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West Virginia
Historical Society

Membership Information

October, 2000




(Michael Shock holds the BA in History from the University of Charleston and works at the West Virginia Library Commission.)

The soldiers who enlisted to fight for the Confederacy have been the subject of much debate in recent times. In this age of political correctness, the symbols of the Confederacy have come under increasing attack by the media and "special interest" groups. Everything from monuments to flags has been subjected to barrages of scorn and protest by people who find them to be personally offensive. Of course, the particular flag that is under attack is the "St. Andrew's Cross" battle flag. It is not (and never was), the national flag of the Confederacy, even though it is almost always portrayed as such. It was not even the only battle flag used by the Confederate armies, but that brings up a major point. Southern history (and history in general), seems to be very misunderstood by the majority of today's public.

The battle flag was intended only for military use, and it has a regimental status, and it is meant only for the battlefield and the soldiers who fight under it upon that field. Therefore, it is a soldier's flag, for they are the ones who fight and die under it. The modern public does not understand or even know about this difference regarding the meaning of flags, particularly in regards to the Confederacy, since the battle flag almost always was taken into the cauldron alone, and without the national colors, unlike the Union armies. Therefore, in people's eyes today, the battle flag is the flag. A similar dilemma of historical misunderstanding involves the modern perception of Confederate soldiers, the reasons of why they enlisted, and even what the majority of them were like. People seem to think that they fought to only preserve slavery, and that was their only reason for enlisting to fight in the War Between the States. Of course, they were all white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant, and they all were Southern born and bred. Researching history can bring about startling surprises. These surprises are that those views are historically inaccurate.

The men who enlisted to fight for the Confederate States of America were more varied in motivations and backgrounds than what is commonly realized or known. The soldiers who went to fight were not just native Southern white males or rich slave-holding plantation owners, but were also of foreign birth, native French-speaking Creoles, and even of Northern origin. There were also Mexican-Americans who enlisted, 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 to all white Southerners, or the even only factor (as common historical teachings, specifically school textbooks, have dictated).

In the South, 385,000 families owned slaves, out of a white population of 1,516,000 families.1 In the Army of Northern Virginia, for example, the majority of soldiers did not come from families that even had a direct personal stake in slavery.2 Therefore, "it was not the issue of slavery for which the average officer or enlisted man went to war." Actually, what really motivated them to enlist was their tremendous pride in their own land and what they and their fathers had achieved, "combined with a general dislike of Northerners stemming from most superficial knowledge of the real people who inhabited the northern states".3

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.

Not only did Southerners and "boarder-staters" enlist (Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland and Delaware) to fight for the Confederacy, but so did Northerners themselves!15 Their motivations are varied (to be sure), but it can be speculated that economic or family ties had something to do with this phenomenon. Ideology and sympathy for "the cause" also had influence on these men to serve with what their fellow Northerners called "the enemy."

An interesting class of Southerners were the French-speaking white Creoles of Louisiana. The general motivation for them enlisting after Louisiana seceded was "the American-born French were fighting for their freedom from oppression and the French-born residents were helping them; together,"Liberate" in the sense of 1789 was again ringing in the ears of the American Gaul".16 Therefore, the defense of liberty seems to be the primary motivation here, but definitely not necessarily the rule. For those French immigrants who enlisted to fight for the Confederacy, it must be stated that many were motivated by the "defense of the South, as holy a task as the American Revolution, and the enlistees vowed to bear hardships as great as Washington's before they would fail".17 The French were not alone with this show of patriotism, but other foreigners followed their own motivations. Those immigrants who fought for the Confederacy were an interesting and diverse group. They came from many nationalities, like the French, the Irish, the Germans, the Scottish, and the English being the most prominent. The two largest of these groups were the Germans and the Irish.

The Germans had no interest in slavery, and therefore it was not a strong motivation for enlisting. They viewed States' Rights as an issue. "The Germans...declared slavery an evil, and its removal absolutely necessary; nevertheless, they held it a problem of the individual state in which the Federal government should not interfere".18 The Germans believed that slave owners should be paid for emancipation because they felt it wrong that the North, after selling its slaves to the South, should attempt to force the slave holders to free the slaves without any monetary compensation.19

The Germans did not seem too particularly thrilled with the prospect of racial equality. They just did not believe in owning someone, which was the evil known as slavery. "Where the Germans took up arms voluntarily, they did so for the perpetuation of liberty, as they saw it through the eyes of Confederate constitutionalism ... for casting of political and economic shackles from the limbs of the whites".20 Many of them, like many others, may "have been carried along by the sudden enthusiasm that accompanied the first mobilization measures." A German volunteer, Herman Schuricht, of Virginia, may have told the truth "that all the recently immigrated Germans embracing the Confederate cause did so with throbbing hearts, and in most cases only under the pressure of compulsory circumstance".21 It can be speculated that many new German immigrants had no idea at all about what they were enlisting for. After all, they could not speak English like many of the other immigrant groups such as the Irish, English, and Scottish.


1. Philip Katcher, The Army of Robert E. Lee (London: Arms and Armour, 1994), 61.

2. Ibid., 61-62.

3. Ibid., 63.

4. William C. Davis, Rebels & Yankees: The Fighting Men of the Civil War (New York: Gallery, 1989), 16.

5. Carlton McCarthy, Soldier Life in the Army of Northern Virginia 1861-1865 (Richmond: B.F. Johnson, 1908), 9.

6. Bell Irvin Wiley, The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy (Indianapolis: Charter, 1962), 18.

7. Ibid., 18.

8. Ibid., 18.

9. Roy Morris, Jr., "If History is Written Only by the Winners, Then Who Really Won the Civil War?" America's Civil War, Nov. 1994, 6.

10. James M. McPherson, What They Fought For, 1861-1865. (New York: Anchor, 1995), 52.

11. Wiley, Johnny Reb, 17.

12. Katcher, 19.

13. Ibid., 36.

14. William C. Davis, Breckinridge: Statesman, Soldier, Symbol (Baton Rouge: LSU, 1974). 293.

15. Katcher, 66.

16. Ella Lonn, Foreigners in the Confederacy (Chapel Hill: U of N. Carolina, 1940), 53.

17. Davis, Fighting Men, 16.

18. Lonn, 35.

19. Ibid., 41.

20. Ibid., 41.

21. Ibid., 220.

(This article will conclude in the January issue of the Quarterly.)

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