Why Confederates Fought: Family and Nation in Civil War Virginia

By Aaron Sheehan-Dean | Go to book overview

5 THE FAMILY WAR
JANUARY-DECEMBER 1863

I had an idea of resigning some time ago, but I have come to
the conclusion that the Yankees are too close by Home to resign
.

—John Peter Jones, 56th Virginia Infantry, May 27, 1863

As the Civil War entered its third year, military fortunes and home front conditions assumed a curiously inverted relationship. At the start of 1863, the Federal army was recovering from its debilitating defeat at Fredericksburg and confined to the northeastern corner of the state, while Confederates relished their recent victory. By contrast, civilian hardship and suffering in Virginia reached its wartime apogee in the winter of 1862–63.1 In May 1863 Confederates scored a stunning victory over the Yankees at Chancellorsville, just outside Fredericksburg, and then moved north once again. Although the Confederates did not achieve the tactical or strategic success they sought in the ensuing Pennsylvania campaign, their departure brought much-needed logistical relief to the state. As military fortunes declined, then, home front conditions improved. The contrasting experiences of war in Virginia weighed heavily on soldiers, who maintained connections to both the civilian and military worlds. The challenge of the year would be how soldiers balanced the competing interests and experiences of their two worlds.

Nearly two years of war in northern and central Virginia thoroughly denuded the region of crops, livestock, and residents, many of whom had fled south to Richmond. Throughout the state, enslaved Virginians seized on the chaos of war, and the opportunity offered by the Union’s increasing interest in fostering emancipation, to push against the bonds of slavery, or to break them altogether. The harder the North fought to destroy slavery, the harder the Confederacy sought to protect it. The challenge of defending slavery and controlling slaves demanded aggressive measures from individuals and government at all levels, many of which angered citizens unaccustomed to an invasive state. People across Virginia, and across the Confederacy, began to express their discontent with their national government’s policies in more public ways. Ironically, citizen’s objections and protests revealed the success of the national project. By 1863 most white southerners expected their new

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