito Juarez’s Republicans. Maximilian refused the ex-Confederate’s overture but offered the new settlers opportunity to purchase land near Vera Cruz. The biggest ex-Confederate population settled in a colony called Carlota where they planted cotton, coffee, sugar and tropical fruits. It is estimated that up to 10,000 southern settlers made their way to Mexico.

Jo Shelby’s force has been variously reported as numbering 600 to 1000 men. The force was armed to the teeth with each man toting a Sharp’s carbine, pistols and 120 rounds. The force was accompanied by ten French artillery pieces, nine wagons drawn by teams of twelve mules carrying necessary supplies as well as British Enfield rifles and 40,000 rounds of small arms ammunition. Any Mexican bandits would be given a run for their money.  While it seems most of these men followed Shelby to San Antonio, Texas, only 132 crossed into Mexico. That band was joined by a high profile gaggle of ex-Confederates which included two ex State governors of Texas, the Confederate governors of Kentucky and Louisiana, five generals, including John Bankshead Magruder, and a posse of lower ranked officers. In fact Mexico City became home to many high profile ex-Confederates such as Edmund Kirby-Smith, Sterling Price, Alexander W. Terrell, Isham Harris, Jubal Early, Richard Ewell and Simon Bolivar Buckner where they lived a high life commensurate with their southern heritage. In this Mexico differed from Brazil where fewer high ranked ex-Confederates made their way. Shelby’s troupe was an exception though as most settlers arrived singly or in small groups.

It could hardly be said that the new settlers enjoyed good times in Mexico. Their existence relied solely on the protection of Maximilian’s rule and when the French government lost interest in his regime the jig was up. Mexicans simply would not abide of Americans occupying large tracts of their land.

Juarez’s overthrow of Maximilian and the latter’s execution in 1867 marked the end of the Confederate experiment in Mexico. Many Confederados were attacked and driven from their new lands. With increasing violence from republican forces and various marauders, the Confederados began to abandon Mexico in large numbers and return to the United States.

By contrast Brazil proved a much more hospitable place. The government there, led by Emperor Dom Pedro, was well disposed toward the new settlers and provided assisted passage. Land was offered cheaply to attract them as well as the provision of tax breaks. Dom Pedro was keen to build a cotton industry and slavery was still an important contributor of labour in the Brazilian economy up to 1888 when it was abolished. The attraction to ex-Confederates was obvious. It is said that the majority of settlers came from the Deep South and most settled in around the city of Sau Paulo and Rio De Janiero. The first contingent of southerners arrived in Rio on 27 December 1865, thirty families led by Colonel William H. Norris of Alabama. Some settlers pushed southward along the coast to Parana as well as into the northern regions of the Amazon. Settlers worked together to explore the interior in search of arable lands. According to Brazilian port records some 20,000 southerners migrated to Brazil and there exist many people today who can trace their lineage back to these ex-Confederates. Enterprising farmers and entrepreneurs made a decent fist of the Brazilian experience and saw no reason to abandon the country once they had made their way. Few of the old Confederados settlements have been preserved but one has been recently discovered at the river port of Santarem in the North Western portion of Brazil at the confluence of the Amazon and Tapajos rivers.

All up it would seem then that only a little beyond 30,000 southerners abandoned the United States for a better life. The vast majority remained behind within the borders of the old Confederacy.

The story of the southern emigrants was largely ignored by the American press both North and South. A narrative of American citizens abandoning its shores did not fit with America’s view of itself as a reunified democratic republic that was the envy of the world. To this end Robert E. Lee was held up as an exemplar of reunification in both the North and South with his advocacy for Southerners again becoming loyal Americans. However, the story of returned emigrants when their failures became known was reported enthusiastically as a means of highlighting the folly of such ventures.

There was obviously some growth and movement in the Southern population in the post bellum period and it is to those figures I want to now turn. In terms of the overall southern white population the death of some 300,000 men of marital age and the emasculation of thousands of others through war wounds undoubtedly played with some effect on the procreation rates in the South.  Thanks to the US census figures we are able to track this growth easily. In the five years after the war there was little growth in the population. Populations of the former Confederate states remained static being for the most part only a little higher than the pre war figures for 1860. This was true of both the black and white populations. Three figures are worth noting as exceptions. In Virginia the population dropped to below 1860 levels. This was a result of the creation of West Virginia in 1863 and the 445,000 of its citizens cut into Virginia’s pre war totals. The others were Florida and Texas where increases of approximately 30 per cent occurred up to 1870. Why this trend? What was on offer? In Texas one might presume vast tracts of land were available though a large portion of the state was untamed and lawless and an obvious deterrent to sane individuals seeking to eke out a new existence. Both Florida and Texas represent the most southern points of the old Confederacy, both were about as far away from the seat of power in Washington DC as an unreconstructed rebel could hope for. If that was a motivation those southerners may have imagined that the perfidious influence of Yankee agents was less likely to be felt in faraway states. Both states were largely untouched by the war in terms of property damage and so perhaps were both free of the constant reminder of the war. Another possibility was that both offered warmer climates and that was a simple attraction in the same way that Victorians gravitate to Queensland in large numbers. However these population shifts are dependent on two quite separate groups, the black and the white population. In Texas the increase in both was equal. That is, proportionately, African-Americans were migrating in the same numbers as white southerners. In Florida, up to 1870, the black population increased by fifty per cent which put them at the forefront of the increased population of that state.

