Author: Aaron Sheehan-Dean

an associate professor of history at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville
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Confederate Morale during the Civil War

Because the American Civil War (1861–1865) was fought between two popular democracies, the attitudes of the citizens of each country or region toward the war significantly shaped the course of the conflict. When citizens expressed enthusiasm for their cause it boosted the morale of their soldiers and assured the government that the public supported their policies. For a variety of reasons, historians have studied the morale of Southerners more closely than their Northern foes. First, of the South’s nine million people, four million were African Americans, who expressed little voluntary support for the Confederacy and instead sided strongly with the Union. Second, the pressures of war created great hardship for Southern civilians and this hardship depressed the morale of many. Even if it did not lead people to support reunion, it embittered them against the Confederate leadership, which they viewed as often incompetent or unsympathetic. Part of the attention focused on Southern morale is by virtue of Confederate defeat—since the Confederacy lost, perhaps the problem was a lack of support among its citizens. Although it is clear that Union military successes and the hardships generated by the war debilitated Southerners, historians are divided over the relationship of this trend to the war’s outcome. At many points during the conflict, Northern morale was as low or lower than that of the Confederates, yet the Union achieved victory nonetheless. For Virginians, tracking the changes in soldier and civilian morale are particularly challenging because the state contained such a broad spectrum of residents.

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Desertion (Confederate) during the Civil War

Desertion occurs when soldiers deliberately and permanently leave military service before their term of service has expired. During the American Civil War (1861–1865), both the Union and Confederate armies were plagued by deserters, whose absence depleted the strength of their respective forces. Historians traditionally have distinguished between “stragglers”—those soldiers who leave with the intention of returning—and deserters, who are absent without leave, or AWOL, for thirty days or more. The reasons soldiers left, meanwhile, included poor equipment, food, and leadership. Some acts of desertion have also been described as a form of political protest. Confederate Virginians fled military service at a rate of between 10 and 15 percent, more or less comparable to the desertion rate among Union troops, which stood between 9 and 12 percent. Prior to mid-1862, desertion was lightly punished if at all, but following the Confederate Conscription Act of April 1862, enforcement was often harsh and included execution.

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Virginia Soldiers (Confederate) during the Civil War

Approximately 155,000 Virginia men served in Confederate forces during the American Civil War (1861–1865). Another 32,000 served in Union forces; most of these came from the counties that today comprise the state of West Virginia, while a number of West Virginia troops were recruited from the neighboring states of Ohio and Pennsylvania. The total number of men eligible for military service in the state was 224,000. When those areas of Union-controlled Virginia are subtracted, the total drops to 174,000, making the enlistment rate in Confederate Virginia 89 percent. This represents a remarkable mobilization of resources and demonstrates how the Civil War represented an all-consuming experience for those who lived through it. Virginia sent more men to fight for the Confederacy than did any other state. Though Virginia soldiers served in all branches and participated in all theaters of war, a significant majority of them fought within the boundaries of their own state.

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Causes of Confederate Defeat in the Civil War

The surrender of Confederate general Robert E. Lee‘s Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, effectively ended the American Civil War (1861–1865). But why did Lee surrender? And why in the spring of 1865? Historians have argued over the answers to these questions since that day at Appomattox. Explanations for Confederate defeat in the Civil War can be broken into two categories: some historians argue that the Confederacy collapsed largely because of social divisions within Southern society, while others emphasize the Union’s military defeat of Confederate armies. These arguments are not mutually exclusive—no historian would deny that Southern society was riven by racial, class, gender, and regional antagonisms and, similarly, all historians recognize the enormous force brought to bear by Northern armies and the high casualties suffered by Confederate soldiers. Nonetheless, the disagreement has produced sharply different explanations for why the Civil War ended as it did.

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