Forgotten Heroes of Southern History: Rev. James W. Hunnicutt – Unionist Turned Civil Rights Leader

Few things are more Southern than a Baptist minister from South Carolina running a newspaper called the Christian Banner. James W. Hunnicutt, though most of his early life prior to the Civil War, was a fairly typical Southerner. Though stringently a Unionist, he supported the right to own slaves, even owning a few himself, and hoped for years that the debate might not tear the nation apart.

In 1848, at the age of 34, Hunnicutt sold his slaves and moved to Fredericksburg, Virginia to open his newspaper. Still ambivalent about slavery (and frankly tired of the question), his target was the disunionists, whom he viewed as “unprincipled political harpies.” 1James W. Hunnicutt The Conspiracy Unvieled (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1863) 20. The biographical information came from the introduction of the same book.

Through 1860, his pleas for reason and Union became fraught with hopelessness. “The very devil,” he wrote in June of that year, “seems to be turned loose among the people. Battalions are being formed all through the South, and sublime and costly preparations for war are being made everywhere.” 2Ibid., 22.

A full season before the election was to be held, all around him Virginia – what to speak of the more radical South Carolina – was preparing for battle. “The people seem to have taken it into their heads that there will be war, there must be war, and there shall be war.” (Ibid., 23.))

But Hunnicutt was more of a Unionist than an anti-secessionist. He lamented that the Democratic Party could not decide upon one single candidate. “If the Democratic parties will not unite with each other and defeat the Black Republican party,” read one of his editorials from August, 1860, “we would then advise the Unionists and any one of the Democratic parties to unite on one man, and, if possible, move heaven and earth to secure his election, and thus defeat the Black Republicans.” 3Ibid., 34-35.

He was no abolitionist. “We are tired, disgusted, and sickened out with this ‘nigger’ question,” he spat in September. Yet he argued that if the South seceded, slavery was doomed to fall with it. 4Ibid., 37. He believed that the only way to keep slavery as part of Southern society was to remain in the Union. When the rest of the South seemed determined to secede anyway, he called upon his adopted state to remain firm. “If the cotton States are so blind and infatuated as to believe it would be to their financial interest to dissolve the Union and establish a Southern Confederacy and reopen the African slavetrade,” read a late September column, “it cannot possibly be to the interest of Virginia. So far from it, it would involve her in universal and irretrievable bankruptcy.” This, he held, was because Virginia’s most expensive slaves could not be sold as inexpensively as those newly brought over from Africa. 5Ibid., 47.

But the states seceded, beginning with South Carolina. In his first editorial of 1861, he predicted that before the next New Years Day, “our country will either be flooded with blood and carnage, or else settled down upon terms which will secure peace and harmony for generations yet to come.” 6Ibid.,95. Once South Carolina was out, he urged the entire South to stand as one – “let us all live or die together.” Not long after, he explained: “we are for saving the Union, if possible; but, if this cannot be done in justice to the South, then we are for the South.”

As war drew nearer, he dreaded the coming bloodshed. “War, war, war! fight, fight, fight! is the perfect order of the times,” he wrote in February of 1861 – by which time five states had seceded. “Have the people counted the cost? Are they prepared to shoulder the enormous expense, the awful taxation, which war must inevitably produce?” 7Ibid., 106, 108.

However, as the resolutions filtered in from the various secession conventions, and Hunnicutt began to understand that, as he later wrote in 1863, “the secessionists had determined to accept of no compromise which might be offered.” He blamed the Northern leaders for not grasping the fact that their Southern counterparts “actually wanted a compromise, the Constitution respected, and the Union saved.” 8Ibid., 113.

In January of 1861, Hunnicutt predicted the outcome of a full on secession. It is this prophesying which we print in full:

It is argued that secession is constitutionally right. Grant it. But is it expedient? That is the question. Many things may be lawful which are by no means expedient. Secession or revolution, under certain circumstances, would not only be constitutionally right, but absolutely necessary. Is this the case now? Has the time actually come, and do the circumstances absolutely demand the secession of any one or of all the slave States? If it be unconditionally necessary for one to secede, does the same necessity demand that all shall secede? Has the work of secession and revolution commenced and progressed in a way to prove it expedient and to commend itself to the world?

The ostensible causes of secession are: first, to save the South from further Abolition aggressions; and, secondly, to free the country from the continual agitation of the slave question. The objects sought to be gained by secession are: first, to permanently establish the institution of African slavery; secondly, to extend slave territory; and, thirdly, to reduce the price of slave labor. Will secession accomplish all this? Some seem to think so. They are woefully mistaken.

Never will the vexed question of African slavery cease to be agitated so long as there are Abolitionists in the North and slaves in the South. The fixed do termination and settled principles of Abolitionists are, never, never to give up the conflict until African slavery is exterminated. This is their object, their design, their work. They do not pretend to disguise the fact. So that nothing can ever be gained by secession on this score.

