What did ordinary Confederate soldiers fight for?

A Reunion of Cherokee Confederates

A Reunion of Cherokee Confederates

When speaking of the Confederacy, laypeople and those with a cripplingly narrow focus on matters military often make two related claims. First they will say that the Confederacy cared only incidentally about slavery, but really got worked up over states rights. This mangling of history remains far too common, but I think that most increasingly see it more as a declaration of the speaker’s sympathy with the Confederacy’s actual aims than a judgment earned under the sometimes cruel tutelage of facts. Furthermore, I doubt one would have to go far in any part of the country to find plenty of laypeople and military history enthusiasts who would contest it fiercely.

The second claim has more life in it, coming in at least two variations. The first insists that the Confederacy used slavery as a kind of manufactured issue, a hot button to marshal popular support for more esoteric policies that nobody would have gone to war over. Usually the speaker claims the tariff. I’ve even seen renditions that specify it down to a few cents on the tariff. While cents counted for a great deal more in the nineteenth century, this still seems to cut very close to the bone. The second variant holds that the Confederate political leadership absolutely fought for slavery, the common soldier never. He had no stake in the institution but the smooth operators in the state capitals convinced him that he did. In either case, the speaker usually trots out Robert E. Lee as proof positive that antislavery Confederates existed.

Whatever version of the argument one makes, it holds that essentially the common Confederate soldier lacked the intelligence, education, or sophistication to make sound political judgments in his own interest. In doing so on the part of the vast majority of Confederate soldiery and a large portion of the slave states’ male population of military age, the speaker condemns a large part of the South’s white population. If this takes a form slightly more polite than calling the lot of them a bunch of lack-wit fools, than it does not differ meaningfully in substance. As one would expect, many of the same people take great offense to the very unfair stereotypes which depict the South as a land of backwards, lack-wit fools.

The foolish and unsophisticated exist in every time and place, of course. One could make an argument that Southern indifference to Yankee innovations like public education played a part in giving the South more than its share, but this rarely comes up. Instead we must take it as given, even obvious, that a poor white farmer could not possibly have any interest in saving slavery and would not have allowed racism to irrationally dictate his actions. This requires that his racism, from his perspective, actually entail irrationality. Usually that works the other way around. From the perspective of the racist, racism seems entirely rational and sensible.

Leaving the question of rationality aside we do have some facts to consider. On first blush, these may seem to support the proposition that ordinary Confederate soldiers, and other pro-confederacy whites, had little personal interest in preserving slavery. Further consideration will reveal otherwise.

One must grant that a vast majority of Confederate soldiers did not themselves own slaves. Slaves cost a great deal and the average soldier hardly counted as a man of wealth and property. However, a vast majority of American soldiers who enlisted after 9/11 neither owned property threatened in New York, Virginia, or Pennsylvania, nor had loved ones injured or imperiled in the attacks that day. Did the American government manufacture a grievance for them, which they in their innocence could not see through? Must we believe that they forgot that none of their loved ones died that day? I suspect that any questioned on the point would find the argument risible. Just as they could have an interest in and commitment to the United States and its nebulously defined “way of life” independent of the immediate details of their personal lives, so could white Southerners have a commitment to the South and its own distinctive way of life. This way of life, to the degree it differed from that of other sections, largely revolved around the prosecution and maintenance of slavery.

In this light, a soldier could hope to own slaves in the future as his share of the Dixie-flavored American Dream. He might have slaveholding relatives. He probably, except in the most rugged and remote sections of the South, at least knew one slaveholder by sight. He might have, either personally or through close family, more substantial connections still. Eugene Genovese sketches out a web of such connections, a “conjecture of […] economic, political and cultural forces, incuding intense racism” between poor whites and planters which “made secession and sustained warfare possible” in his 1975 article Yeoman Farmers in a Slaveholder’s Democracy (JSTOR paywall, article accessible through a free account)taking Joshua Venable “dirt farmer of of Hinds County, Mississippi” as a case study:

Josh owned no slaves, worked forty acres of so-so land more or less competently, and struggled to keep his head above water. Fortunately for him, he was kin to Jefferson Venable, owner of the district’s finest Big House, Ole Massa to a hundred slaves, and patron to the local judge as well as the sheriff. Moreover, Josh Venable’s wife was kin to John Mercer, himself “massa” to only ten or twelve slaves but decidedly a man on the make.  […]

Now, poor Josh Venable himself rarely got invited to Cousin Jeff’s home and virtually never to the dining room table. Rather, he was usually invited to an outdoor affair-a barbecue to which many of the nonslaveholders of the neighborhood were also invited to celebrate lay-by or the Fourth of July. Josh also had to notice that he was only invited when many neighboring slaveholders were urged not only to come but to bring all their “niggers.” Still, kin was kin, and Josh got an ostentatious welcome as a member of the family. Ole Massa Jefferson, his own self, once took him by the arm to the barbecue pit to meet the new state senator, whom Ole Jeff had just bought and who might come in handy.

Here we have personal ties to planters. Joshua and Jefferson hardly seem like the best of friends, but Jefferson still had him over and treated him well on the occasion. This sort of behavior naturally creates a kind of sentimental alignment, even among the unrelated.

Josh resented his cousin-so much that he continued to hope that he would someday own even more slaves himself and maybe even reach the pinnacle of success-some day he might be able to make Cousin Jeff a low-interest loan to cover his famous gambling debts, not to mention those debts for somewhat unclear expenditures in New Orleans.

