Why Confederates Fought: Family and Nation in Civil War Virginia

By Aaron Sheehan-Dean | Go to book overview
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We never can keep up an army as long as men run off as they have been doing.
I think some of them will very likely be shot for desertion

—John Neff 33rd Virginia Infantry, August 4, 1862

The battles on the Peninsula shifted the momentum of the war away from the Federals who had initiated the campaign to the Confederates who ended it. Lee began moving his army north, first through central Virginia and then into Maryland. The battle along Antietam Creek in September, with its enormous losses and the repulse of the Confederate counteroffensive, surprised the hardened veterans, but only slightly dampened the optimism of the summer. The fighting season did not end as the leaves changed colors, but nonmilitary concerns bore down on men in uniform, as families and communities prepared for another winter. Scarcity of food and manpower threatened parts of Virginia that winter, and many soldiers struggled with how and where they could best protect their families. The year’s final battle, at the town of Fredericksburg, encapsulated the contradictory trends of the year. Confederates won an overwhelming military victory, but the brief Union occupation left the town a wasteland and drove many residents to flee.

The events of the second half of 1862 contradicted the forces that motivated men earlier in the year. The reluctance of men to accept military rules and the hardships of the offensive campaign into Maryland led to a dramatic rise in the number of desertions. Soldiers’ exposure to killing and bloodshed alienated them from the values of home, but the Union’s hard-war tactics created a shared experience of suffering and hardship between soldiers and civilians. Although the North did not develop its full policy of destroying Confederate resources until 1864, the outlines of such a policy were already visible in central Virginia, and the result was less food to divide among hungry Confederates.

These events and the trends they produced forced Virginians to clarify still further their reasons for opposing the Union army. Their decisions to continue supporting the Confederacy were by no means certain, and not all Virginians did in any event, but the last months of the year proved to be a


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Why Confederates Fought: Family and Nation in Civil War Virginia
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