Historians have only recently gained a detailed and reliable picture of who actually fought for the state during the war. Rather than the eighteen-year-old second sons long thought to have filled the ranks of the Civil War armies, Virginia soldiers were, on average, twenty-six years old; 55 percent of them were the heads of their respective households. The broad transfer of men from civilian to soldier life put huge new burdens on wives, mothers, and sisters, who were left to do the work that male heads of household had previously done in addition to all of their regular work. Most important, from the perspective of correcting old and inaccurate assumptions, the Civil War in Virginia was a rich man’s fight. Several recent studies have used quantitative evidence to demonstrate that wealthy men were overrepresented in the armed forces. Contrary to the notion that poor men did all the fighting, both aggregate data and individual sampling reveal that wealthy counties sent more men than poor counties did and that wealthy individuals were found at all levels of the service in greater proportion than within the population.
These same studies have also revealed that slave owners were also overrepresented in the armies. While one school of thought argues that slaveholders used their positions and wealth to avoid service, the evidence from Virginia shows that these men conceptualized the war as a threat to their property and future security and acted to protect both. The necessity of protecting slavery apparently extended beyond even the slaveholders themselves. When considering aggregate enlistment figures for Virginia, the best predictor of whether a county would enlist a high proportion of its men was not slaveholding itself, but the percent of the population enslaved. The more people held as slaves, the higher the enlistment figures. Counties in which more than 50 percent of the population was enslaved had very high enlistment rates, most well over 75 percent.
Experiences of War
Regardless of wealth or social status, enlisted men in Confederate armies shared a set of experiences. In Virginia, more than one-quarter of all soldiers were captured at some point during the war, some more than once. Many of these men were paroled at the end of a battle or campaign, but many others spent time in Union prisoner-of-war camps. A quarter of the men could expect to be wounded severely enough to have the incident reported. Ten percent died from disease and another five percent were killed outright during battles. Casualty figures for junior officers—lieutenants and captains—were even higher.
For all men, campaigns and battles meant constant hunger, dirt, and sickness. During the first year of the war, the low immunities nurtured in small Virginia communities before the war generated very high illness rates. Units assigned to the cold western reaches of the state were hit the hardest, with some reporting hundreds of men sick in single regiments. Perhaps the most difficult adjustment was psychological. Despite the diversity of cultural backgrounds from which soldiers came, most found the necessity to engage in violence and killing morally repugnant. For all soldiers, but especially for those reared in the Christian tradition, the aversion to killing manifested itself in a perpetual repugnance over what soldiers were called to do. Although Confederates wanted separation from the Union and, over time, they grew to resent and even hate Northerners, very few took any pleasure from the prospect of killing other men.
Similarly, nearly all soldiers shared an antipathy for the discipline necessary to keep the army organized. Historians have made much of the autonomous lives that most Virginia men lived prior to the war and drawn the assumption that they could not be reconciled to the demands of the army. Confederate soldiers may have seen the curtailment of their liberties that came with soldier life more sharply in comparison to the enslaved people among whom they lived, but there is little evidence that they resisted the discipline of the army any more than their Northern peers. What did distinguish Confederate soldiers was a closer initial attachment to their home communities. While most Union forces immediately left their homes to fight hundreds or thousands of miles away, Virginians usually fought within a day’s walk of their home regions. They visited, frequently exchanged letters, and generally kept open lines of communication with family members, which helped them remain attached to their homes. This changed significantly in 1864, when the siege of Petersburg forced on Confederates a grim and remorseless style of warfare that alienated them from civilian life.
The psychological and physical demands of war and extended separation from family compelled soldiers to carefully evaluate why they were fighting. Studies of Union soldiers have revealed the shift that occurred after U.S. president Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation following the Battle of Antietam in the autumn of 1862. Although few Northerners, and even fewer Virginians who fought for the North, were abolitionists at the start, many took pride in fighting to end slavery after 1863.
Likewise, the attitudes of Confederate Virginians toward the purpose of the war and their role in it changed over time. In 1861, a set of easily identifiable motives compelled high enlistment rates across the state. Most soldiers stressed their defense of Virginia and their homes from what they regarded as an invading army (even if that army was only traveling through Virginia to reach South Carolina, which initiated the conflict in April). Seventy percent of the men who served in Virginia units enlisted before April 1862. Many acted out of a sense of honor offended by the election of a Republican president hostile to slavery. Slaveholders understood that even if Lincoln were true to his word and did not attack slavery where it existed (and many accused him of concealing his true intentions on this topic), his party’s vow to block the expansion of slavery and its clear denunciation of the practice presaged a doubtful future for the institution.
Within Virginia, enlistment rates add statistical weight to an analysis long made by scholars of the war: social pressure played an important role in compelling men to join. Community leaders, teachers, wives, and girlfriends encouraged, prodded, or shamed Virginia’s men into volunteering for Confederate service. Quantitative evidence reveals that the smaller a community, the higher its enlistment rates; small places, where every eligible man was known to his neighbors by sight, offered no place to hide. Richmond, Petersburg, Alexandria, and other bona fide cities provided more anonymity and thus saw lower rates. Entering the service was only half the battle. The vast majority of Virginia soldiers enlisted for twelve-month terms, longer than Lincoln’s call for ninety-day volunteers, but still not long enough to establish Confederate independence.
A smaller set of motivations emerged within the state over the course of the conflict. The early martial enthusiasm spurred by parades and celebrations as men left in 1861 was replaced with a deeper and more sustaining faith in the Confederate nation. Soldiers were not uncritical of their new nation, but they understood that it promised the best protection of those aspects of their pre-war lives that they most valued. Confederate nationalism has been a topic of intense debate among historians, but recent studies indicate that a broad cross section of the white population identified the Confederacy as their country and perceived it as a viable entity.
In Virginia, support for the Confederacy, which demanded that soldiers remain in the army long after their original twelve-month contract ended, overlapped nearly perfectly with a defense of the state and of soldiers’ home communities. Studies of North Carolina suggest that in some cases soldiers from that state responded to pleas from their families by deserting and returning home. Although some of Virginia’s deserters may have left for a similar reason, the available evidence on desertion does not allow such clear conclusions about Virginia. Instead, soldiers came to identify the army as the most important mechanism for protecting their families, both in the immediate term as Union troops advanced through the state and over the longer term because of the importance of independence from the Union and the preservation of slavery.
Virginia soldiers stayed in the army because of their families. They did this partly because of the effects of the Union’s hard war on the state and their home communities. The Union policy of attacking Confederate resources had the desired effect of weakening Confederate armies to the point of collapse, but it did little to endear the Union to Virginians or inspire confidence in the U.S. government after the war. Instead, the Union’s hard-war policies catalyzed all the reasons that Virginians had left the Union in the first place and encouraged them to sustain resistance for four long, bloody years.