Who Joined the Confederate Army? Soldiers, Civilians, and Communities in Mississippi

Article excerpt

There is no shortage of testimony explaining southerners' decision to join the Confederate army. Civil War soldiers were as voluble about their reasons for enlisting as they were about their wartime experiences, and historians have found central themes in soldiers' reasons for going to war. Soldiers on both sides often simply echoed their leaders' justifications for the war, but beneath Confederate soldiers' political rhetoric lay a deeper, more personal concern for their society's racial equilibrium: the fear of life with the bottom rail on top echoes through southerners' explanations of why they were in the army. (1)

This motivation for southerners' enlistment is a considerable aid in understanding their later experiences. The fear of racial chaos turned against the Confederacy as it became clear that the government could not preserve white supremacy; massive desertion was one tangible result. (2) The double-edged nature of racist fears also helps us to understand what some historians see as the South's failure of will during the war: southern whites' commitment to some form of white supremacy may have remained unshaken even as they withdrew support from the government they had trusted with the preservation of slavery. (3)

Soldiers' stated reasons for going to war are therefore instructive, but there is still more that we can learn from the act of joining the Confederate army. It is impossible to ignore, for example, the importance of sheer numbers as a measure of the Confederacy's commitment to the war. To be sure, there is disagreement about the total number of men who joined the Confederate army and about the number of casualties, but even the low estimates demonstrate an impressive initial devotion to the cause. The majority of southern military-age males joined the army, a much larger proportion than served in the North, and more than a quarter-million died, or one in five of the South's entire military-age population. (4) These figures say nothing about why southerners fought, but the enlistment rates clearly show broad early support, and the casualty figures suggest a considerable willingness to sacrifice for the Confederacy.

Data on enlistments can answer other questions as well. Since the war began less than a year after the federal census of 1860, it is possible to identify the characteristics of many Confederate soldiers by linking the census to military records. Perhaps more important, it is also possible to find the characteristics of those who did not serve, and to compare soldiers with noncombatants. Historians have already made a few of these comparisons: one sample of military records shows a higher percentage of farmers in Confederate units than in the census; a study of three Georgia counties indicates that wealthy planters avoided service, whereas an examination of a North Carolina county shows equal enlistments among planters and others; a comparison of Union and Confederate soldiers in a Virginia county finds class differences in enlistments, as poor farmers joined planters' sons to fight against middle-class Union soldiers; and a study of another North Carolina county reveals considerable variation in enlistments from community to community. (5)

These studies suggest the complexity of the enlistment decision and the importance of local circumstances in making the decision, but their comparisons of individual soldiers and non-soldiers do not extend beyond localities. This essay focuses on enlistments throughout a southern state, using enlistees' testimony as well as the characteristics of potential soldiers to shed more light on the nature of local circumstance and on the reasons some individuals fought and others did not. Mississippi's characteristics and wartime experience make it an especially promising subject, since it embodied many of the forces that generated both support for and disaffection from the South's cause.

Support for secession was overwhelming in Mississippi, and it was the second state to leave the Union. …