What Was In The Mind Of Most Of The Confederate Soldiers As To Why They Were Fighting And Willing To Die?

unionblue

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Member of the Year
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Feb 20, 2005
Location
Ocala, FL (as of December, 2015).
Easy to say from our perspective. They saw it differently. I have a lot of respect for the men on both sides for putting their money where their mouth was and going out into the field in support of their beliefs. I would never discount half of them as unworthy of being Americans because I disagree with what they did.
Yes, it's easy with hindsight to say what was wrong and what was right about history. I, too, have a lot of respect for the men on both sides, but I am unwilling to say their beliefs gave an excuse for carrying on a clear wrong, a worse cause for which a people ever fought. Unworthy to be called Americans? No, just Americans who made the wrong cause part of their beliefs.
Yeah, next time secession comes we'll handle it differently. :D

Haven't seen unilateral secession attempted in over 155 years. Somebody must have learned something from the end results of 1865.
 

Georgia Sixth

Sergeant Major
Joined
Dec 14, 2011
Location
Texas
I am new to the forum, but I had a question. I know it is hotly debated as to the motives of the southern states seceding from the union and fighting a civil war. Seems like the arguments center on whether it was mainly to protect state's rights or to protect slavery. And many think that slavery just happened to be the most current/volatile issue that tested federal vs. states rights. My questions are: Of all the men who fought for the south, how many of them were actual slave owners? I have to believe it was a minority percentage. If the south was fighting mainly to preserve slavery, you're telling me that thousands of young southern men marched off to war to kill/be killed just to protect the rights of wealthy plantation owners who employed slaves? I would not go to war, nor send my sons to war for that reason. What was in the mind of most of the confederate soldiers as to WHY they were fighting and willing to die?
Steve,
This is a question I have thought about for years. Here is my current thinking.

Remember that secession came in two waves. First, the five Gulf states plus South Carolina and Georgia bolted from the Union and did so expressly to defend slavery from the perceived threat of a Republican led government. It is here you get the oft-quoted secession document from Mississippi about the absolute centrality of slavery with this political movement. In as much as it's states rights, it's the right to own African slaves. Also, it seems to me that this first wave of secession was entirely the creation of the political elites, a top-down movement that was fairly well coordinated; in fact, some regard it as akin to a coup. So even though the majority of white southerners in those seven states had no coin in slavery, the non-slaveholders weren't the ones driving this train. Instead, it was led by yahoos who wanted to reopen the African slave trade and some even wanted to invade areas of Mexico and Cuba to expand their lucrative investments in the forced labor system.

Noticeably absent from this first wave was the state with the largest population of enslaved people, Virginia. The fact that they did not join the movement overtly designed to continue the slave system is noteworthy as it indicates more complicated and conflicting values and motivations of the southern whites. Ultimately, Virginia joined the second wave of secession -- along with Tennessee, Arkansas and North Carolina (and arguably Missouri). These were states which were not convinced by the arguments made in the first wave. What pushed them into secession was Lincoln's call for troops to go and put down the rebellion. Now you're seeing people talk about tyranny and despotism. They generally regarded the first wave of secession conventions and votes as states legitimately choosing their own future....which they regarded as their right to do so. And you see frequent comparisons of the confederate movement to the 1776 rebellion....which of course was led to victory by a slaveholding southerner. They were horrified at the prospect of U.S. armies actually invading states with all the mayhem and destruction this would entail. They viewed this as an illegitimate action, as one group of state imposing its will on another.

I suspect the majority of non-slaveholding whites who supported the confederate cause did so for the reasons that prompted the second wave of secession. As for slavery, they regarded it as something that was embedded in the country from its founding and it was nobody else's business if they chose to continue it. They also had by now some pretty hardened racial views of superiority, which led them to genuinely regard the slave system as a positive good for all involved. Hard to believe, but you can read this stuff written at the time. Of course, anyone who believed this racial stratification was fact would be mortified at anything that could rip that system apart and give the "inferiors" the same rights and privileges of their "superiors".

