The Social and Cultural Dynamics of Soldiering in Hood's Texas Brigade

Article excerpt

JUST BEFORE THE START OF THE BLOODY PENINSULA CAMPAIGN OF JUNE 1862, the soldiers of the Fourth Texas Infantry Regiment purchased a horse for General John Bell Hood, commander of what came to be known as Hood's Texas Brigade. Later, as the regiment assembled at dress parade, First Sergeant J. M. Bookman presented the horse to General Hood. "Sir: In behalf of the non-commissioned officers and privates ..., I present you this war-horse. He was selected and purchased by us for this purpose, not that we hoped by so doing to court your favor, but simply because we, as freemen and Texans, claim the ability to discern, and the right to reward, merit wherever it may be found. In you, sir, we recognize the soldier and the gentleman. In you we have found a leader whom we are proud to follow--a commander whom it is a pleasure to obey; and this horse we tender as a slight testimonial of our admiration." Moved by this gesture of deference and respect from his men, General Hood sprang into the saddle and promised to act as their "rallying point when the struggle came."(1)

These Texas soldiers--who soon earned a reputation as the toughest combat troops in Robert E. Lee's fabled Army of Northern Virginia--did not always behave so deferentially toward officers. In fact, when the Texas regiments came to Virginia, they clashed frequently with the Confederate government over the authority to select their own regimental and staff officers. The men of the Texas regiments claimed the right to veto any appointment that proved unacceptable to them. The Fourth Texas Regiment, for instance, refused to accept the assignment of Colonel R. T. P. Allen to lead their unit. He had been in camp for only a short while when several soldiers hoisted Allen onto his horse, and using switches, drove him "out of the regimental grounds amid the hoots and jeers of the boys"; and he "was never seen again."(2)

This study examines the social and cultural dynamics of leadership, command, and soldiering in Hood's Texas Brigade for clues to unravel the broader enigma of the antebellum southern social structure, particularly with regard to the place and status of plain folk, yeoman farmers, and other non-elite whites. Much of the literature about the antebellum South hinges on the long-standing debate over whether the Old South was an elitist slaveholding aristocracy or an agrarian plain-folk democracy.(3) The drift of many recent studies has been toward synthesis, arguing that antebellum society represented a hybrid of hierarchy and equality.(4) However, even studies that recognize the complexity and paradoxes of this society fall short as social history, because the class dynamic that they advance to link elite and commoner, rich and poor, is too one-sided. The planters' hegemony is a given. "The nonslaveholder," according to one historian, "was in a very passive, dependent position vis-a-vis the planter."(5) Studies based on the so-called republican synthesis also tend to infer yeoman values and ideas from the language and behavior of political elites; consequently, the social relation is seen from the top down, the capacity of plain folk to form their own lives is shortchanged, and thus the truly dynamic, interactive, and relational nature of power in the antebellum South has not been fully understood.(6)

The common soldiers of Hood's Texas Brigade fought the Civil War mainly on their own terms, defending and justifying their right to do so by drawing on a unique mix of ideological and cultural resources. Their conduct as soldiers combined beliefs about popular sovereignty and natural liberty with backcountry shaming rituals of social control, like the charivari, that were used to hold privates and officers alike to particular standards of conduct defined by the volunteer soldiers themselves. This essay examines how popular constitutional ideas and traditional forms of community action affected the performance of one of the elite fighting units in the Army of Northern Virginia. …