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.


Enslaved Population in Virginia

The key division in the state before the war was between westerners and easterners. Residents of the two regions disagreed over taxes, state internal improvements policy, universal manhood suffrage, slavery, and other issues. During the Civil War, this divide did not replicate itself perfectly—many westerners fought in Confederate units—but the trans-Appalachian region held many more Unionists than other parts of the state. These Virginians opposed the Confederacy and so their morale generally followed the fortunes of Union armies invading the state. As Union troops made their way into western Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley in 1861, the hopes of Virginia’s Unionists rose. Union forces retained control of much of Virginia west of the Valley for the remainder of the war but they exercised loose control and the result was persistent guerrilla conflict and violence among residents of the region. As a result, morale in the West (among both Unionists and Confederates) hardened into a bitterness that sustained them through the conflict but did little to bring them together.

Self-Emancipated Blacks Behind Union Lines

Black Virginians expressed strong support for the Union, and their morale, like that of white Unionists, followed the success of Union armies. As the Union seized the counties of the Eastern Shore, the peninsula below Richmond, and the area around Norfolk, black residents welcomed Union troops. Whenever they fell back, black morale plummeted but many thousands of enslaved African Americans fled to freedom in Union contraband camps in southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina. Their strong support for the Union war effort, and the intelligence they provided Union troops on the march throughout the state, proved crucial to advancing the Union cause in Virginia.


Jackson's Army in Winchester

The attitudes of Confederate civilians fluctuated in opposition to those of Unionists in the state. For Confederates, Union military advances spurred anger and soul-searching while each Confederate victory deepened their faith in ultimate victory and spurred enthusiasm for sustaining the war. The experiences in Winchester illustrate the dynamic nature of morale in the state. The northern Shenandoah Valley town was divided between Unionists and Confederates who traded civilian control whenever military control of the region changed hands. Having suffered under Union occupation since late in 1861, Confederates in the town were jubilant when Confederate general Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson‘s troops liberated the area. “Thanks be to the Lord, we are free!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” declared one eager young Confederate.

Because Confederate troops had more success in keeping Union troops at bay in the state, Confederate morale stayed reasonably high into mid-1864. Until that point, the Rappahannock–Rapidan River line had served as a de facto boundary, in eastern Virginia, between Union and Confederate control. Ulysses S. Grant‘s successful Overland Campaign (1864) against Robert E. Lee pushed Confederate troops south to Petersburg and demonstrated to Virginia Confederates that their soldiers were not invincible. After this, the steady advance of Union troops—up the Peninsula toward Richmond, up the Shenandoah Valley, and into the southwestern corner of Virginia, all depressed Confederate spirits in the state.

Confederate Flag Apron

Confederate morale also responded to the policies of the Richmond government. At the start of the war, Confederate leaders worked hard to inspire a strong sense of national loyalty to the new government. A national seal, motto, and new flag were designed, all harkening back to American traditions to which Confederates had long been attached. As writers and government leaders emphasized the spirit of shared sacrifice that bound the Confederacy together, cultural elements continued to play an important role in boosting morale among both civilians and soldiers. Against this positive force, Confederate policies—especially the draft, impressment, and tax-in-kind—often worked to depress morale. Although citizens understood that these policies were designed to give the state the tools it needed to repel Union forces, they often resented what they saw as excessive centralization of authority in Richmond and unwarranted intrusions on state and personal property. Impressment, which allowed the Confederate government to seize supplies from citizens with only the increasingly worthless national currency as compensation, was particularly galling because the high prices of goods made foodstuffs the most precious commodity.

Angry Confederate civilians complained to their state and national representatives, including Confederate president Jefferson Davis himself, and while their letters often reflect dissatisfaction with government policies, they also reflect a faith that the Confederate government would be able to remedy the problem. Those letters, and that faith, were running out early in 1865 as Union forces tightened their hold on Petersburg and Richmond. Confederate morale had clearly dropped from the early optimism of 1861 and the steely resolve and confidence of early in 1863, but, in large measure, that drop in morale came because of battlefield losses, not the other way around.

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APA Citation:
Sheehan-Dean, Aaron. Confederate Morale during the Civil War. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/confederate-morale-during-the-civil-war.
MLA Citation:
Sheehan-Dean, Aaron. "Confederate Morale during the Civil War" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 17 Apr. 2024
Last updated: 2020, December 07
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