New Orleans served as the antebellum South’s Las Vegas, for those who want to read between the lines.

Josh’s resentment shades into aspiration. He doesn’t loathe Jeff for his success. He wants to become like Jeff, but better, and valuable to him. Ambition can account for plenty of that desire, but more went into it. Josh wanted to help Jeff out with money, just as Jeff helped out others:

Everyone, including Josh, knew that his cousin may have been a little stuffy, may have put on airs, but that he always had a helping hand for anyone in the neighborhood, lack or white. Josh raised some extra corn and a few hogs. What was he supposed to do, hand-carry them to Cincinatti? Wait to sell them to unreliable drovers, who specialized in hard bargains? Cousin Jeff was already ready to pay a fair price even though he could just as easily have increased the orders through his factors and not bothered with such local trivia.

Josh also knew any number of local farmers who raised two or three bales of cotton. If they had to spend $125 each for a cotton gin and then pay the costs of individual marketing, they could not have covered costs. Yet, there was good Ole Jefferson Venable, and the two or three other such worthies, ready to gin the cotton for a fair service charge of 9 or 10 per cent and market it with his own large crop to insure a fair price for his poorer neighors. No one ever accused Ole Jeff of trying to make a dollar off his neighbors. On the contrary, he was quick to send food and supplies to help someone down-and-out. And everyone saw how he sent a few of his hands to help a sick neighbor get in his small crop when everything hung in the balance. If it were not for Ole Jeff and a few others like him, how many of the poorer farmers could make it?

Jefferson and others like him would even hire on the sons of neighbors, giving them odd jobs that might lead to more. One could become an overseer, often a stepping stone to one’s own plantation. If a yeoman had a good year or two and found a deal, he might buy a slave. Should that slave not have immediate work, then the planter would “rent him for a year.” If a farmer ended up with a bumper crop and needed extra labor at a cash-poor time, one of the Jefferson Venables of the area would send a slave over to rent.

And everyone remembered how the local planters sent their slaves to throw up houses for new settlers and did everything possible to get them started.

Put yourself in the shoes of a Joshua Venable. The area’s Jeffersons might not make you feel like quite an equal, but they’ve gone out of their way to help you out and support you. Why would you see them as enemies? Furthermore, since so much of what they did involved using slave labor directly, or indirectly, on your behalf wouldn’t you associate their patronage closely with their slavery?

Even without the planters to serve as patrons, protectors, and role models, it made perfect sense to tie one’s aspirations to future slaveholding. White hands might decide to try somewhere else in a year. They could hare off to Texas or Arkansas. They would demand treatment that slaves could not. Should one find white labor that would not go off to greener pastures and would work as hard as a slave, then even after winning the labor lottery you still needed more hands than the local white population could supply. One would inevitably look to slavery, a fixed fact of life for as long as anyone could remember, as the way to get ahead. Thus one would stand ready, if perhaps not always eager

to ride patrol, to help discipline the slaves, and to take part in the political and police aspects of the slave regime-in short, to think and act life slaveholders even before becoming one. That many were motivated by racism, sadism, or a penchant for putting-on-dog is undeniable. But even without those pleasantries, the path of social duty emerged as the path of self-interest.

It doesn’t take false consciousness or foolishness to arrive at that conclusion and consequently stand ready to fight to save slavery. It would even, necessarily, require ubiquitous racism. The advantages of the system in itself would make converts and produce the racism to order. A poor farmer did not have precisely the same stake in the system as a great enslaver did, but their social, cultural, political, and economic interests all closely aligned.

Genovese’s example concerned poor farmers in the plantation belt. They could hold in the upcountry with fewer slaves. Raw racism may play a larger role, as the undeveloped upcountry with its mostly white populations often understood that the presence of planters meant also the presence of slaves. They’d rather have neither than both, a position not that far from that of some Kansas free state men. If the upcountry men disliked having planters, a species of outsider, dictate to them then they disliked Yankee dictation all the more and might understand further integration with the nation by internal improvements and the resulting commercial intercourse. That could bring the slaves in, and had helped bring them to former upcountry tracts in the past.

But the upcountry white belts did, ultimately, have weaker ties to the Confederate cause because of their smaller investment in and immersion with slavery. The more upcountry-style Border States did not secede. West Virginia bolted Virginia to come back. Sometimes fierce resistance erupted in Eastern Tennessee, western North Carolina, and elsewhere beyond slavery’s easy reach. If the South had men with little investment in the slave system, then they lived in those places. If such men fought routinely for the Confederacy, we would expect them to exhibit a high degree of loyalty to it. Yet instead we observe districts ranging from divided to actively rebellious just where we would expect the slavery-indifferent, easily fooled Confederate soldiers to appear most often.

A South Carolina artilleryman at Petersburg.

A South Carolina artilleryman at Petersburg.

I understand the desire to see one’s ancestors, personal or figurative, in only the best light, but it doesn’t make for good history. In the absence of clear evidence to the contrary, it seems far more reasonable to operate under the assumption that people of a time and place act within the general norms rather than against them. This holds true even before we consider the clear fact that the Confederacy made no secret of its purpose, but rather trumpeted it loudly. That alone ought to make it clear that men who signed on knew they fought for slavery and accepted the fact, but even if the Confederate leadership managed a remarkable conspiracy of silence and dissembling, as apologists imagine, the social, economic, and political patterns one sees in Genovese and elsewhere would make a powerful, if somewhat less quotable, case that most Confederates both knew they would and chose to fight and die for slavery.


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