I could probably come up with counter arguments for everything I wrote here, but at this time I believe this is about as good an explanation as one can give for why the majority of non-slaveholders supported the confederate movement.
 

johnsneed

Corporal
Joined
Aug 6, 2017
Location
Springfield, Missouri
I think the motivation of the Southern soldiers could be boiled down to two big ideas. First, many saw the Northern armies as foreign invaders. The second idea was to defend and preserve their way of life. Now this phrase can mean different things to different people. No doubt, to some, it meant the preservation of slavery. But, I think to many soldiers in the trenches it simply to be left alone to work their land (whether it be a large or small tract of land). This phrase "way of life" is a good slogan. It is broad enough to mean something to everyone, even if not everyone thinks of it in the same way. So why were the Southern soldiers fighting, to repel an invading army and to preserve their way of life, whatever that meant to the individual.
 

unionblue

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Member of the Year
Joined
Feb 20, 2005
Location
Ocala, FL (as of December, 2015).
I think the motivation of the Southern soldiers could be boiled down to two big ideas. First, many saw the Northern armies as foreign invaders. The second idea was to defend and preserve their way of life. Now this phrase can mean different things to different people. No doubt, to some, it meant the preservation of slavery. But, I think to many soldiers in the trenches it simply to be left alone to work their land (whether it be a large or small tract of land). This phrase "way of life" is a good slogan. It is broad enough to mean something to everyone, even if not everyone thinks of it in the same way. So why were the Southern soldiers fighting, to repel an invading army and to preserve their way of life, whatever that meant to the individual.
@johnsneed ,

To fully accept your view above would entail, I think, the idea that the Southern soldiers fighting for the Confederacy had no idea that slavery was the central cause of the Civil War, to count them as too ignorant or too distracted about the one issue that had been at the center of political debate in the United States for the previous half a century.

This would mean they had no concept of the three-fifths clause in the US Constitution, cared not a bit about the Dredd Scott ruling of the US Supreme Court, know about the Missouri Compromise or the Gag Order in the US Congress over slavery petitions. Then there are the declarations of their own Confederate leaders, secession commissioners, even in their newly adopted Confederate Constitution the clauses and articles enshrining slavery forever within.

No, there were more than "two big ideas" and I am certain all those men knew what the big one was. Soldiers enlist for their own reason, but they fight for their leaders political objectives. Hence we see later on when things got tougher for those men, after the twenty-slave law, the phrase, "A rich man's war and a poor man's fight."

Sincerely,
Unionblue
 

Andersonh1

Brigadier General
Moderator
Joined
Jan 12, 2016
Location
South Carolina
In my view, they should not be held to that level of ignorance or wishful thinking.

So you know more about the war and its causes than those who lived through it and fought it? That seems unlikely.

http://www.wvculture.org/history/wvhs/wvhs1404.html

Many white Confederate soldiers stated reasons other than slavery as motivations for enlisting. After the secession of the state of Virginia, "Benjamin W. Jones found that 'the determination to resist invasion-the first and most sacred duty of a free people-became general, if not universal'". Historian William C. Davis then stated, "that determination sent him into the army, and thousands more with him".4​ Carlton McCarthy wrote in his memoir with some poetic prose, that the Southerner "dared not refuse to hear the call to arms, so plain was the duty and so urgent the call. His brethren and friends were answering the bugle-call and the sound of the drum," and "to stay was dishonor and shame"!5​ Defense of the home and duty with honor seemed to be very strong primary reasons for enlisting for the average Confederate soldier. McCarthy's quote points out another factor as well. The power of one's peers.​
Popular pressure was a very strong factor for enlisting to fight for the Confederacy (as well as the Union). Thousands of persons indifferent to enlisting, and even many who were openly opposed to it, were swept like a wave into the ranks in 1861 by the tremendous force of popular pressure.6​
The defense of the women of the South was another strong motivating factor for many white Southern males. The women offered thanks to the men who enlisted "but turned with coolest disdain from those who were reluctant to come forward in defense of Southern womanhood".7​
But again many volunteered not from any great enthusiasm, but simply because enlistment was the trendy thing to do .8​ Therefore, peer pressure had the strongest influence. All of these reasons seem to have motivated members of the yeoman class to enlist, because most of them viewed the defense of slavery as "to protect the fortunes and property of a leisured upper-class that most (of them) looked upon with hatred, envy and contempt".9​
The yeoman class had no slaves to fight for, they had some property, their families, and their native states. They also had something else as their property to protect, and that "was their white skins which put them on a plane of civil equality with slave holders and far above those who did not possess that property," as stated by Princeton University historian, James M. McPherson.10​ Since many could not read or write very well (or at all), they were not given much of a chance to defend themselves to later generations from statements like Dr. McPherson's. It should be stated as fact that racism was very strong at that time, in the North as well as the South. It was simply the pattern of thought in the 1800s that the white class was superior, even though it was not true.​
One motivation that has been around since recorded time (and certainly even before then), was the want for adventure.11​ It is doubtful that particular motivation was that strong after being in the storm of combat. War has never been the romantic event that has been portrayed in writings, only a "living hell."​
Many high-ranking Confederates showed reasons for enlisting other than slavery. The examples consist of generals (or future generals). Robert E. Lee believed in neither slavery nor secession, but would fight for his old Virginia.12​ Ambrose Powell Hill, better known as A.P. Hill, chose to fight for the defense of his state, Virginia, even thought he was deeply opposed to slavery.13​ John C. Breckenridge, of Kentucky (a boarder state), a one-time Vice-President of the United States, sided with the Confederacy primarily for his home-state's self-defense from the North.14​ The individual motivations are endless.​
 