Will secession save the South from further Abolition aggressions? If so, how? Secessionists say, ‘We will form treaties and enter into leagues with the Abolitionists after we secede, and, for the sake of our trade, they will spare our slaves.’ Have they said so? Have they promised to do this? No: they have not, and they never will. Are they not bound by leagues and treaties now under the Constitution? and do they observe them? If they violate treaties and break leagues under the Constitution and while they are in the Union, what assurances have we that they will make leagues and treaties and observe them inviolate after they get out of the Union and are free from all constitutional restraints and obligations? If they perpetrate depredations in the Union and under the influence of the Constitution, they will do it much more abundantly after the Federal Government is broken up. They will never enter into any treaties nor form any leagues with the South, on which the continuance and perpetuity of African slavery are contemplated. This is a fixed fact.

Dissolve the Union, break up the Federal Government, and will not the same proximity still exist between the slave and free States that exists now?

Divide the Union, and the same morbid moral sentiment will remain in the hearts of Abolitionists that drives them on to daring deeds of madness now.

Divide the Union, and a thousand new causes of hate and eternal animosity will spring up among all parties.

Divide the Union,break up the Federal Government in advance of terms and treaties of separation between the North and South, and the door for any subsequent equitable separation is forever closed, and the key lost in the depths of eternity.

Divide the Union, and the floodgate is hoisted through which a concentration of curses will flow that baffles all human thought to conceive.

Divide the Union, break up the Federal Government, and civil war begins, which will only end in the domination of the South over the North, or of the North over the South.

Dissolve the Union, and military and ecclesiastical despotism, or absolute monarchies, will supplant the tree of liberty and all the blessings of freedom.

Dissolve the Union, break up the Federal Government, and the liberty of conscience, the liberty of speech, the liberty of action, the liberty of the press, and the liberty of a once free, independent, prosperous, and happy people, are gone, and gone forever.

Dissolve the Federal Government, and the reign of terror begins.

Dissolve the Union, and an era more to be dreaded than the dark ages commences.

Dissolve the Union, and the guillotine will take the place of the ‘Star-Spangled Banner;’ and whoever dares to speak a word against despots and tyrants, off will go his head.

Dissolve the Union, and the many, the dear people, the hard-working yeomanry, will all become the vassals of the few. .

Dissolve the Union, and all the poor will become the veriest menials of the lords and rulers of the people.

Are Virginians prepared for all these things? If so, dissolve the Union, break up the Federal Government, and the work of death and desolation is done!

If the slave States conquer the free States, then the institution of African slavery may continue for the next half-century; then will slave labor be reduced to an insignificant price; then may slave territory be extended. But, before all this is gained, our country will be drenched in blood: most of those now living will never live to see slave territory expanded; they will never realize the glories of cheap slave-labor; they will never need it! Even should the South succeed, will the spoils be worth the fight, the crown, the sacrifice? Answer us, mothers, you who have sons and love them! Answer us, wives, you who have husbands and look up to and rely on them for protection! Against a foreign enemy every citizen should lift his hand, and risk his life, and sacrifice all things for his country and his country’s glory! It is not so in the present case. They are bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh, our brethren, our fellow-citizens. How, then, dare we, being brethren, as we are, go to war with one another?

But suppose the free States should conquer the slave States? Then African slavery is exterminated! Never would the victorious North enter into any treaty with the subdued South in which the continuance of African slavery were contemplated. The idea is supremely preposterous. If, therefore, the Federal Government be broken up, and civil war follow,—which it certainly will,—and the free States subjugate the slave States, then African slavery, slave territory, and slave labor are all at an end. Extreme Abolitionists want the Federal Government broken up, because this, they say, will hasten the abolition of slavery. The present process is too slow for them. They want to accomplish the work at once. 9Ibid., 116-118.


Hunnicutt remained in Fredericksburg, publishing his paper until May of 1861, “at which time, by force of circumstances which he could not control… he suspended its publication, and remained a quiet, but anxious, observer of passing events….” 10Ibid., iv. When the Federals moved into town in Spring of 1862, he again began publishing, but soon left for Washington, DC.

He did not abandon the South, however, but moved to Richmond following the war to begin publishing the New Nation – a paper with a decidedly different spin than his previous. Whereas before he had little favorable to say about African-Americans, now he stood firmly in defense of their rights, advocating even suffrage and the redistribution of land. Even as early as 1866, he criticized Andrew Johnson’s appeasement of Southern political leaders. Though the next decade, he would become and remain Virginia’s most radical Republican, arguing that any who fought against the United States be stripped of their right to vote.

After a couple of bids for governor of Virginia, defeated, Hunnicutt retired. He died in Stafford County in 1880. 11Later biographical information found in The Encyclopedia of the Reconstruction Era ed., Richard Zuczek (Greenwood Press, 2006).

References   [ + ]

Has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, writing the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.

One thought on “Forgotten Heroes of Southern History: Rev. James W. Hunnicutt – Unionist Turned Civil Rights Leader

  1. Great post and interesting man. His arguments were cogent and convincing, but like many other strong Union men throughout the South, the excitement and momentum of revolution, once the match was lit, was overwhelming. Such sentiments went underground with all but the most hard-core Union men, as speaking out was just too hazardous. This fellow deserves more study. Is there a scholarly biography of the man?

Comments are closed.