Why Confederates Fought: Family and Nation in Civil War Virginia

By Aaron Sheehan-Dean | Go to book overview

2 A NATION OF THEIR OWN
JULY 1861-MARCH 1862

Now is the time for every true & patriotic spirit to rally ‘round the
Bonnie Blue Flag & fight & never cease to fight while there is an enemy
South of Mason’s & Dixon’s line
.

—James R. McCutchan, 14th Virginia Cavalry, March 19, 1862

Virginians had barely grasped the idea of secession and the prospect of building a new nation when they flung themselves into war. Tens of thousands of Virginia men volunteered in April, May, and June, and these new soldiers were joined by thousands more from other Confederate states sent to Virginia where everyone assumed the war, if it came, would be fought. It came soon, as Confederate soldiers battled Union troops in western and central Virginia from late May until late September. The fighting established the physical boundaries of Confederate Virginia, with much of the trans-Allegheny region controlled by Federal soldiers and their local Unionist allies, while central Virginia remained firmly within the orbit of the Richmond government. During late 1861 and early 1862, another fight occurred that helped establish the ideological boundaries of the Confederacy. The debate over conscription forced Confederates to spell out the terms of loyalty to the new nation and to clarify the penalties for those who did not follow them. Soldiers and their families played crucial roles in these exercises, resisting the Union advance in the West, driving Federals from the plains of Manassas, and accommodating themselves to the new rules of military service.

The experiences of 1861 and early 1862 forced Confederates to confront the prospect of a longer and more unpredictable war. Military defeats in South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia contradicted the narrative of inevitable victory. In northwestern Virginia, Confederates faced able U.S. troops and hostile Unionist civilians and suffered under ineffective leadership, illness, and dissension in their own ranks. The Confederacy’s heavy-handed efforts to solve the manpower problems alienated many loyal citizens. Virginians debated the nature of military service and conscription more carefully than they had when they entered the war during the wave of martial celebrations that filled the state in April and May 1861. As a result, they

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