Confederate Invincibility and the Campaigns of 1864

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This was Jason Phillips’ presentation at the Bridgewater College Civil War Institute symposium on the 1864 Valley Campaign, held March 29, 2014 at Bridgewater College in Bridgewater, Virginia.  Jason is the Eberly Professor of Civil War at West Virginia University Studies.

Jason told us that confederate soldiers in 1864 expected to win the war.  150 years ago, Sgt. Reuben Pierson wrote that the health and morale of the Army of Northern Virginia were “unsurpassed by any band of soldiers that history either modern or ancient give an account of.”  He told his sister the veterans were “eager for the opening of the spring campaign in the full belief that we will be blessed with some grand and glorious victories.”  Thousands of confederate soldiers like Reuben Pierson fought to the bitter end.  These die-hard rebels were not insane.  They were not delusional.  They were not bombastic.  They were rational people who happened to see and fight a war that was radically different from the one that we today imagine in retrospect.

More than 750,000 men fought for the confederacy, and more than 80% of them were literate.  With their letters and diaries, the men who fought the Civil War left behind more written evidence than exists from American soldiers from any previous conflict.  Moreover, their records provide more information than sources left behind by more recent soldiers.  Unlike troops from later conflicts, Civil War soldiers encountered no government censors.  They could, and did, reveal their hopes and fears, speculate about coming campaigns, the war’s course, and criticize anyone and anything they wanted to.  In short, their writings provide us an exceptional view of warfare from the soldiers’ perspectives.

The most resilient confederate soldiers expressed a “culture of invincibility.”  They thought they were unconquerable.  These diehard rebels didn’t stick it out because of peer pressure, military authority, inertia, or even confederate nationalism.  They submitted to unending carnage and squalor because they expected to win.  This belief combined with other factors to prolong the Civil War.  Other important reasons why the confederacy survived for years include weapons that favored the defensive, the vast expanse of the southern nation, and confederate generalship.  But invincibility differed from these other factors in one important way.  It’s the only element of confederate persistence that survived defeat and shaped the New South.  Their defiance continued in Reconstruction and in Civil War memory.

To see the war from their view we have to answer two questions.  First, how did they define the opposing sides of the conflict?  Second, how did they understand the course of the war?

The first issue of demarcating friend and enemy, “us” and “them,” is a cultural process, and religion was central to this process.  Most diehard rebels used Christianity to define themselves and bolster their faith in southern invincibility.  These soldiers witnessed God’s hand on every level of the war effort.  The Almighty shielded them in combat, led their armies to victories, chastened the populace with defeats, and oversaw their nation’s bid for independence.  During the war, thousands of men found religion because it offered them invaluable gifts while in the army.  First, religion helped soldiers make sense of the chaos of war, and it helped soldiers face death.  A Mississippian named William Nugent explained, “It is dreadful to contemplate the many, many dangers which continually surround us, and yet I do not feel alarmed, because my trust is in the Great Ruler of the Universe.”  Surviving the war was beyond Nugent’s control but in the hands of the God of Battles who oversaw the path of every bullet and the fate of every soul.

Second, religion provided a code of conduct for behavior to guide young men past the sins of Civil War camps.  Battles endangered their mortal lives, but the sinfulness of camp [here we’re talking about gambling, drinking, swearing, and whoring] risked their eternal souls.  Which is more dangerous in the long run, the camp or the battlefield?  Christianity helped soldiers maintain moral conduct in camp.

Third, for diehard rebels, Christianity offered them an unbeatable ally–God.  When confederates suffered major defeats in 1863, 1864, and 1865, only God’s favor could guarantee victory.  Not European alliances, not Northern Copperheads, not General Robert E. Lee, and not even devotion to the cause.  None of these things could deliver southern independence.  Only God could.  As long as God was on the south’s side, diehard rebels believed, they could not lose the Civil War.  Southern certainty of God’s favor pervades diehard rebel letters and diaries.  In the spring of 1864 a soldier in the Army of Tennessee wrote, “God is certainly smiling with favor upon us this year.”  Recent victories across a thousand miles, for this soldier, proved God’s control of the situation.  After the fall of Atlanta, a North Carolinian was convinced that, “All will be well because I cannot believe that Providence intends the Confederate States for a subjugated nation.”  In December of 1864, a Mississippi sergeant thought, “We can yet achieve our nationality with the aid of the all-powerful God of Battles.”  Even after the fall of Richmond, one diehard expected to find aid, claiming, “Through His unlimited power we will yet triumph.”  These men were certain that God controlled history and that God preferred the south.