Extending our examination of the southern population to fifty years after the commencement of the war reveals some interesting figures. In that time the majority of the ex-Confederate states more than doubled their populations with some exceptions. Virginia had the lowest growth rate and was the only state not to at least double its population. Four states witnessed exceptional growth. In Georgia the population nearly trebled, in Arkansas it increased fourfold, in Florida it increased a little over fivefold and in Texas the 1910 population was more than six times the 1860 pre-war figure. Again growth was seen in both white and black populations proportionately.

What can we say of these figures? They clearly show an expansion of the southern population generally and a movement to the extremities of the old borders of the Confederacy. The increase was essentially a home grown one as the 1890 census shows that throughout the entire south there was only 380,000 migrants, the 25 million plus population being mostly native born! The fact that black southerners were as likely as white southerners to procreate and migrate undercuts, but does not necessarily discount, the possibility that ex-Confederates were seeking to put distance between themselves and Yankeedom.

The formation of the United Confederate Veterans in 1889 saw the growth of veteran associations in the South and the creation of the magazine the Confederate Veteran in 1893 provided a forum for the UCV to report on matters pertinent to its membership.  Publication of UCV membership totals allows us to get a slight handle on the movement of confederate veterans in the post war years. The magazine was the brainchild of Sumner Archibald Cunningham and was published independently of the UCV but quickly became the voice of the UCV and undoubtedly contributed to the upsurge in UCV membership. Prior to the UCV’s inception there had been only a handful of such organizations throughout the South which stood in stark contradistinction to the existence of the Grande Army of the Republic which began its life in 1866 and reached a membership peak of 490,000 in 1890.

What the Confederate Veteran did for scholars of the future was to record the numbers and locations of the UCV cells or encampments as they were termed. But before I move to discussing those figures I want to first address the numbers of Confederates who enlisted in the eleven rebel states to enable some comparison later. In doing so I know I am digressing a little from the focus of the talk but I think it is contextually relevant.

Establishing the exact number of men that served the Confederacy has proved somewhat elusive. Figures vary between as low as half a million to as many as one and a half million. I’m not so much interested in the aggregate amounts but rather a percentage breakdown of representation among the southern states. I’ve relied on one of the earliest papers on Confederate enlistment by Charles Francis Adams. Adams was the grandson of President John Quincy Adams and son of Charles Francis Adams senior, Lincoln’s ambassador to Britain. Charles junior served in the war with the Massachusetts volunteers and ended as a colonel of coloured cavalry. Surprisingly he wrote a most glowing account of Robert E Lee after the war. Adams wrote on a variety of subjects and gave some attention to Confederate enlistments in a paper in 1902(?).  He provided estimates of enlistments in eight of the Confederate states and I’ve drawn estimates of Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas from a variety of other sources. His estimates suggest a figure of 789,000 enlistments in the eight states tabulated. If we add in estimates of the other three states and border states of Kentucky and Maryland another 250,000 might be added thus tipping total Confederate enlistments over the one million mark.  Adams actually estimated a total of 1,277,000.

A critic of Adams’ research was Army of Northern Virginia veteran and Marylander, Randolph Harrison McKim. Writing in 1913 McKim argued overestimating enlistments undermined the true magnitude of the struggle faced which if known then made the Confederate effort even more remarkable whereas Adams argued that underestimating the Confederate enlistments undermined the integrity of the southern man’s willingness to fight. The figures McKim provided for six states represented the maximum men available of military service which would need to be adjusted down because of unfitness, exemptions and draft dodgers. He also pointed to the US Adjudant General’s belief that Adams’ figures needed to be adjusted by about twenty per cent to account for 1861 twelve month enlistees whom he believed were probably counted twice given their reenlistment in 1862. To give some idea in the variations in figures, Adams stated Virginia’s enlistments as 175,000 as opposed to 113,000 from McKim. North Carolina McKim placed at 112,000 instead of Adams’ 129,000. Where Adams gives South Carolina as providing 75,000 McKim estimates 54,000. They agree on Tennessee’s and Florida’s figures but McKim has Alabama’s slightly higher and Georgia’s slightly lower. In the case of Maryland, McKim argues that she contributed only 4,500 men which is much lower than modern encyclopaedic references which give estimates of 25,000. This is all a rather long-winded way of me saying that the figures I am relying on for my percentage comparison are somewhat rubbery.

That said let us turn to the first graph. The order of contributions basically accords with the relative white populations of each state. The most populated states provide the most men. No surprises in that.