DanSBHawk

1st Lieutenant
Joined
May 8, 2015
Location
Wisconsin
So you know more about the war and its causes than those who lived through it and fought it? That seems unlikely.

http://www.wvculture.org/history/wvhs/wvhs1404.html

Many white Confederate soldiers stated reasons other than slavery as motivations for enlisting. After the secession of the state of Virginia, "Benjamin W. Jones found that 'the determination to resist invasion-the first and most sacred duty of a free people-became general, if not universal'". Historian William C. Davis then stated, "that determination sent him into the army, and thousands more with him".4​ Carlton McCarthy wrote in his memoir with some poetic prose, that the Southerner "dared not refuse to hear the call to arms, so plain was the duty and so urgent the call. His brethren and friends were answering the bugle-call and the sound of the drum," and "to stay was dishonor and shame"!5​ Defense of the home and duty with honor seemed to be very strong primary reasons for enlisting for the average Confederate soldier. McCarthy's quote points out another factor as well. The power of one's peers.​
Popular pressure was a very strong factor for enlisting to fight for the Confederacy (as well as the Union). Thousands of persons indifferent to enlisting, and even many who were openly opposed to it, were swept like a wave into the ranks in 1861 by the tremendous force of popular pressure.6​
The defense of the women of the South was another strong motivating factor for many white Southern males. The women offered thanks to the men who enlisted "but turned with coolest disdain from those who were reluctant to come forward in defense of Southern womanhood".7​
But again many volunteered not from any great enthusiasm, but simply because enlistment was the trendy thing to do .8​ Therefore, peer pressure had the strongest influence. All of these reasons seem to have motivated members of the yeoman class to enlist, because most of them viewed the defense of slavery as "to protect the fortunes and property of a leisured upper-class that most (of them) looked upon with hatred, envy and contempt".9​
The yeoman class had no slaves to fight for, they had some property, their families, and their native states. They also had something else as their property to protect, and that "was their white skins which put them on a plane of civil equality with slave holders and far above those who did not possess that property," as stated by Princeton University historian, James M. McPherson.10​ Since many could not read or write very well (or at all), they were not given much of a chance to defend themselves to later generations from statements like Dr. McPherson's. It should be stated as fact that racism was very strong at that time, in the North as well as the South. It was simply the pattern of thought in the 1800s that the white class was superior, even though it was not true.​
One motivation that has been around since recorded time (and certainly even before then), was the want for adventure.11​ It is doubtful that particular motivation was that strong after being in the storm of combat. War has never been the romantic event that has been portrayed in writings, only a "living hell."​
Many high-ranking Confederates showed reasons for enlisting other than slavery. The examples consist of generals (or future generals). Robert E. Lee believed in neither slavery nor secession, but would fight for his old Virginia.12​ Ambrose Powell Hill, better known as A.P. Hill, chose to fight for the defense of his state, Virginia, even thought he was deeply opposed to slavery.13​ John C. Breckenridge, of Kentucky (a boarder state), a one-time Vice-President of the United States, sided with the Confederacy primarily for his home-state's self-defense from the North.14​ The individual motivations are endless.​
That source is confederate apologism. The author also admits the motivation behind the Black Confederate myth:

"...but the most surprising of those who chose to enlist to fight, or even wanted to enlist to fight for the Confederacy, were Native- Americans and African-Americans! None of these groups come to mind as Rebel soldiers, but they were. Of course that brings about a very probing question. Why did they enlist or want to enlist? To understand "native" white Southerners will be looked at first. What will be dealt with is the fact that many did not even consider slavery the major motivation to enlist, or even one at all. This tends to indicate that slavery was not the overriding factor..."​
 

