Why Confederates Fought: Family and Nation in Civil War Virginia

By Aaron Sheehan-Dean | Go to book overview

1 BUILDING THE PLAIN PEOPLE’S
CONFEDERACY JANUARY-JUNE 1861

It goes right hard for me to leave but I intend to hold to my company and
defend my Country and our consolation is if I have to be killed it will be in
defending my Country
.

—Robert Hooke, 1st Virginia Cavalry, April 20, 1861

Between 1861 and 1865, almost 70 percent of Virginia’s white men between the ages of fifteen and fifty served in Confederate forces. Calculating the figure using only those sections of Virginia controlled by the Confederacy, and thus reachable by enlistment and conscription agents, boosts the level to nearly 90 percent of eligible men.1 Virginia mobilized more than twice as many men as the northern average of 35 percent and exceeded the rates for many other Confederate states as well.2 The high rate of enlistment in Virginia was achieved across a diverse array of communities in spite of regional divisions that had prevailed in the antebellum period. The support white Virginians gave to the Confederacy reflected the considerable interest that they held in the social and economic institutions of antebellum southern life.

The broad pattern of mobilization in the state reveals that most white Virginians understood that they benefited from living in a slave society. Men from the mountains and the coast, rich and poor, slaveholders and nonslaveholders, urbanites and rural residents all pledged their lives to defend the antebellum South. Confederates successfully mobilized a very high proportion of eligible white men by drawing on those communities that profited from the economic development or the democratic politics of the late antebellum era. Residents who benefited from the slave economy, Virginia’s dynamic regional and national markets, or the political networks of antebellum Virginia proved willing to defend that world in its Confederate form. This included a large community of nonslaveholders, who perceived the advantages of living in a slave society. A deep commitment to preserving the social, political, and economic status quo of antebellum Virginia compelled men to support secession and enlist in Confederate armies.

From our current perspective, it is clear that conflicts over slavery caused the war. But this, most historians also admit, is not the same as explaining

-13-

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