Antebellum prosperity and the Second Great Awakening had convinced many southerners that God planned a glorious future for their region.  Second, massive revivals in the confederate ranks convinced soldiers they were fighting God’s cause.  Southern evangelicals taught them that the soul who loved and confided in God would be saved.  Likewise, a nation that cherished and trusted God would surely be saved.  Each converted soldier made the confederacy more pious and brought the nation closer to victory.  Third, the confederate government explicitly invoked God’s aid.  The confederate constitution, unlike the U.S. Constitution, mentioned God by name.  Confederate statesmen called many national days of thanksgiving, days of fasting, days of prayer.  Diehard rebels believed there was a correlation between these religious days and victory in the next battle.

Confederates lumped the enemy into two major categories.  Union soldiers were either cowards or they were barbarians.  In the early stages of the war the cowardly image prevailed.  Each southern volunteer in 1861 thought he was worth at least ten Yankees in battle.  Early victories at Fort Sumter and Manassas convinced many confederates that these pasty Union men were no match for their steel.  Sectional stereotypes of Yankees that went way back convinced many southerners that Northerners by nature were going to be bad soldiers.  They were immigrants who couldn’t speak English.  They were mill town boys who never owned a horse or a gun.  They were urban scum who enlisted for pay.  They were New England snobs who polished buttons and boots but failed as fighters.  A Virginia artillerist considered the enemy, in his words, “Starving Irish who fight for daily bread and Western scoundrels spawned in prairie mud.”  Yankees were unhealthy specimens shrunken by factory work who could not possibly beat legions of southern men raised in the rustic outdoors.  For many confederates, the Army of the Potomac embodied this perception of the cowardly foe.  Lincoln’s prized army was a collection of white-gloved cowards.  They could march in step, they could impress Washington socialites, but they withered before rebel bullets.  The portrait of an inept enemy fostered the sense that the confederacy was unconquerable.  As a Georgia private put it, “The entire degraded set of Northern people could never suppress a noble and respectable squad of southerners.”

confident as the confederates shivered at the thought of blue columns pouring across their borders.  Numberless mercenary thugs lusting for southern loot and southern women composed this second image of the enemy, the barbaric thug.  If the Army of the Potomac and its carousel of pretty bad commanders represented the cowardly foe, Sherman and Sheridan’s grim forces embodied the cruel nemesis.  Like pestilence, these dusty columns took everything of value, including slaves, and left want and destruction in their wake.  Lee’s men in the trenches referred to the enemy as “vandals” and “miscreants” with greater regularity after Sheridan’s Valley Campaign.  When Sherman expelled all disloyal southerners from Atlanta and refused to exchange prisoners a Louisiana soldier thought such conduct “shows the true Yankee trickery of those inhuman bandits.”  The barbaric enemy seemed to target women, children, and old people, not confederate soldiers.  Because such behavior disregarded the rules of chivalrous warfare these men appeared as subhuman, as demons, as animals.  An Atlanta newspaper announced that confederates fought “not only against the hosts marshaled at the North, but the refuse of European prisons and penitentiaries.  Men who hire themselves to cut the throats of innocent men, women, and children.”  One rebel soldier wrote that he yearned “to sweep from the face of the earth the base and amorous race of Puritans which has so degraded itself and vilified and slandered the southern ladies.”  The Union’s hard war policy and the Emancipation Proclamation empowered and intensified this barbaric image.  Rebels believed Yankees harbored evil plans behind a façade of reunion and abolition.  For many, restoring the Union was really a Northern excuse to pillage and subjugate the south.  Likewise, freeing the slaves wasn’t really about humanitarian concerns.  It really meant the elevation of blacks over whites, racial discord, interracial sex.  For diehards, the message in Sherman’s and Sheridan’s destruction was simple.  Defeat has to be avoided at all costs.  Atrocity stories spread after Sherman’s and Sheridan’s work.  Newspapers spread accounts of federal troops beating civilian men and raping their wives and daughters.  An Atlanta newspaper urged diehard rebels to avenge “the muffled and strangled screams of ravaged maidens, the weak and feeble prayers of suffering old men and women, and the spirits of honest men who were murdered.”  When an Arkansas soldier read a story about black soldiers propositioning white southern women he wrote, “The thought of such an occurrence arouses every nerve in my body for vengeance, and I feel like crying raise the black flag and let slip the dogs of war.”

