Duty in the Face of Defeat: The Confederate Soldier's Perseverance

By William D. Jones
2012, Vol. 4 No. 05 | pg. 2/2 |

Although combat remained dangerous, the psychological impact of prepared defensives had an enormous impression on the Confederate soldiers’ willingness to fight. Earthworks offered an addition to the psychology of the battle line that kept men fighting during the moment of combat. Linear formations provided the individual soldier a sense of shared danger and the comfort of physically feeling his brothers-in-arms around him.16 In trenches, the soldier had this in addition to a formidable form of cover behind which he was protected. Earthworks decreased the demand for “physical courage”, a term Earl J. Hess uses to describe the bravery that resulted from “the nervous stimulus of combat.”17 For this reason, the difficult part of war with the common use of fieldworks was not necessarily the combat itself but rather the material and physical conditions it bred: constant shelling and contact with the enemy, filth, restricted movement, and exposure to the elements.18 As Samuel King Vann wrote outside Atlanta in 1864, “I have been here eight days and fighting has not ceased for a single moment since I arrived…”19 These adversaries did not require “physical courage” to overcome but rather the force of duty that allowed the rebel soldier to put aside considerations of his immediate well being. To this response Hess has given the name “moral courage” because it was centered on deliberation, duty, and higher purpose.20 The strategic realities of the later war years thrust upon the Confederate soldier a form of combat that favored the defense, commanded less “physical courage” of him than previously, but made him encounter terrible living conditions that required duty and determination to overcome.

The Antebellum ethical code based on honor and duty as well as the change in military tactics clouded the southern soldier’s perception of what was actually occurring during the final stages of the Civil War. Because Confederate soldiers often fought defensively, any battle in which they repulsed a Yankee onslaught was seen as a victory rather than a draw. The nature of combat in the trenches kept men’s minds on the present, providing them little opportunity to reflect on a previous week’s developments.21 Further, most thought that a great, decisive victory would decide the war; the dramatic escalation in 1864 meant that battle was just over the horizon.22 In March, 1865 Walter Lee wrote in the entrenchments in front of Petersburg and described the large amount of men deserting to the Union, but he was still, “in hopes we will have enough left to keep the Yankees in check on this line.”23 Granted Lee’s tone is not overly positive, but it does sound as if he was still holding out hope for at least a draw. Perceptions were so clouded for some that news of surrender in 1865 came as a surprise. Johnny Green, upon hearing of the rumor said it, “…came as a great shock to us. We none of us ever dreamed of such a thing as Genl Lee ever being forced to surrender.”24 George Cary Eggleston could not remember when there was a general consensus about the South’s failure to win the war. He put the reason why it took so long to recognize was because, “We schooled ourselves from the first to think that we should ultimately win…”, and this habit of thinking, “was too strong to be easily broken by adverse happenings.”25 Further, Eggleston wrote that, “It was part of our soldierly and patriotic duty to believe that ultimate success was to be ours…we were convinced…of the absolute righteousness of our cause…”26 Many Confederate soldiers could not see the reality of what was going on around them because their culture and constant warfare kept them focused on other, more immediate things.

Of course some Confederate soldiers were motivated by their relationship to the “peculiar institution” to get through the final years of the Civil War. In her book about the meaning of the Civil War, Chandra Manning stated that all southern troops, not just the planter class, clung to the war because they “could not imagine that the South, their families, or even their own identities as white men could be safe in the absence of slavery.”27 However, in Diehard Rebels, Jason Phillips wrote that the men who stayed on to fight the war to its end were not representative of southerners as a whole; they were mostly privileged, educated, and more attached to slavery.28 Further, Gary Gallagher claimed that the, “young slaveholding officers who had matured during the 1850’s,” were the most ardently nationalistic and committed men in the Army of Northern Virginia.29 Since many were at or near the top of their society, they had a large vested interest in the Confederacy’s independence. Also, the wealth of their families removed any material interest they might have had to desert. Johnny Green and John Dooley serve as good examples of this class of men. Green’s family owned slaves and Dooley was from a wealthy family from Richmond; he also left Georgetown University to partake in the war. Although both men originally enlisted as privates, both attained mid-level rank; Green eventually became a sergeant-major, and Dooley a lieutenant. So although societal concepts of duty greatly influenced the southern soldier’s willingness to see the war to its end, there were no doubt other, more material considerations that especially affected those of higher social standing and military rank.

It would be misleading to state that most Confederate soldiers deliberated internally over whether or not to stay in the army. Granted, there were no doubt some that did take the time to step away from the suddenness of battlefield occurrences and contemplate the likelihood of victory or death and it would not be surprising to find that many of these men left the war before surrender at Appomattox. However, for most duty was a reaction that had been cultivated from childhood through the use of societal ideals such as honor. When the war was in full swing and quick movement, smoke, and blood clouded a soldier’s vision, there was no other recourse but to place faith in something or someone higher than oneself; whether that was an officer on a horse or God in Heaven. The men who stayed left no hint in later writings or contemporary letters that there was much thought placed in their decision. Rather, it seems upon reading their words as if the choice had been made for them by the force or impulse of duty that none could resist.

