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In Southern Service: Misconceptions About The Confederacy And Her Soldiers

In my last essay, I tried to offer some objective facts to counter the enduring war on history. I then tried to keep my arguments narrowly focused on those that wore Confederate grey, or beechnut brown. So, using that effort as my template, I will try to keep this one narrow, factual, and once again focus on people, and in this case, the common Southern soldier in general and to a lesser degree argue why they didn’t all fight just for slavery.

I will start with an inconvenient truth about slave ownership in the South. The 1860 census is readily available which not only includes the general population but also includes the number of slaves and slave owners. For ease of reading, I will use and recommend the breakdown provided by the Thomas Legion which shows that the highest percentage of slave-owning family’s in any given state was Mississippi at 49%. Let me reiterate that number 49%. This means that nowhere in the U.S., much less the South, did slave ownership constitute a majority of the population.

Second, the overall free population of the Confederacy consisted of about 5.5 million people. Depending on the source used, between 750,000 to 1,000,000 took up arms. Let me purpose why those numbers should hold some significance. First being the correlation between the total population and the number that took arms is important. Just a cursory glance reveals that most of the South chose not to don a uniform and one will find that this is common in almost every war, for someone has to run the farms, factories, and other sectors that make up a war economy. The disparity here can’t be overlooked especially when you take into account the same numbers of the Union which had a total population of 21 million and an army of about 2.1 million. It makes it difficult to argue that either side saw the war as a morally righteous crusade.

As stated, there are several sources, which will give many varied numbers to the size of the Confederate military. We draw attention to this because if you don’t know exactly how many are serving, how can anyone conclude with any degree of certainty why some served while some did not. A 91% literacy rate in the old South as reported by noted historian Frank Owsley means that there is a plethora of journals, newspaper archives, and personal letters to research. The simple fact is that one would have to produce 750,000 to 1,000,000 personal letters to definitely explain the motivations that drove the men of the South.

Of course, even this point runs the risk of making the false assumption that personal motivations were singular. To this I can only draw upon the following examples; In my state of Texas, 72% of the population did not own a single slave. Sam Houston was even removed from office for not supporting secession. In fact, every county above Dallas opposed secession and yet many still joined. Sam Houston was vocal about his opposition but when he was offered 50,000 troops by Lincoln to keep Texas in the Union, he still declined much like the venerated Robert E. Lee who had turned down overall command of the Union army. Please don’t construe any of this as a defense of slavery. I am just pointing out that not everybody who fought did so for slavery. As John Davidson pointed out in his exceptional article, that they were wrong about slavery does not excuse us today from the burden of trying to understand what motivated them to fight.

I myself served in the military. My decision to do so was far from being singular. My motivations ranged from tradition, a desire to travel, and to just wanting to get away from my hometown. It would not be hard to imagine that in a time when few left their home counties much less their state, that some left just for the adventure or simple economics. I would be remiss when talking about motivations if I fail to point out that four states, Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia did not secede until after shots were exchanged and that another four states, Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware remained in the Union as slave states.

Up to this point, I’ve been a little off-track by focusing on the question of possible motivations of the common soldier. This is not my primary objective. What I wish to dispel is the idea that has been allowed to be perpetrated that the men and women of the South were under-educated, cruel, uncivilized, and contemptable as portrayed by authors and unscrupulous editors of today and, just as then, this is simply not the case. I should not have to point out the fallacy of assigning any single attribute to any single group of people, especially a whole population.

As mentioned, the South had a 91% literacy rate. That just happens to be larger than the male population of Great Britain at the time which was at 75%. This section of America by 1860 provided ten out of the first sixteen presidents and eleven if you add Mr. Lincoln of Illinois who was actually born in Kentucky. The state of Virginia not only contributed seven by itself, but to this date retains the record for the number elected to this office.

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Much has been mentioned about the industrial North over the agricultural South. There is a lot of truth to this notion, depending of course on the period you pick, but what is often overlooked is that a lot of the Union’s factories and businesses were direct beneficiaries of the South to include slavery in both its’ establishments and its commodities. In fact, the bulk of the financial security of the nation as a whole and specifically in the North was dependent on Southern enterprises as more than 80% of the nation’s income was generated by tariffs and duties levied on Southern goods.