Belfoured

Sergeant Major
Joined
Aug 3, 2019
So you know more about the war and its causes than those who lived through it and fought it? That seems unlikely.

http://www.wvculture.org/history/wvhs/wvhs1404.html

Many white Confederate soldiers stated reasons other than slavery as motivations for enlisting. After the secession of the state of Virginia, "Benjamin W. Jones found that 'the determination to resist invasion-the first and most sacred duty of a free people-became general, if not universal'". Historian William C. Davis then stated, "that determination sent him into the army, and thousands more with him".4​ Carlton McCarthy wrote in his memoir with some poetic prose, that the Southerner "dared not refuse to hear the call to arms, so plain was the duty and so urgent the call. His brethren and friends were answering the bugle-call and the sound of the drum," and "to stay was dishonor and shame"!5​ Defense of the home and duty with honor seemed to be very strong primary reasons for enlisting for the average Confederate soldier. McCarthy's quote points out another factor as well. The power of one's peers.​
Popular pressure was a very strong factor for enlisting to fight for the Confederacy (as well as the Union). Thousands of persons indifferent to enlisting, and even many who were openly opposed to it, were swept like a wave into the ranks in 1861 by the tremendous force of popular pressure.6​
The defense of the women of the South was another strong motivating factor for many white Southern males. The women offered thanks to the men who enlisted "but turned with coolest disdain from those who were reluctant to come forward in defense of Southern womanhood".7​
But again many volunteered not from any great enthusiasm, but simply because enlistment was the trendy thing to do .8​ Therefore, peer pressure had the strongest influence. All of these reasons seem to have motivated members of the yeoman class to enlist, because most of them viewed the defense of slavery as "to protect the fortunes and property of a leisured upper-class that most (of them) looked upon with hatred, envy and contempt".9​
The yeoman class had no slaves to fight for, they had some property, their families, and their native states. They also had something else as their property to protect, and that "was their white skins which put them on a plane of civil equality with slave holders and far above those who did not possess that property," as stated by Princeton University historian, James M. McPherson.10​ Since many could not read or write very well (or at all), they were not given much of a chance to defend themselves to later generations from statements like Dr. McPherson's. It should be stated as fact that racism was very strong at that time, in the North as well as the South. It was simply the pattern of thought in the 1800s that the white class was superior, even though it was not true.​
One motivation that has been around since recorded time (and certainly even before then), was the want for adventure.11​ It is doubtful that particular motivation was that strong after being in the storm of combat. War has never been the romantic event that has been portrayed in writings, only a "living hell."​
Many high-ranking Confederates showed reasons for enlisting other than slavery. The examples consist of generals (or future generals). Robert E. Lee believed in neither slavery nor secession, but would fight for his old Virginia.12​ Ambrose Powell Hill, better known as A.P. Hill, chose to fight for the defense of his state, Virginia, even thought he was deeply opposed to slavery.13​ John C. Breckenridge, of Kentucky (a boarder state), a one-time Vice-President of the United States, sided with the Confederacy primarily for his home-state's self-defense from the North.14​ The individual motivations are endless.​
I might actually buy Hill's motivation - a non-slaveowner, he could be said to have "walked the walk". Lee and Breckinridge, on the other hand, should be taken with a dump truck load of salt. And, as we know from Glathaar's excellent study of the ANV, a surprisingly large percentage had direct connections with slavery even though they technically did not own slaves themselves, and had a stake in its survival. It often pays to look behind somebody's simple statement of what they "believe" or what "motivated" them.
 

GwilymT

First Sergeant
Joined
Aug 20, 2018
Location
Pittsburgh
Or that they simply did not hold your opinion about the central cause of the war.
They likely did. That modern apologists don’t is another question. They had been told by preachers & politicians, what it was about- bothwere very clear. Several after war monument dedications state it plainly.

It’s modern apologists who have difficulty coming to terms with their upbringing in a Jim Crow America and their need to ancestor worship that want to cloud the issue that was readily apparent to all involved.
 

Andersonh1

Brigadier General
Moderator
Joined
Jan 12, 2016
Location
South Carolina
They likely did. That modern apologists don’t is another question. They had been told by preachers & politicians, what it was about- bothwere very clear. Several after war monument dedications state it plainly.

