Secret Yankees: Spotlighting Southern Subversives

Thomas G. Dyer's Secret Yankees: The Union Circle in Confederate Atlanta (Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999) reminds us that Yankees were responsible for the creation of many of Atlanta's commercial and public institutions, and its railroads. Yet, at the time of the Civil War, their actions were scrutinized for signs of loyalty or disloyalty to the Confederacy. Some were imprisoned. Many were forced to nurse injured Confederate soldiers and billet troops in their homes.

By Rosalie E. Leposky

The discovery of a terrorist's diary, recounting daily activities and listing key personnel, would delight modern international law-enforcement agencies. Such a diary, written by a member of an insidious cadre of surreptitious subversives, probably would have gotten its author hanged if it had surfaced in its own time. Now, as an historical document, it offers fascinating insights into a group ignored by most historians: Atlanta's "secret Yankees."

In 1979, Dyer learned about Miss Abby's Diary, a private, anonymous 80-page diary written from January 1 to July 22, 1864, using code names to protect family members, neighbors, and friends. Miss Abby was probably Cyrena Bailey Stone, the Vermont-born wife of Atlanta businessman Amherst Stone. After it was written, it remained in private hands for 112 years, until the University of Georgia Library purchased it from a manuscript dealer in 1976. Dyer sought to track the diary's ownership during those years and to identify the places and people it describes.

Chartered a Railroad

Dyer notes that Amherst Stone and 15 other prominent Atlanta citizens (several of whom were active Unionists during the Civil War) in 1856 obtained a charter and founded the Georgia Air Line Railroad, which failed at a later unspecified date.

One wonders how much communication occurred before, during, and after the war between the Atlanta Yankees and other Yankees in Georgia, including entrepreneur Henry Bradley Plant, who established the Southern Express Company in Augusta, Georgia, to help protect the property of northern owners during the war.

Another open question is the extent to which Union General William Tecumsah Sherman, who captured Atlanta, was aware of the Atlanta Yankees. How much -- if any -- did he benefit from their presence, and could his soldiers have spared any of their properties?

Challenges Stereotypes

Secret Yankees is one of the most significant books written on the South in the Civil War era because it challenges Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind stereotypes that everyone in the South wholeheartedly accepted the war, and that all Atlantans lived there forever. In fact, Dyer points out, loyal Yankees lived in Atlanta. They did not universally accept the Confederate States' decision to secede, nor the resulting war.

The cast of characters in Secret Yankees contributes to a better understanding of Atlanta's residents, the powerful role the city played in commerce and transportation in the pre- and post-Civil War eras, and even the growth of 20th-century Atlanta.

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