The average Southern family routinely attended church as Baptists, and churches of Christ continually sprang up to compete with the many tent revivals and jubilees that became famous, to the point that even to this day the deep South is still referred to as the bible belt. Now please understand that I am not insinuating that the people of the North were heathens by any means, but according to Samuel Mitcham’s book “It Wasn’t About Slavery” the North at that time had greater exposure to philosophies that advanced humanist values rather religious ideologies. Again, I am not trying to deride the North, I am just reiterating that the population of the South was not as decadent as they have been portrayed historically.

When trying to determine a person’s motivations, its best to go straight to the source when possible. Princeton historian Dr. James McPherson, who had researched 25,000 personal letters and 249 diaries of Confederate soldiers, discovered the main theme referenced was ‘Liberty” as they saw and defined it at the time. And many a letter from Union soldiers talk about the desire to preserve the Union. And yes, there are letters from both sides which address the views of slavery both for and against, but as stated above, unless one can produce a letter or diary from every single soldier from either side it would be hubris to claim definitely what compelled each to serve. In my attempts to gain such insights, I discovered another disparity that might bear some relevance. Relevance not in why they served but in the willingness to serve.

Both governments had to contend with desertions and had to institute compulsory service with the cotton states leading. What I find defining however is that little research is required to find that in the Northern states the draft required military intervention to enforce and implement. The infamous riots in New York in 1863 required several regiments to be withdrawn from the war effort including the use of the 6th Massachusetts in Maryland before it even started. The fact that there is scarcely a reference to similar use of force in the South could cause one to infer the level of conviction on each side. Look at the differences in the draft law themselves. Both allowed the potential draftee to employee a substitute however, it was only in the Union where one could buy his way out of serving at the cost of $300. 

To a lesser extent, the fervor to fight might also be represented by the number of foreign “volunteers” that found their way into service. One source I found states that only about 9% of the Confederate army were foreign born while foreign Union troop estimates range in between 489,000 and 400,000. Some of this is without a doubt due to the fact that most of the Southern ports were blockaded and that the Northern ports had always been the main point of entry into America. Moreover, it cannot be overlooked that the North already had a 3 to 1 advantage in population.

The distinctions do not just end with those that willingly enlisted but also with those who chose not to. It should also include those that, for whatever reason, were outspoken in their opposition to the war. An excerpt of Mr. Mark E. Neely’s book titled “Southern Rights” alludes to the possible 4,000 political prisoners arrested in the Confederacy, but this fact should be balanced by those known to have been arrested in the North. The estimates range from as low as 13,000 to as high as 40,000 arrested.  These arrests included mayors, judges and allegedly Congressional representatives, just research Clement Vanlandingham, Roger Taney, Henry May and the grandson of Francis Scott Key, Mr. Francis Key Howard who was not only arrested and not tried but imprisoned in the fort that had inspired his grandfather to pen those immortal words that became our national anthem.

What caused these perceptions to hatch and why have they endured? Some spring from the fact that to the winner goes the spoils of which the writing of the history is but one trophy to be won. And I would argue the press of the time needed to  drum up public support for a military option to a population that contained a sizable portion that were fine with the South leaving in piece or at a minimum were lukewarm to the idea of conflict. However, the impact of a 40-year-old woman can’t be marginalized. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” not only provides the morally bankrupt taskmaster, it also contains a multitude of negative racial connotations to the point that a Wikipedia entry which referenced a book by Jesse Smith stated the book “was accused of playing a major role in permanently ingraining such stereotypes into the American psyche”. This book turned out to be the second-most read of the 19th century. This book, in all probability, played a part in the creation of the image, an image created by years of poor historical due diligence and which was likely further enforced by the animosity that I am sure was felt by many a federal Union that had to garrison the South for over a decade. I can fully understand how it happened and have no ill will to its creation. It being allowed to continue however is a great disservice, both to any who are devoted to truth and historical accuracy and to the vast multitudes of those from the North whose convictions were just as strong by painting their opponents as something inferior. It only serves to cheapen the sacrifices of both sides.                  

By Cade Logue

Cade Logue is a military veteran, a proud Texan, a patriotic American, and a regular contributor to The Blue State Conservative, where this article originally appeared