The figures becoming more intriguing when we compare them to the percentages of Confederate veterans by state. In 1894 there were, according to the returns of the United Confederate Veterans, 96,254 registered Confederate veterans. By 1896 this figure had nearly trebled to 267,457.  It would be interesting to know what percentage of surviving veterans this represented. If you add the 300,000 dead to that figure, and given natural deaths after the war, we can be assured that at least 600,000 Confederates served.

Using the percentages of the 1896 UCV returns let us compare them to the enlistments by state. The most obvious rise occurs in Texas where 63,075 veterans reside which represents nearly a quarter of the veteran population. Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee were the top three states for enlistment yet those percentages have collapsed when we look at the veteran population. I can’t think of any reason why veterans from those states would be any less likely to join veteran associations than their comrades in other states. I’m not aware of any competing veteran groups that would have diverted them from the UCV. If we accept a uniform desire across the old Confederacy to join the UCV then it seems clear that veterans abandoned these upper South states in large numbers. These three states were, of course, among the most war ravaged so perhaps they were more economically depressed than other states thus new livelihoods had to be carved out elsewhere. The higher representation in other states suggests that the veteran populations there must have been boosted from interstate arrivals. There is a significantly disproportionate veteran representation in Alabama and South Carolina as well as Texas, obviously. Whether these states practiced more belligerent pro-southern sentiments over other states that made them more attractive is something in need of further investigation.

In regard to Texas we do actually have a snapshot of from where the veteran population hailed. In 1893 the commandant of the Texas UCV endeavoured to find out this information and issued an invitation to the encampments within that state to supply data as to the veterans’ origins. Response to the request was limited but those that did reply represented a sample of 3,266 veterans within the state.

As we can see from the graph, Texas accounted for 44 per cent of resident veterans with the rest coming from other parts of the Confederacy. But it is not the vacated states of Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee from where these men are coming from but rather states closer to Texas.

Veterans did not limit themselves to the old Confederacy. UCV encampments could be found in Illinois, Washington DC, Maryland and Indian Territory where a number of Cherokee veterans resided. The most startling destination though was Missouri which along with Alabama was second only to Texas as a preferred post war destination.

What was going on in Missouri that made it such a popular choice among old Confederates? Like Georgia its population nearly trebled in the fifty years from 1860 so its population was higher than most of the southern states certainly above those in the Upper South. Prior to the war it was the eighth most populated state in the Union with just under 1.2 million people. The only southern state to top it was Virginia and then only due to the slave population.  Like the eleven southern states it was a largely agricultural economy. To this day it is second only to Texas for the most farms in the United States. St Louis, sitting just below the nexus of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, was its commercial capital but its commerce served and relied on the north and west. Like the South it does not begin to see significant industrialization until the early part of the twentieth century. It is not until the invention of the refrigerated box car that southern commercial interests begin to link with Missouri when Texas beef begins to roll up the line. Presumably unspoiled land was the attraction in Missouri for battle scarred southerners.

By way of conclusion what can I say? There were distinct population trends after the civil war and the movement of the Confederate veteran population reflects this to some degree as does the movement of the black population which renders the movement of Confederate veterans as unremarkable. I don’t dispute the wide existence of a post bellum attitude that gave rise to notions of the unreconstructed rebel. The 30,000 southerners who immediately turned their backs on their homes and headed to Mexico and Brazil are proof of this. The general antipathy of southerners toward the African-American population and the deliberate attempt to deny it equal rights stands as the most recognizable badge of the unreconstructed rebel and the confederate flag to this day remains the most potent symbol of the unreconstructed and lunatic fringe.

There was much hatred expressed toward the North after the war by southerners but whether that was a motivating factor in driving southerners south and west within the confines of the restored Union is contentious. It is likely that it was the depressed nature of the economies of Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina that accounts for the low numbers of veterans in those states. Those veterans do not head south west as the figures of the Texas UCV show but they might quite reasonably account for the rise in numbers in states like South Carolina and Alabama but we simply don’t have the data to make such an assessment. That said the Confederate veteran population residing in Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri is out of all proportion with the enlistment ratios of those states. Former confederate soldiers would have represented the main bulk of the working southern population in the twenty years after the war but we do not know when these veterans began to move. It may be that the majority did so as retirees seeking out a warmer climate. Whatever the time-frame their presence in the west and south west certainly created a sense of a New South that resonated through the decades to give substance to the lingering idea of the unreconstructed rebel.


Confederate Veteran Magazine

US Census 1860-1910

Harter, Eugene C,  The Lost Colony of the Confederacy, A & M University Press, Texas, 2000.

McKim, Randolph, The Numerical Strength of the Confederate Army: An Examination of the Argument of the Hon. Charles Francis Adams and others, The Neale Publishing Company, New York, 1912

Rolle, Andrew, The Lost Cause: The Confederate Exodus to Mexico, University of Oklahoma Press, 1965.