When the American Civil War entered into its final stage it was simply not evident to the dutiful Confederate soldier that defeat was near. Even resounding defeats such as Gettysburg were conceptualized as draws at worst. For example, in the case of the Confederacy’s high-water mark the lack of a counterattack after Pickett’s charge was evidence the Army of the Potomac had been bloodied as badly or worse and Lee’s withdrawal into Virginia after defeat was rationalized purely as a return to the supply base.30 The soldier felt his cause was so right and just that God must have been on his side and if he were to desert, it would be to abandon His will. He also believed in his generals, for they had provided victory before and would surely do so again if only every man did his duty and followed orders. The southern soldier in the final years of the war felt that to do anything other than fight would be to sacrifice his honor merely for the potential to live longer; in doing so he would not only disgrace himself but also his family. Although he was now in constant contact with the enemy, battles for him often involved standing behind an earthwork as Federal troops assaulted his position; any repulsed attack was seen as a victory. Hope in victory rested on the belief that eventually God would see that they have suffered enough for their sins and turn the war in their favor or their general would slip away and pull off some masterful flank attack to again route the enemy. Obviously “eventually” never happened, but the Confederate soldier who remained in the army in 1864 and 1865 did not and could not see what would be the end result. The soldier of the South did not have the twenty-twenty vision that hindsight rewards, so he had to rely upon the concept of duty to make his decision over whether or not to see the Civil War to its end.


Battle, Laura Elizabeth, ed. Forget-me-nots of the Civil War: a Romance Containing Reminiscences and Original Letters of Two Confederate Soldiers. St. Louis: A.R. Fleming Printing Co., 1909.

Dooley, John. John Dooley: Confederate Soldier, His War Journal. Edited by Joseph T. Durkin. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1963.

Eggleston, George Cary. A Rebel’s Recollections. New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1875.

Faust, Drew Gilpin. This Republic of Suffering. New York: Vintage Books, 2008.

Gallagher, Gary W. The Confederate War. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Hess, Earl J. The Union Soldier in Battle. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1997.

Kirwan, A.D., ed. Johnny Green of the Orphan Brigade. Lexington: The University of Kentucky Press, 1956.

Lightfoot, James Newell. Letters of Three Lightfoot Brothers, 1861-1864. Edited by Edmund Cody Burnett. Savannah: Privately Published, 1942.

Lonn, Ella. Desertion during the Civil War. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998.

Manning, Chandra. What This Cruel War Was Over. New York: Vintage Books, 2007.

McPherson, James, and James K. Hogue. Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010.

Noe, Kenneth W. Reluctant Rebels: The Confederates Who Joined the Army after 1861. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010.

Phillips, Jason. Diehard Rebels: The Confederate Culture of Invincibility. Athens: The University of Georgia, 2007.

Vann, Samuel King. Most Lovely Lizzie: Lover Letters of a Young Confederate Soldier. Edited by Nancy Elizabeth Neel Vann. Birmingham: Privately Published, 1958.

Watkins, Samuel R. Co. Aytch. Chattanooga: Times Printing Company, 1900.

Wiley, Bell Irvin. The life of Johnny Reb: the Common Soldier of the Confederacy. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1943.

Wyatt-Brown, Bertram. Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

1.) Ella Lonn, Desertion During the Civil War (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998), 30.

2.) Bell Irvin Wiley, The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy (New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1943), 135-138.

3.) Ibid., 135.

4.) James Newell Lightfoot, Letters of Three Lightfoot Brothers, 1861-1864, ed. Edmund Cody Burnett (Savannah: Privately Published, 1942), 52.

5.) Kenneth W. Noe, Reluctant Rebels: The Confederates Who Joined the Army after 1861 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 129.

6.) A. D. Kirwan, ed. Johnny Green of the Orphan Brigade (Lexington: The University of Kentucky Press, 1956), 184.

7.) Jason Phillips, Diehard Rebels: The Confederate Culture of Invincibility (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2007), 32-33.

8.) Samuel R. Watkins, Co. Aytch (Chattanooga: Times Printing Company, 1900), 107.

9.) John Dooley, John Dooley: Confederate Soldier, His War Journal, ed. Joseph T. Durkin (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1963), 56.

10.) James M. McPherson and James K. Hogue, Ordeal By Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010), 448.

11.) Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 34.

12.) Dooley, 47.

13.) Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering (New York: Vintage Books, 2008), 9.

14.) Dooley, 181.

15.) Wiley, 148.

16.) Earl J. Hess, The Union Soldier in Battle (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1997), 114.

17.) Ibid., 75.

18.) Wiley, 80.

19.) Samuel King Vann, Most Lovely Lizzie: Love Letters of a Young Confederate Soldier, ed. Nancy Elizabeth Neel Vann (Birmingham: privately published, 1958), 47.

20.) Hess, 75.

21.) Phillips, 115.

22.) Ibid., 91.

23.) Laura Elizabeth Battle, ed. Forget-me-nots of the Civil War: a Romance, Containing Reminiscences and Original Letters of Two Confederate Soldiers (St. Louis: A.R. Fleming Printing Co., 1909), 132.

24.) A. D. Kirwan, 195.

25.) George Cary Eggleston, A Rebel’s Recollections (New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1875), 229.

26.) Eggleston, 230.

27.) Chandra Manning, What This Cruel War Was Over (New York: Vintage Books, 2007), 172.

28.) Phillips, 4.

29.) Gary W. Gallagher, The Confederate War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 63.

30.) Phillips, 92-93.

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