Many folks are fussing about why the Confederate soldiers served. As a veteran, I find it hard to believe they would endure sickness, poor equipment and starvation simply for material gain. As harsh as it is to say, slaves represented material possession, an investment. The popular perception among some folks today is that most or all Confederate soldiers served to protect their economy or “way of life.” Surely, protecting economic interests motivated some Southerners. But, how many would endure wearing rags for shoes in winter merely to protect economic investment or a “way of life”?
In For Cause and Comrade, by James McPherson (New York: Oxford Univ. Press 1997), Dr. McPherson looked at the motivations of both the Union and Confederate soldiers. We cannot survey soldiers from 150 years ago. But, Dr. McPherson did the next best thing. He looked at personal letters and diaries of both Union and Confederate soldiers to ask the fundamental question, what motivated them to join, and then to stay in military service during very harsh circumstances.
Dr. McPherson reviewed the personal letters and diaries of some 400 Confederate soldiers. He looked at the contemporary correspondence and diaries of some 647 Union soldiers and 429 Confederate soldiers. In his career, he explains that having looked at perhaps 25,000 such records, he believed this was a representative sample. For Cause, p. viii. Dr. McPherson is a well known Civil War historian.
As a combat veteran I can attest that the willingness to endure hardship and danger is not an easy choice. As Dr. McPherson mentions, once the choice is first made, the typical combat soldier is forced to re-examine his choice at least two more times, once after his first battle and then again when he re-enlists. So, the average Confederate soldier had to choose to risk his life and the lives of his family (because life in a rural society without the men was extremely hard) twice, when he first enlisted and after his first combat. Re-enlisting was not an option for most Southern soldiers. Most Confederate soldiers enlisted for the duration of the war.
According to Dr. McPherson’s study, 57% of Confederate soldiers espoused patriotic sentiment for serving. That is, their service was motivated by a sense of patriotism. For Cause, p. 102. Compare that to 61% of Union soldiers who mentioned a sense of patriotism as motivation for their service. Ibid.
Some 20% of Confederate service members espoused slavery as motivation for their service. For Cause, p. 110. Opinion among Union soldiers changed over time. Through the Spring of 1863, 36% expressed sentiment favoring emancipation as a motive for the war. While, 16% expressed the opposite feeling, that the war should not seek emancipation as an end-state. For Cause and Comrade, p. 123. Dr. McPherson posits that likely, if all soldiers had been polled at the time, about one-half would have favored emancipation as a war aim, while 25% would have opposed and 25% had no opinion. In any event, those sentiments changed in 1863.
In the Northern U.S., the peace Democrats (known as “Copperheads”), started to publicly target the Emancipation Proclamation. That caused some soldiers to express sentiments opposing the Northern peace Democrats. And, soldiers began to see emancipation as another weapon against the Confederacy. The Union soldiers started seeing emancipation as something that caused harm to the Southern cause. For Cause and Comrade, p. 125. Too, some white Union soldiers noticed the obvious, if a Negro soldier could stop a bullet that might otherwise be aimed at white Northerner, then that would be a good thing.
In Rebel Yell, by S.C. Gwynne (New York: Scribner 2014), he describes the motivations of the Confederate soldiers as they fought to “repel the Northern aggressors from their homeland” Rebel Yell, at p. 30 (emphasis in the original). Mr. Gwynne also describes that as the simple motive for Gen. Thomas Jackson when he enlisted in the Virginia militia and later the Confederate army, to repel the Northern aggressor.
Many Southerners fought to avoid enslavement by the North. They believed the North sought to subjugate the South in some way. For Cause, p. 21. Many enlisted to defend their home from the invading Yankees. For Cause, at p. 22.
John Mitchel, the Irish rebel and editor for a time of two Richmond newspapers during the war, insisted the North was seeking to subjugate the South as Great Britain had subjugated Ireland. The Republicans, after all, were the heirs of the remnants of the Know Nothing Party. Most Irish suspected the Republican party of harboring anti-Irish and anti-immigrant sentiment at the time.
On May 18, 1865, one 1LT A.R. Mumford went to the home of my ancestor’s aunt in New Orleans. He went to the John Agar home. John’s wife was Theresa, sister to Anastasia Price. Anastasia was the mother of George Price Crane. Anastasia was married to Martin Creane/Crane and later married Cyrus Chism.
Entertained by the ladies, likely including Anastasia, the lieutenant spoke the words all veterans would like to utter when s/he first returns home, “we could not have received a warmer reception. . . . The New Orleans ladies shall long be remembered for their devoted patriotism.” My great-great-grandfather likely met his future wife that day. The lieutenant on his first day back home did not discuss slavery or economic gains and losses. He discussed patriotism. His thoughts were recorded in his diary, not in some polemic destined for a newspaper. One assumes he spoke his true thoughts to his private diary.
We cannot discount the myth of the “Lost Cause.” Certainly, many Southerners whined about the loss of the Civil war in ways that were not productive. But, just as certain, many soldiers served simply because they saw it as their duty.