Reluctant Rebels

This book by Ken Noe, the Draughon Professor of Southern History at Auburn University, is about the confederate soldiers who entered the army after 1861. When we read about the motivations of confederate soldiers, we are almost always reading about the motivations of the men who joined right at the start of the war. Those who delayed joining for whatever reason haven’t normally been given a voice until this book, and that is a fair number of men. “Fifteen percent of all the men who would eventually serve the Confederacy during the war, roughly 120,000 soldiers, would enter the army unwillingly as conscripts, civilians forced into their gray uniforms against their will beginning in the spring of 1862. Almost another 9 percent, 70,000 men, arrived in camp as substitutes who had enlisted tardily for the money given to them by other Confederates who wanted out of the war. Finally, an additional 180,000 others–22.5 percent of all Confederate soldiers–resisted the siren call of glory in 1861 long enough that they only enlisted later on in the war, after 1861.” [p. 2]

As part of his study, Professor Noe surveyed the existing scholarship covering the motivations of confederate soldiers. “Reid Mitchell provided a transitional consideration that gave more credit to the power of patriotism and especially the nation’s revolutionary heritage while still emphasizing combinations of family, community, and personal concerns. Mitchell’s Confederates enlisted to defend their homes from expected Northern invaders they perceived as fanatics and savages, protect Southern culture and society, maintain economic opportunity, and honorably defend hearth and home. More than anything else, they joined their local companies to maintain slavery and white supremacy, the twin ideological foundations of their economic and social worlds. A bevy of recent scholars followed and extended Mitchell’s path to a more broadly defined political interpretation that elevated liberty and slavery as the twin keystones of Confederate soldier motivation. To be sure, none dismissed entirely the now-familiar list of social factors. … Confederate soldiers [according to James McPherson] enlisted to fight for slavery and liberty, with the latter seen and defined through the ideological lens of the American Revolution and its republican rhetoric as the polar opposite of slavery. To bow to Northern ‘subjugation’ not only would mean dishonorable unmanliness but, worse, slavery in another guise, a virtual enslavement of whites by former African American slaves and their Northern allies. Some scholars went even further. Randall Jimerson identified the determination to protect slavery from Northern attack as the ‘one basic premise’ that connected the rhetorical dots of rights, liberty, masculinity, and defense of home. ‘Southerners,’ he wrote, ‘anticipated an attack on slavery that would eventually result in destruction of their property rights, emancipation, and disruption of race relations. … Liberty itself would be overthrown.’ When Southerners spoke of defending liberty, in other words, what they really meant was defending slavery and the slave society that both slaveholding and nonslaveholding whites inhabited. David Williams, while maintaining that preachers and wealthy Southerners essentially bamboozled young white men into service, agreed that slavery and racism drove even poor whites to arms. Chandra Manning has most expanded the McPherson interpretation, asserting that most Confederate recruits understood that the war was really about preserving slavery.” [pp. 4-5]

We learn, “As a group, late-enlisting Confederates were less ideological politically than the men who went before them. While a few vociferous examples to the contrary existed, most of them wrote little or nothing about Confederate nationalism, much less their revolutionary forebears, liberty, subjugation, or states’ rights, all words and concepts that are commonly found in the letters of 1861 enlistees. Nor were they much concerned with conceptions of honor and duty. That relative lack of interest in politics seems to have retarded enlistments in the war’s first year, especially in the Upper South. The one exception was slavery, which was just as important to later enlisters as to the earliest firebrands. … ardent proslavery advocates admittedly were as rare among them as the soldiers of 1861, but the percentage of slave owners and their sons among the later men actually was comparable to the regional average, undermining the assertions of some scholars that the war had become ‘a rich man’s war and poor man’s fight.’ Later-enlisting Confederates as a group, men from the cotton states especially, and most of all those who benefitted from slave labor personally, openly accepted slavery as natural and desirable. They particularly opposed emancipation. In contrast, only three men in the sample spoke out against what they saw as a war to preserve slavery for Southern aristocrats.” [pp. 9-10]

Professor Noe tells us there are three types of soldier motivations: initial motivation was what motivated the soldiers to join. Combat motivation was what motivated the soldiers to risk their lives in battle. Finally, sustaining motivation was what kept the men committed while they were in the army. In this book, Professor Noe discusses the various factors in motivation, including not only slavery but the influence of women, pay, religion, patriotism, a sense of duty, and fighting for their comrades. He also discusses factors that may have reduced motivation such as war weariness.

This is an outstanding book. Professor Noe puts the results of his study into the context of the current scholarship and judiciously evaluates the effects of each of the major factors on soldier motivation. I highly recommend it for students of the war.



  1. Jimmy Dick · · Reply

    I wonder if there might be something in the idea that a greater percentage of the men in the Southern states fought in the war while a smaller percentage from the Northern states fought. I wonder how much impact that had after the war in events that took place such as the eventual end of Reconstruction so quickly.

    1. I believe that’s correct, Jimmy.

  2. And another small part of the Epperson family wealth prepares to go out the door … 😉

    Nice review, Al.

    1. Thanks, Jim. I think you’ll find it money well spent.

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