Everyman's War: Confederate Enlistment in Civil War Virginia

By Sheehan-Dean, Aaron | Civil War History, March 2004 | Go to article overview

Everyman's War: Confederate Enlistment in Civil War Virginia


Sheehan-Dean, Aaron, Civil War History


On July 1, 1861, 150 artillery, cavalry, and infantry companies from Virginia, comprising 42,000 men, were accepted into service with the newly established army of the Confederate States of America. Given Virginians' reluctant approach to secession, this display of support for the Confederacy would have been unlikely even three months earlier. The speed and completeness of Virginia's shift from pro-Union to pro-secession and the breadth and depth of Virginians' commitment to the Confederacy over the ensuing four years demands a clear accounting of what elements inspired this participation. The process and patterns of enlistment in the state offer a valuable perspective on the decisions that Virginians made in 1861 and beyond. Incentives for enlistment varied over the course of the war, of course, hinging on personal issues like family status and needs, local politics, the military course of the war, and the presence and behavior of Union troops in the state. Despite these variables, quantitative analysis of several important aspects of motivation--residence, politics, wealth, and slaveholding--can clarify some of the key questions that scholars have asked about the Civil War. Did men from the mountainous Allegheny region withhold support from the Confederacy? How did slaveholding affect men's decision to join the army? Was the Civil War a "poor man's fight"? The results of a quantitative approach generate valuable insights into aggregate patterns of support for the Confederacy or Union and also provide a context for understanding the decisions individuals made about where to direct their national loyalties. (1)

The case of Virginia provides a valuable opportunity to analyze the relationship between socioeconomic and demographic factors and rates of enlistment. Because the state possessed a large population of nonslaveholders and had a long history of regionally distinct economic and political systems and vibrant two-party politics, it offered incentives for both pro-Confederate and pro-Union loyalties. Indeed, a sizeable group of Virginians rejected the Confederacy and formed the new Union state of West Virginia during the war. Across Virginia as a whole, however, and even in parts of West Virginia, Confederates successfully mobilized a very high proportion of eligible white men. They did so 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 advantages to living in a slave society. The pattern of enlistment in Civil War Virginia thus reveals the salience of material factors in spurring secession and support for the Confederacy.

Virginia unionists controlled the state secession convention from its opening in February into the early days of April. (2) On April 4, 1861, delegates considered and rejected secession, but news of the fight at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, on April 12 galvanized immediate secessionists, and opinion began to tilt in their direction. The decisive shift happened on April 15, when Lincoln called up 75,000 ninety-day men from across the country to help put down the "insurrection" in the Lower South. Virginia unionists interpreted Lincoln's actions as betrayal. All spring, they had negotiated in good faith with Republican officeholders and party leaders and had received assurances that Fort Sumter would be given up and the Lower South slowly drawn back into the Union. Instead, Lincoln's call for troops confirmed the worst fears of the immediate secessionists, whom unionists had denounced as being irresponsible. Now, the unionists looked irresponsible, blind to the treachery of the Republican administration. Worse still, Lincoln planned to raise an army to march south through Virginia. …

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