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

By William D. Jones
2012, Vol. 4 No. 05 | pg. 1/2 |

By 1864 and 1865, the effects of three years of war were like symptoms of a terrible disease afflicting the Confederacy. Internal divisions caused by perceptions of an overreaching and ineffectual government, antagonistic class and state objectives, economic woes, and a general decrease in morale caused by a lack of military successes were among the illnesses that plagued the South. Although these developments applied mainly to the home-front, the Confederate soldier was also affected. What was it, then, that compelled these men to continue to suffer and risk their lives in a war that was slowly turning against them? This paper identifies at least three reasons why Southern soldiers stayed in the fight, including an enormous sense of duty, defensive tactics, and clouded perceptions. Confederate soldiers believed they had a duty to God and their generals. Duty was not an abstract theory to a southerner living in the Antebellum and Civil War South but a reality tightly bound up with a widely accepted concept of honor. Furthermore, trench warfare favored the defense and augmented the psychology of the battle line, making the moment of combat more bearable for the soldiers of the South in the ending years of the war. Finally, all of these notions combined to cloud many soldiers’ perceptions of the reality of the situation and gave them the ability to persevere.

During the later war years, desertion became an ever increasing problem for the Confederacy but many soldiers chose to stay in the fight. Rising desertion rates were a result of increased hardship and pressure at the front and at home. In 1864 and 1865, two Conscript Bureau reports each gauged around 121,000 deserters in the South.1 The lack of proper clothes and food and failure to receive pay were present from the beginning of the war. However, new and increasingly commonplace were the deprivations of the soldier’s families at home, Union victories, especially in the East, and consolidation of casualty-ridden regiments.2 When Thomas Warrick wrote in late 1863 to his wife living in Alabama that he could not, “stand to hear that you and the children are Sufren for Bread,” he echoed the concerns of many Confederate soldiers.3 Scores of these men acted on their anxiety for their families or disillusionment with the gloomy state of the war and deserted. Other soldiers were able to reconcile the distance between them and their families, as Thomas Reese Lightfoot wrote in January, 1864, “I will satisfy the present demand on me by my country, and then, ‘when this cruel war is over,’ I will in some manner repay your loving attentions if possible.”4 Desertion was an action taken by many men who succumbed to war weariness, but others held on and continued to do their duty.

A common explanation for the southern soldier’s resilience was his faith and belief that he was on the side of God. Although religion was intertwined in American life as a whole, the rebel armies underwent a series of revivals during the winter months of the war. These began with the Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by the notoriously devout Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, in 1862 and spread to other armies across the South.5 The defeats in 1863 were explained as divine intervention in the form of punishment for some sin. Johnny Green, a sergeant-major in the Ninth Kentucky aptly described his feelings on the matter when he wrote in December, 1864, “Our cause is just & surely God will not let us fail. The Lord loveth whom he chasteneth & we must renew our faith in him, meekly, faithfully serve him…We must do our duty to God… notwithstanding it all looks very dark now, he will yet lead us to victory.”6 For these devout rebels, the South was not near defeat because soldiers had to simply purify themselves and their families for all to turn out right.7 The seemingly blind faith and duty to God allowed Johnny Reb to pay less attention to military defeats and worsening conditions at home and to focus on the coming providential victory.

Southern soldiers’ determination can also be explained by a great sense of duty to follow their generals, no matter how perilous the situation became. This duty was produced by a faith based on previous victories. Although their superiors had led them astray in the latter part of 1863, the men still remembered Second Manassas, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Chickamauga. They had little reason to believe that the same men who gave them victory before could not do it again. Samuel Watkins, a Tennessean had nothing but admiration for General Joseph E. Johnston; according to him the general was, “loved, respected, admired; yea, almost worshipped, by his troops. I do not believe there was a soldier in his army but would gladly have died for him.”8 John Dooley of Virginia recorded his feelings towards General Lee in a poetic manner: “For who does not love Gen. Lee, who would not barter life for his smile? And now that he speaks in words of love and admiration to his wearied troops, who does not feel every syllable burning in his very heart’s core?”9 Although Dooley’s feelings were recorded in 1862 after Antietam there is little proof that the soldiers of 1864 and 1865 felt differently about their general. For example, Lee was shouted to the rear by troops he was attempting to lead into battle during the Wilderness in May, 1864.10 Soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia loved their general and recognized that his survival was essential to their success. As conditions worsened and the war seemed to grow longer, many Confederates chose to trust that their generals would produce victory and felt a duty to follow them to that end.

Although seemingly romantic now, duty was a real and important force in the Antebellum South and attached to it was the concept of honor. There were a few elements that characterized honor. These included the immortalization of valor, personal identity based on the opinions of others, inner merit based on physical appearance or strength of will, the defense of male integrity, and a trust in oath-taking.11 Throughout the war, many Confederate soldiers took great pains to exemplify these characteristics and hoped that, if they were to die, their death would be an honorable one. John Dooley remarked how he was afraid of being hit in the back while withdrawing during battle and wanted to avoid, “so disgraceful of a wound.”12 Concerns of this sort were indicative of a prevailing notion of the “Good Death,” which used the manner of death to determine the quality of a man’s soul in this life and the next.13 At the very end of the war as the Confederacy was falling apart, Dooley illustrated the component of honor that relied on trust in oath-taking. He returned home from a stint in a Union prisoner of war camp and immediately rode out of Richmond to find his regiment. According to Dooley, as long as he held a commission as an officer he felt, “honour bound to follow the fortunes of the Confederacy until its cause is hopeless…”14 The sense of honor was not constrained to officers, Robert M. Gill wrote to his wife in April, 1864 that those who attempted to stay out of battle by feigning sickness are, “jeered at and when exposed by the Surgeons he is greeted with shouts of derision.”15 Finally, honor was not just about one’s self but also one’s family; a wound in the back not only disgraced the individual but also the family that reared him. Soldiers, therefore, had a duty to preserve their own honor because judgment would also be placed upon their families. Because desertion and avoidance of battle was seen as dishonorable, perseverance through the war and fulfillment of one’s duty would ensure a man’s honor stayed intact. These two seemingly romantic concepts were realities of antebellum southern society, mutually reinforced one another and kept the Confederate soldier fighting.

To be sure, the strategic realities of combat also played an important role in influencing the Confederate soldier’s willingness to continue to fight. The final years of the Civil War were for the most part characterized by a rudimentary form of trench warfare. This was in stark contrast to the battles of earlier years which often embodied movements of men in terrain that afforded only natural or preexisting cover. Most Confederate victories had been typified by assaults somewhere along the Union line, such as at Second Manassas and Chancellorsville. Trench warfare however made offensives of this kind for the Confederacy both impractical and unnecessary as it would gain little and cost irreplaceable bodies. The Army of Northern Virginia and Army of Tennessee could now win battles simply by repulsing Federal charges. The moment of intense combat for the rebel soldier was largely defined by standing behind prepared earthworks and firing volleys into oncoming lines of bluecoats.

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