Your Civil War Ancestors: Do You Know Which Side They Were On?

August 18, 2020

Several years ago, Magistrate Judge Joel McCormick’s father, Bert McCormick, borrowed some books I’ve collected in doing genealogy to learn more about his ancestors. The next time I saw Judge McCormick, he told me I had about put his daddy in an early grave. When I asked how, he said, “When he looked at your books, he found out that his McCormick ancestor was in the Union Army, and it’s about killed him.”


Evidently, this was quite a shock to Mr. McCormick, but it’s not uncommon at all. In this area, especially in Dekalb County, Ala., there were many Union sympathizers, and many men who joined the Union Army. When I did my own family research, I was surprised to learn that of my eight great-great-grandfathers who were Civil War veterans, five were in the Confederate Army and three were in the Union Army, but they were all from around here, either from Dekalb or Dade County.


I have Southern Claims papers for one ancestor, Alexander Hawkins, where he made a claim after the war to be reimbursed for a horse and saddle that were taken from him by the Union Army. He had to answer a lot of questions, and these gave me insight into what was going on with him at the time. Confederate units were pressing men into service at the time and he and his brothers spent some time actively avoiding them. Alec moved his family to Head River from Valley Head to make it harder for them to find him. To pursue his claim, he had to prove that he had never supported the Confederacy. He swore that he supported the “old government.”  He joined the First Alabama and Tennessee Vidette Cavalry of the Union Army at Stevenson, Ala., as did two more of my ancestors. He was reimbursed for the loss of his horse and saddle and after the war moved his family back to the valley.

James Cooper Nisbet and his book Four Years on the Firing Line. Nisbet raised a company from Dade County for the Confederacy and later wrote a war memoir. Below: Markers for members of the Union’s 1st AL & TN Vidette Cavalry. This one is for William McCormick. These are found in many cemeteries in the tri-state area.


Some men started out in Confederate units but then had a change of heart and joined the 1st Alabama & Tennessee Vidette Cavalry. Such was the story of three Blevins brothers who lived in and around Dade County. According to author Jerry Blevins in his book Sequatchie Valley Soldiers in the Civil War, Gaines Blevins, born in Marion County, Tennessee, was living in Dade County when he mustered into the Malone’s Ninth Alabama Cavalry at Chattanooga in October 1862. Gaines apparently did not endure very long as a Confederate soldier because, in September 1863, he enlisted in the Federal Army at Stevenson, Ala. He mustered into Company C, First Alabama & Tennessee Vidette Cavalry as a private.


His brothers Jonathan and Richard also joined Malone’s Ninth Alabama Cavalry but then followed brother Gaines into the Union Army, with Richard joining the 1st Ala. & Tenn. on the same day as Gaines and Jonathan following soon after on December 1, 1863. All three men received federal pensions later.


One of my ancestors had a change of heart as well. Henry M.C. Johnson, who lived at Head River with his family, joined the Confederate Army under James Cooper Nisbet in County H of the 21st regiment. When my mother was very young, her grandmother, who was the daughter of Henry Johnson, told them stories about the Civil War. She said that her father was wounded and came back home to recover. While he was at home, Union soldiers came through, on their way over the mountain, and they were afraid for her father’s life. 


One of the officers who stopped saw the situation but assured them that they were not fighting women, children or injured men. He even had the Union doctor take a look at her father before they moved on. After Johnson recovered, he decided his time with the Confederate Army was at an end and he turned himself in at Stevenson and spent the remainder of the war taking care of Federal horses there.


Another example of switching sides was John Potter and his brother Bradford of Dade County. Both mustered into the Confederate Army at Dade County. From Sequatchie Valley Soldiers


"Bradford was in Captain John G. Hanna’s Company B, 6th Georgia Infantry. He was on roll for two months, and then listed as AWOL. John was a private of Captain James Cooper Nisbet’s Company H of the 21st regiment. He was enlisted to serve three years. He fought at the Battle of Cross Keys under the command of Stonewall Jackson. He received a certificate of disability because of his physical inability to perform the duties of soldier, the consequence of a weak chest and extreme youthfulness (he was 16 years old).


On March 1, 1864, John Potter joined County C of the 1st Ala. & Tenn. Vidette Cavalry and then in December joined the 1st Ala. Cavalry which General Sherman chose as his “headquarters escort” in his march to the sea. John was discharged in October 1865." (Information provided by Johnny LTN Potter)


It is possible to get a copy of your Civil War ancestor’s military records from the National Archives. Other documents that are rich with information are pension applications and Southern Claims papers. Union pension applications are found in the National Archives and Confederate applications should be in each state. Southern Claims papers may be obtained from the National Archives as well, but you need to know the claim number. There is a book in the local history room at the library that is an index to these, and I’m sure they can be located online now also.


I learned that two of my three Union ancestors, Alexander Hawkins and James Cooper, who were brothers-in-law, survived the war, while the third, James Ellis, died in camp of chronic diarrhea. Of the five who served in the Confederate Army, I’ve already described what Henry Johnson did. All survived except one, William Gifford, who was killed in battle in Virginia. Martin Cordell ended up in a Union prison but returned home after taking the oath of allegiance to the government. Walker Harris spent most of the war in hospitals for a variety of ailments (I have to wonder if all of these were genuine) and Thomas Riddle’s service was uneventful.


In many local cemeteries, one can find markers for the members of the 1st Ala. & Tenn. Vidette Cavalry. Check out this website for more information on this unit:  You will find some pictures of some of the soldiers and pictures of some of their grave markers. My three ancestors were all in Company C.


If you are interested in finding out more about your Civil War ancestors, make an appointment to use the local history room at the library and see what you can find on their free version of If you’re not sure where to start and need some help, email me, Linda Wilson at, and I’ll see what I can find for you.


--Linda Hawkins Wilson

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