In 1864, submission to the enemy seemed worse than war.  A Virginia soldier thought surrendering meant “having our property confiscated, our slaves emancipated, our leaders hung, and we become serfs in the land of our fathers.”  He preferred unending war to that fate.  Such visions of vile defeat induced thousands of confederates to prolong the Civil War.

Every soldier experiences at least two wars.  They participate in the chronic, confining, and confusing war that surrounds them.  This is their immediate war.  Second, they piece together the distant war that touches far-off campaigns, home fronts, and foreign affairs.  They only know this other war secondhand at best.  To understand the diehards we have to recover both their immediate war and their distant war.

Throughout the war’s final years many confederates grossly misjudged the odds they faced in the battles they fought.  They won some battles, but those battles were too small to sustain confederate morale.  We have to look at the soldiers’ perceptions of the battles of 1864 rather than historians’ accounts.  Scholars often present a bird’s eye view of battles.  Using hindsight, historians summarize the chaotic actions of armies in a detached, objective manner as if we are watching combat from above.  The soldiers who fought these campaigns lacked this detached view.  They saw the war from a “worm’s eye view.”  Battles and other events seemed too close, too incomplete, too foggy for participants to discern much beyond their very immediate surroundings.  This created uncertainty about what was going on, and uncertainty gave optimists like the diehards room to dream.  Each new battle could be the one that decides the war.  Any minor tactical gain might develop into strategic importance.  From the bird’s eye view, the confederacy seemed doomed in 1864.  From the worm’s eye view the rebellion appeared closer to victory in that year than at any time before.  Confederates who fought in 1864 preserved this local perspective in their writings.  In the spring of 1864 George Binford pronounced the Army of Tennessee “as strong as if not stronger than ever before.”  Spirits were high.  Diehards predicted victory in 1864.  They claimed victories in battles historians consider stalemates or confederate defeats.  They tended to underestimate their own losses and exaggerate enemy casualties.

Grant’s spring campaign in 1864 produced unprecedented casualties for the Union.  Such carnage looked like an act of God to a North Carolina soldier who wrote, “God has placed Grant in command.  He will exhaust all the armies of the North and make this the Waterloo of the war.”  From his perspective, that seems pretty rational.

Confederates also followed strict definitions of a tactical victory.  Whenever they retained control of the field or thwarted enemy intentions, they declared themselves winners.  Trench warfare increased such outcomes, and confederate generals employed such trenches more often as the war continued.

But by focusing on the current, local situation, many rebels missed the greater implications of a series of broader engagements.  While soldiers tried to make sense of their immediate surroundings they also tried to piece together a picture of the rest of the war, the war they couldn’t see firsthand.  Rumors played a major role in how diehards perceived the war in far-off corners of the conflict.  Troops understood the war’s course as best they could by collecting scraps of information they found in numerous sources–telegrams, official reports, letters, newspapers, political speeches, sermons, periodicals, any kind of scrap of information they could find.

Rumors infiltrated all these sources, even the official ones, and diehards spread the gossip in camp.  Rumors’ effects on armies and societies were profound.  True or false, news traveled far and fast in the confederacy.  Thousands of men spread rumors in letters to loved ones.  Confederate authorities encouraged wishful rumors, even when they knew they were false.  It could boost morale for the upcoming campaign.  The south’s partisan press also spread unsubstantiated stories that could boost morale and sell papers.  The rumors often promised victory and independence.  A rumor spread continually that Grant had promised to dine in Richmond on a certain date, that he had even made dinner reservations.  Another rumor in July spread that his arm had been ripped off by an artillery shell and he had bled to death.  Troops across the south received glowing reports of victories of every single battle fought.  Confederates also spread rumors about the annihilation of Sherman’s army in Georgia.  Military gossip peaked in the summer of 1864.  During the summer and fall of 1864 they were aware of the presidential campaign in the North, and this created another round of rumors about the Northern home front.  There was a profusion of rumors about Northern secession, Northern treason, and mutiny within Northern ranks.  Diehard rebels interrogated Union prisoners about how they would vote in the coming elections.  Not surprisingly, these captives confirmed what their captors wanted to hear.  There was a rumor that Lincoln’s reelection would trigger a third wave of secession, this time of Western states.

