Early in the war … a Union squad closed in on a single ragged Confederate, and he obviously didn’t own any slaves. He couldn’t have much interest in the Constitution or anything else. And said: “What are you fighting for, anyhow?” they asked him. And he said: “I’m fighting because you’re down here.” Which is a pretty satisfactory answer.
That excerpt is from Ken Burns’ epic The Civil War (1990) docuseries, Episode 1, “The Cause.” It was delivered by the avuncular Shelby Foote in his soft, reassuring—some might say mellifluous—cadence, the inflection decorated with a pronounced but gentle southern accent. As professor of history James M. Lundberg complains, Foote, author of a popular Civil War trilogy who was himself not a historian, “nearly negates Burns’ careful 15-minute portrait of slavery’s role in the coming of the war with a 15-second” anecdote. Elsewhere, Foote rebukes the scholarly consensus that slavery was the central cause for secession and the conflict it spawned that would take well over 600,000 American lives.
While all but die-hard “Lost Cause” myth fanatics have relegated Foote’s ill-conceived dismissal of the centrality of slavery to the dustbin of history, the notion that southern soldiers fought solely for home and hearth has long persisted, even among historians. And on the face of it, it seems as if it should be true. After all, secession was the work of a narrow slice of the antebellum south, the slave-owning planter class which only comprised less than two percent of the population but dominated the political elite, in fury that Lincoln’s election by “Free-Soil” Republicans would likely deny their demands to transplant their “peculiar institution” to the new territories acquired in the Mexican War. More critically, three-quarters of southerners owned no slaves at all, and nearly ninety per cent of the remainder owned twenty or fewer. Most whites lived at the margins as yeoman farmers, although their skin color ensured a status markedly above those of blacks, free or enslaved. The Confederate army closely reflected that society: most rebel soldiers were not slaveowners. So slavery could not have been important to them … or could it?
The first to challenge the assumption that Civil War soldiers, north or south, were political agnostics was James M. McPherson in What They Fought For 1861-1865 (1995). Based on extensive research on letters written home from the front, McPherson argued that most of those in uniform were far more ideological than previously acknowledged. In a magnificent contribution to the historiography, Colin Edward Woodward goes much further in Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army During the Civil War (2014), presenting compelling evidence that not only were most gray-clad combatants well-informed about the issues at stake, but a prime motivating force for a majority was to preserve the institution of human chattel bondage and the white supremacy that defined the Confederacy.
Like McPherson, Woodward does a deep dive into the wealth of still extant letters from those at the front to make his case in a deeply researched and well-written narrative that reveals that the average rebel was surprisingly well-versed in the greater issues manifested in the debates that launched an independent Confederacy and justified the blood and treasure being spent to sustain it. And just as in secession, the central focus was upon preserving a society that had its foundation in chattel slavery and white supremacy. Some letters were penned by those who left enslaved human beings—many or just a few—back at home with their families when they marched off to fight, while most were written by poor dirt farmers who had no human property nor the immediate prospect of obtaining any.
But what is fully astonishing, as Woodward exposes in the narrative, is not only how frequently slavery and the appropriate status for African Americans is referenced in such correspondence, but how remarkably similar the language is, whether the soldier is the son of a wealthy planter or a yeoman farmer barely scraping by. In nearly every case, the righteousness of their cause is defined again and again not by the euphemism of “states’ rights” that became the rallying cry of “Lost Cause” after the war, but by the sanctity of the institution of human bondage. More than once, letters resound with a disturbing yet familiar refrain that asserted that the most fitting condition for blacks is as human property, something seen as mutually beneficial to the master as well as to the enslaved.
If those without slaves risking life and limb to sustain slavery with both musket in hand and zealous declarations in letters home provokes a kind of cognitive dissonance to modern ears, we need only be reminded of our own contemporaries in doublewides who might sound the most passionate defense of Wall Street banks. Have-nots in America often aspire to what is beyond their reach, for themselves or for their children. For poor southern whites of the time, in and out of the Confederate army, that turns out to be slave property.
One of the greatest sins of postwar reconciliation and the tenacity of the “Lost Cause” was the erasure of African Americans from history. In the myth-making that followed Appomattox, with human bondage extinct and its practice widely reviled, the Civil War was transformed into a sectional war of white brother against white brother, and blacks were relegated to roles as bit players. The centrality of slavery was excised from the record. In the literature, blacks were generally recalled as benign servants loyal to their masters, like the terrified Prissy in Gone with the Wind screeching “De Yankees is comin!” in distress rather than the celebration more likely characteristic to that moment in real time. That a half million of the enslaved fled to freedom in Union lines was lost to memory. Also forgotten was the fact that by the end of the war, fully ten percent of the Union Army was comprised of black soldiers in the United States Colored Troops (USCT)—and these men played a significant role in the south’s defeat. Never mentioned was that Confederate soldiers routinely executed black men in blue uniforms who were wounded or attempting to surrender, not only in well-known encounters like at Fort Pillow and the Battle of the Crater, but frequently and anonymously. As Woodward reminds us, this brand of murder was often unofficial, but rarely acknowledged, and almost never condemned. Only recently have these aspects of Civil War history received the attention that is their due.