It’s modern apologists who have difficulty coming to terms with their upbringing in a Jim Crow America and their need to ancestor worship that want to cloud the issue that was readily apparent to all involved.

I've said it before: there is as much or more fixation on race today than there was during the war. A lot of this attempt to assign slavery as a motivation, even when the men themselves say otherwise, is projecting a modern bias back on to that generation and refusing to believe what they said.

That's why some have a problem realizing that it was possible for those men to be white supremacists, and yet have motivations for going to war that had nothing to do with race or slavery. Both things can be true of that generation, and often were.

I've gone through a lot of monument dedications and documentation, and comments about race occur in a minority of what I've seen so far. It is far from a predominant reason for the existence of those monuments.
 

Scott1967

Sergeant
Joined
Jul 11, 2016
Location
England
When the 20 slave law first appeared we do see a spike in confederate desertions many Southern boys didn't want to fight a rich mans war or protect those who owned slaves i think this says a lot about why they fought and who they were actually fighting for.

While I have total disdain for the Confederate government I have never had an issue with Confederate Soldiers or their reasons for joining the army like their Northern counterparts they didn't give a monkeys about slavery and like their Northern counterparts joining the army would have been for a wide and varied reason but in 1861/1862 mainly to fight for their state and to preserve the Union for the Northerner's.

Of course then we get conscription as losses become critical and the reasons for joining become irrelevant.
 

Fairfield

First Sergeant
Joined
Dec 5, 2019
Cotton exports to Europe (obviously up to the outbreak of war), were heavily dependent on the shipping industry, which was highly concentrated in New England.
Wouldn't that benefit of shippers in the areas where cotton was grown? Doing genealogical research, I've encountered a number in New Orleans and in Pascagoula.

In any case, I've been reading Bernhard Harms on American shipping and it looks like you are quite correct. :smile:
 

Piedone

Corporal
Joined
Oct 8, 2020
Wouldn't that benefit of shippers in the areas where cotton was grown? Doing genealogical research, I've encountered a number in New Orleans and in Pascagoula.

In any case, I've been reading Bernhard Harms on American shipping and it looks like you are quite correct. :smile:
It seems to have been quite of a concern in the South that northern firms so thoroughly controlled the export of cotton and New Orleans position as a banking center and tradeport was waning (iirc).
 

Fairfield

First Sergeant
Joined
Dec 5, 2019
Wasn't there a great deal of pressure for young men to enlist? What excuse could they have to continue with their lives at home with the war going on? Probably some/many would have chosen to if there was a way out. Many probably didn't give the reasons much thought. As was noted above many were illiterate. A rich man's fight and a poor man's war.
Answering for Maine (where I researched), men enlisted in family and neighborhood groups. Most likely, this was the case in the Confederacy as well. Yes, that was a lot of pressure. As in Maine, there probably was a great deal of "cheer leading" as well--that is, these were young, enthusiastic men whose emotions were whipped up. I suspect that you are quite correct about reasons.

With one major exception for Maine: the Quakers. The Quakers were divided but those who did serve clearly had only one reason.
 

Fairfield

First Sergeant
Joined
Dec 5, 2019
Haven't seen unilateral secession attempted in over 155 years. Somebody must have learned something from the end results of 1865.
Alas, some of us never learn. I know of 2 secessions (both rather silly, to be truthful). Major Oscar Howe (Howes), living on a small island off California, seceded in 1898; in 1982 the Florida Keys and Key West seceded (technically speaking, I think the Conch Republic may still exist).

Also, in 1863 (158 years ago, to be sure), a small island off the Maine coast seceded.
 
Joined
Dec 12, 2020
Answering for Maine (where I researched), men enlisted in family and neighborhood groups. Most likely, this was the case in the Confederacy as well. Yes, that was a lot of pressure. As in Maine, there probably was a great deal of "cheer leading" as well--that is, these were young, enthusiastic men whose emotions were whipped up. I suspect that you are quite correct about reasons.

With one major exception for Maine: the Quakers. The Quakers were divided but those who did serve clearly had only one reason.
I know it's a fictional portrayal but Cold Mountain got it right. If you didn't want to fight the choices were to disappear into the West, go North and take an oath to the Union, or leave the country. As the war dragged on it would be even harder for able bodied men to avoid service if they had found a way up to that point. I know that various occupations had a dispensation so you could join one of them. The poor and uneducated in the North didn't fare much better. That is not to say that some who served had high morals and patriotism.
 

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