When no third wave of secession materialized, they focused on another wishful rumor, that of foreign intervention.  By 1865 when military triumph seemed unlikely confederates focused on foreign intervention.  Rumors of recognition spread quickly.  All these rumors encouraged predictions that fit into the diehard view of the war.  The rumors convinced them to hold on.

This culture sustained them through the war, but it didn’t save them from defeat.

The diehards tell us how the war looked to them.  They also shaped the south’s reaction to defeat.  They used their culture of invincibility to overcome the shame of defeat and to avoid humiliation.  Faith in their superiority helped them remain defiant.  Many of them performed surrenders and performed oaths of allegiance but remained diehard rebels to the core.  A leg wound received before Appomattox kept North Carolina’s Reuben Wilson from the surrender.  Stuck in a Union hospital with “the fire of revenge flying from my eyes like sparks from a furnace,” Wilson determined that he would take the oath of allegiance so that he could help to elect “good men” to state conventions and Washington.  Wilson reasoned, “if every southern state will send two good senators we will be able to check the Republican party in their wild schemes.”  To show his war continued, Reuben Wilson wore his confederate uniform for the rest of his life.  Central tenets of diehard culture, Southern righteousness and Northern barbarity, shaped lost cause stories.  Instead of doubting that God was on their side, they saw defeat as Providential.  They viewed their trial in Biblical terms and looked forward to resurrection and redemption.  Religious leaders depicted rebel legions as God’s army on Earth.  Like defeats during the war, the death of the confederacy somehow confirmed God’s love of the south and fit within His inscrutable plan for His chosen people.  Reconstruction provided more evidence of Northern barbarism and justified southern defiance.  The worm’s eye view developed into veterans’ foggy memories, and just as those wartime rumors pretended to be news, postwar memories masqueraded as history.

This was an excellent presentation.  Jason has a great command of the material, and he brought in several views of individual confederates to illustrate his points.

 

7 comments

  1. Wow. There’s a lot here. My first take is that it seems like the “Lost Cause” was already being developed by 1864. No wonder it became so easy to defy reality.

    My second thought has to do with the religion motivation. Lincoln popped into my head:

    “The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party — and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose. I am almost ready to say that this is probably true — that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere great power, on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And, having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.”

    1. Oh, yes. Take a look at Lee’s farewell address to his troops at Appomattox. It’s possibly the first document of the lost cause.

  2. Reblogged this on The True Blue Federalist and commented:
    Al Mackey over at “Student of the American Civil War” has posted this excellent lecture by Jason Phillips, Eberly Professor of Civil War at West Virginia University Studies. It shows that the Lost Cause was already establishing itself as an ideology long before the war was over.

  3. Edwin Thompson · · Reply

    Al – you wrote a good summary on Professor Phillips lecture. Too bad his lecture is not on youtube, it sounded interesting.

    I like reading old newspapers now that they are accessible on the internet. The southern newspapers like the Richmond Daily Dispatch reflects his thoughts. Attached is the April 1, 1865 (from the Library of Congress) edition. It is an interesting paper to read. Buried in the paper is the comment “With that measure ye mete to others, it shall be meted to you again”. The white south clearly thought they had been wronged by the north and Mr. Lincoln (whom the north had elected again) and the north would suffer retribution. The white south apparently did not see any irony in this statement regarding their war to protect slavery.

    Also note the similarity in thoughts to Lincolns 2nd inaugural address “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword”. God was ever present on all sides – with so many dead, some justification was needed.

    .http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84024738/1865-04-01/ed-1/seq-1/#date1=01%2F11%2F1865&sort=date&date2=04%2F30%2F1865&searchType=advanced&language=&sequence=1&index=11&words=&proxdistance=5&state=Virginia&rows=20&ortext=&proxtext=&phrasetext=&andtext=&dateFilterType=range&page=4

    1. It was a terrific lecture, Edwin. A few historians have done quite a bit of work on religion in the Civil War. George Rable wrote a book called God’s Almost Chosen People, which is a religious history of the war.

  4. Edwin Thompson · · Reply

    Thanks – but there are too many books. I prefer reading old newspapers and youtube lectures. Keep highlighting the different historians – that’s how I find out they exist. With internet archives like LOC, NYTimes etc, it is easy to investigate subjects. Remember, most of us have day jobs.

    1. As do we all.

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