The desire to preserve the Union intact was widespread in the Upper South in late 1860 and early 1861. Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina all developed Unionist parties with substantial support, rejected secession in February 1861, and supported compromise efforts. Unionism in the Upper South was a powerful sentiment, but it was also conditional. When the fighting at Fort Sumter ended hopes for a reconciliation, most Unionists abandoned their position and joined the Confederacy.
Unionism in East Tennessee, therefore, was a distinct sentiment, comparable only to the loyalism of West Virginia. It was not premised on a set of conditions, and it was strong enough to withstand the most strenuous Confederate assaults. A few East Tennessee Unionists did convert at the beginning of hostilities, while others fell away in response to Confederate repression or Northern policies such as emancipation. But there remained a large group of hard-core loyalists whose commitment to the United States was unalterable. Unionism in East Tennessee was an ideological commitment that emerged in December 1860 and reflected a wholesale rejection of secession and the Confederacy.
The causes of East Tennessee's loyalism have received more attention than any other topic in the region's past. One of the first historians of the East Tennessee war, Thomas William Humes, attributed Unionism to two factors: the region's tradition of patriotism and service to the United States, evidenced by such events as the battle of King's Mountain, and its lack of involvement in slavery and cotton production. Humes's contemporary, Oliver P. Temple, agreed that these factors contributed to East Tennessee's rejection of secession, but he emphasized two other elements: the influence of the Whig Party in East Tennessee, and the unyielding stance of East Tennessee's Unionist leaders. Drawing a contrast with the capitulation of John Bell and other Middle Tennessee Whigs, Temple argued that only the refusal of loyalist leaders to submit to secession frustrated Southern machinations and enabled East Tennessee's nascent Unionism to survive and triumph. 1