Why Confederates Fought: Family and Nation in Civil War Virginia

By Aaron Sheehan-Dean | Go to book overview

6 * THE COST OF INDEPENDENCE
JANUARY-JUNE 1864

There is no way to whip them but kill them all.
—John Herbert Clairborne, May 14, 1864

In 1864 a renewed battle for control of Virginia occurred. The Union army, after following Lee’s army back into northern Virginia in mid-1863, camped on the north bank of the Rapidan

River. The battles of 1864 all took place south of this point, subjecting Virginia citizens again to the destructive presence of both armies and battles. The Army of the Potomac subsequently pushed Lee’s Confederates back to the defensive confines of Petersburg, twenty miles south of Richmond. This action, dubbed the “Overland” campaign, generated the highest number of casualties and the greatest attention from observers of any episode in the war. Often overshadowed by the bloody fighting in eastern Virginia, the 1864 campaigns in the Shenandoah Valley captured in microcosm the experiences of Virginia civilians and soldiers as the war reached its climax. Invasion, occupation, redemption, and loss characterized the unpredictable and harrowing year in the Valley. The Union campaigns, which targeted civilians and their resources all across the state and blurred the distinction between battlefront and home front, reinforced Virginians’ sense that defense of family and defense of country were the same.

Arguing for Confederate optimism in 1864, in the face of rising prices, increasing scarcity of vital goods, and the continued pressure of several Union armies, seems counterintuitive. We know today that the war’s end lay only a year away; surely, Virginians must have seen that as well? Few Confederates possessed such foresight, for reasons both rational and irrational. The high tide of Confederate nationalism and hope that crested in mid-summer 1864 drew on a realistic assessment of Confederates’ martial capabilities and on a blind belief in the righteousness of their cause. Southerners drew confidence from the military victories won by Confederate armies and from the real interests that spurred the fight for independence. The battles of 1863 showed that Confederates could ably defend their own land, and most people expected a repeat of the events at Chancellorsville if the Union invaded again. The Confederate will to fight was also bolstered by a romantic nationalism,

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