And yet, more remarkably, Marching Masters reveals that perhaps the deepest and most enduring erasure of African Americans was of the huge cohort that accompanied the Confederate army on its various campaigns throughout the war. Thousands and thousands of them. “Lost Cause” zealots have imagined great corps of “Black Confederates” who served as fighters fending off Yankee marauders, but if that is fantasy—and it certainly is—the massive numbers of blacks who served as laborers alongside white infantry were not only real but represented a significant reason why smaller forces of Confederates held out as well as they did against their often numerically superior northern opponents. We have long known that a greater percentage of southerners were able to join the military than their northern counterparts because slave labor at home in agriculture and industry freed up men to wield saber and musket, but Woodward uncovers the long-overlooked legions of the enslaved who travelled with the rebels performing the kind of labor that (mostly) fell on white enlisted men in northern armies.
A segment of these were also personal servants to the sons of planters, which sometimes provoked jealousy among the ranks. Certain letters home plead for just such a servile companion, sometimes arguing that the enslaved person would be less likely to flee to Union lines if he was to be a cook in an army camp instead! And there were occasionally indeed tender if somewhat perversely paternalistic bonds between the homesick soldier and the enslaved, some of which found wistful expression in letters, some manifested in relationships with servants in the encampments. Many soldiers had deep attachments to the enslaved that nurtured them as children in the bosom of their families; some of that was sincerely reciprocated. Woodward makes it clear that while certain generalities can be drawn, every individual—soldier or chattel—was a human being capable of a wide range of actions and emotions, from the cruel to the heartwarming. For better or for worse, all were creatures of their times and their circumstances. But, at the end of the day, white soldiers had something like free will; enslaved African Americans were subject to the will of others, sometimes for the better but more often for the worse.
And then there was impressment. One of the major issues relatively unexplored in the literature is the resistance of white soldiers in the Confederate army to perform menial labor—the same tasks routinely done by white soldiers in the Union army, who grumbled as all those in the ranks in every army were wont to do while nevertheless following orders. But southern boys were different. Nurtured in a society firmly grounded in white supremacy, with chattel property doomed to the most onerous toil, rebels not only typically looked down upon hard work but—as comes out in their letters—equated it with “slavery.” To cope with this and an overall shortage of manpower, legislation was passed in 1863 mandating impressment of the enslaved along with a commitment of compensation to owners. This was not well received, but yet enacted, and thousands more blacks were sent to camps to do the work soldiers were not willing to do.
The numbers were staggering. When Lee invaded Pennsylvania, his army included 6000 enslaved blacks—which added an additional ten percent to the 60,000 infantry troops he led to Gettysburg! This of course does not include the runaways and free blacks his forces seized and enslaved after he crossed the state line. The point to all of this, of course, is that slavery was not some ideological abstraction for the average rebel soldier in the ranks, something that characterized the home front, whether your own family were owners of chattel property or not. Instead, the enslaved were with you in the field every day, not figuratively but in the flesh. With this in mind, sounding a denial that slavery served as a critical motivation for Confederate troops rings decidedly off-key.
While slavery was the central cause of the war, it was certainly not the only cause. There were other tensions that included agriculture vs. industry, rural vs. urban, states’ rights vs. central government, tariffs, etc. But as historians have long concluded, none of these factors on their own could ever have led to Civil War. Likewise, southern soldiers fought for a variety of reasons. While plenty were volunteers, many were also drafted into the war effort. Like soldiers from ancient times to the present day, they fought because they were ordered to, because of their personal honor, because they did not want to appear cowardly in the eyes of their companions. And because much of the war was decided on southern soil, they also fought for their homeland, to defend their families, to preserve their independence. So Shelby Foote might have had a point. But what was that independence based upon? It was fully and openly based upon creating and sustaining a proud slave republic, as all the rhetoric in the lead-up to secession loudly underscored.
Marching Masters argues convincingly that the long-held belief that southern soldiers were indifferent to or unacquainted with the principles that guided the Confederate States of America is in itself a kind of myth that encourages us to not only forgive those who fought for a reprehensible cause but to put them on a kind of heroic pedestal. Many fought valiantly, many lost their lives, and many were indeed heroes, but we must not overlook the cause that defined that sacrifice. In this, we must recall the speech delivered by the formerly enslaved Frederick Douglass on “Remembering the Civil War” with his plea against moral equivalency that is as relevant today as it was when he delivered it on Decoration Day in 1878: “There was a right side and a wrong side in the late war, which no sentiment ought to cause us to forget, and while today we should have malice toward none, and charity toward all, it is no part of our duty to confound right with wrong, or loyalty with treason.”
For all of the more than 60,000 books on the Civil War, there still remains a great deal to explore and much that has long been cloaked in myth for us to unravel. It is the duty not only of historians but for all citizens of our nation—a nation that was truly reborn in that tragic, bloody conflict—to set aside popular if erroneous notions of what led to that war, as well as what motivated its long-dead combatants to take up arms against one another. To that end, Woodward’s Marching Masters is a book that is not only highly recommended but is most certainly required reading.
Transcript of The Civil War (1990) docuseries, Episode 1, “The Cause:” https://subslikescript.com/series/The_Civil_War-98769/season-1/episode-1-The_Cause
Comments by James M. Lundberg: https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/06/civil-war-sentimentalism/240082/
Speech by Frederick Douglass, “Remembering the Civil War,” delivered on Decoration Day 1878: https://www.americanyawp.com/reader/reconstruction/frederick-douglass-on-remembering-the-civil-war-1877/