Why Confederates Fought: Family and Nation in Civil War Virginia

By Aaron Sheehan-Dean | Go to book overview

Introduction
CHOOSING WAR

Despite the massive volume of writing on the American Civil War, one of the fundamental questions about it continues to bedevil us. Why did nonslaveholders sacrifice so much to build a slave republic? Nonslaveholders’ commitment was not marginal; they formed the vast majority of soldiers who fought on behalf of the Confederacy. Nor was slavery a tangential concern to the conflict; the political debate over slavery and its expansion drove the North and South to arms, and the shift to emancipation by the North ensured a desolating war. Though relatively brief in comparison to other nineteenth-century wars, the Civil War generated catastrophic losses for both sides. What facilitated the level of division and destruction witnessed in this war? In what follows, I answer this question by exploring the inspirations that compelled Confederate soldiers into the war and sustained them in the face of horrific losses. Inspirations is not too strong or romantic a word; southern white men felt moved to enlist by a host of personal, familial, communal, religious, and national obligations. Similarly, the decision to reenlist or remain in service was not undertaken lightly. Southern men drew on a variety of motivations when they considered why they needed to resist the North’s efforts to recreate the Union. Understanding how those motivations developed offers insight into what leads human beings to support a war and fight in it.

Despite the increasing cost of the war to southern civilians and soldiers, white Virginians grew increasingly committed to the Confederacy and to the Confederate war goals of establishing independence and maintaining slavery. This study explains that seemingly contrary interpretation. It focuses on soldiers and their families, tracing the evolving motivations that inspired the war and prolonged the fighting. My goal has been to analyze how men understood the purpose of the war and how those understandings changed over time.

White Virginians did not enter the war out of a sense of deference to the slaveholding elite who composed the state’s political leadership. Instead, Virginia Confederates entered the war with a host of overlapping motivations, including a defense of home, a belief in state rights, and a desire to protect slavery. An independent Confederacy promised the perpetuation of

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