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Andrew Menfi

Committed to the End: Confederate Soldier Combat Motivation in the Final Days of the Confederacy

In his wartime diary on January 1st 1865, Private Henry Robinson Berkeley of the Confederate Army lamented the coming of the New Year. Berkeley had much to anguish over, for over the preceding months the Confederacy had suffered a miserable string of disasters, rendering the cause of Southern independence all but hopeless. Union forces had overrun the Confederate strongholds of Atlanta and Savanna, and had put the capital of Richmond under a desperate siege. The Federals also had all but destroyed the Confederate Army of the Tennessee in December, the second largest Southern fighting force in the field. Confederate supplies and troop strength stood at an all-time low, while desertions were at an all-time high. On a more personal level, Berkeley had suffered the life of a nineteenth-century soldier for four years; living in miserable conditions, experiencing the horrors of combat, and seeing friends die before his eyes. It was for these reasons that on January 1st 1865, Berkeley grieved in his diary, "The old year is gone with all its hopes, sorrows, losses, trials, dangers, sufferings, bloody battles and still more bloody heartaches and anxieties. ...The future looks gloomy, and almost hopeless. I wonder if I shall live to see 1866." Berkeley, like most Southern soldiers at that point in time, believed the Southern cause to be almost certainly lost.

Despite these circumstances, the thought of desertion never came up in Berkeley's diary, because for him it was never an option. Two days later, Berkeley received the first piece of good news in a long time: his commanding officer gave him permission to visit home on a furlough. Berkeley had the opportunity to remain at home and abandon his commitment to the Confederate army. Thousands of Confederate soldiers were deserting; many had gone home on furlough and simply had not returned. It was certainly understandable for Berkeley to do the same. Berkeley admitted that his cause was lost and he knew that he might certainly lose his life for nothing concrete if he remained in service. However, Berkeley's motivation, although intangible, was powerful enough for him to continue to fight. The day before he returned to the front, Berkeley wrote, "Many sad and hopeless thoughts [were] running through my active mind. Tomorrow I leave for the army under the darkest auspices I have ever done. I have but one wish, that is, that I may have courage, strength and grace, in this coming campaign, to do my whole duty to my God, my country and my fellow man. If I must fall, I want to fall at my post of duty." Berkeley believed that the Confederacy was going to lose, but he returned to service and remained until war's end because he believed that it was his duty to do so and that his honor was at stake.

Private Henry Berkeley was representative of the thousands of Confederate soldiers who fought in the final months of the American Civil War; they chose to keep fighting out of a higher commitment to duty and honor. Though thousands of soldiers deserted when the cause seemed lost, thousands more chose, remarkably, to remain in service. Despite the hardship that Confederate soldiers experienced and the clear signs in the final months that victory was impossible, their dedication to these tenets of ideology overrode any practical expectation of military victory. Although other motivations certainly influenced Confederate soldiers, they most commonly stressed duty and honor over other factors for remaining in service.

Understanding this motivational underpinning is significant because it reveals much about nineteenth-century Southern culture. In the American Civil War, a diversity of initial motivations prompted Southern men to join the army. Likewise, various sustaining motivations kept men in the army. However, specifically studying the group of soldiers who continued to fight at the end, when circumstances were at their worst, reveals some of the strongest motivating factors. Men remained committed to duty and honor even in the face of inevitable defeat, which exemplifies the importance of these cultural factors in the nineteenth-century South.

This study utilizes a carefully chosen source base in order to ensure a representative and reliable sample. The soldiers chosen represent a diverse geographic distribution as well as varying ranks. The sources are exclusively published letters and diaries of Confederate soldiers. There is no more reliable way to ascertain motivation of Confederate soldiers in the closing nine months of the war than closely studying the written words of the men themselves. The study purposely excludes memoirs and regimental histories because of potential inaccuracies and biases that inevitably stem from such sources. It was common for veterans, in writing material intended for publication, to misrepresent themselves and their comrades, usually in a much better light by emphasizing commendable actions and ignoring immoral ones. Soldiers did this both for personal and political reasons. Furthermore, unlike letters and diaries, soldiers often wrote memoirs years after the conflict, which led to significantly more mistakes stemming from poor memory.

Historians have written detailed and extensive studies of Confederate soldier combat experience and motivation, but they do not sufficiently explain motivation late in the war. Bell Irvin Wiley's The Life of Johnny Reb is a comprehensive study of Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. Gerald Linderman's Embattled Courage, Reid Mitchell's Civil War Soldiers, and James McPherson's For Cause & Comrades all cover the experiences and motivations of Confederate and Union soldiers. Even though these are all excellent surveys of Civil War soldiers, none of them focus on Confederate soldier ideology in the final desperate months of the war. Some of these studies touch upon the subject, but none go into great detail. This lack of sufficient study is a problem that needs to be addressed in order to get a complete understanding of Confederate soldier ideology. This study therefore fills an under-emphasized gap and rectifies this problem.

Jason Phillips' Diehard Rebels is the most in-depth study that discusses why Confederate soldiers fought in the final actions of the war, but it is limited. Phillips specifically focuses on the men who refused to stop fighting and "submitted to unending carnage and squalor because they expected to win." Optimistic beliefs in invincibility and inevitability of Confederate victory certainly contributed to late-war combat ideology. However, Phillips' study is not comprehensive enough because Confederate soldiers who stayed committed because they always believed in victory were a minority. Phillips does not mention soldiers who continued to fight yet did not necessarily believe in absolute victory.

In contrast, this study of late-war Confederate soldier combat motivation is comprehensive. Phillips does not mention notions of duty and honor that permeated soldiers' writing because these concepts do not fit within the scope of his specific argument. Though my study found evidence of some soldiers continuing to fight out of belief in eventual military success, my study also found that repeated military disasters caused soldiers' belief in victory to deteriorate. However, repeated defeat did not have as noticeable an effect on soldiers' dedication to duty and honor, by far the most commonly cited reasons for fighting. Phillips also overstates soldiers' belief in inevitable victory because the time-period for his study is significantly broader than my own. While this study focuses on the final nine months of conflict, Phillips looks at the final two years of the war after the Battle of Gettysburg. Thus, Phillips was much more likely to find belief in victory in the final two years, rather than the final nine months. Even though Gettysburg was one of the infamous turning points of the war, Confederate forces still had a chance at victory.

This study looks at the final nine months of the conflict, right after the fall of Atlanta to Union forces in September of 1864, because this moment arguably marked the end of the Confederacy having any chance at victory. The fall of Atlanta was significant because not only was it a huge tactical victory for the Union, but it was also a huge political victory that occurred at a key time. The Confederate strategy never required a full military victory; it only required Confederate forces to hold out long enough for a Northern peace movement to gain enough momentum and force an armistice, or for foreign powers to intervene on the side of the Confederacy.

The political stakes were high at this point because in November of 1864. President Abraham Lincoln was up for re-election against George McClellan, who ran on a platform of peace. In the early months of 1864, Union forces incurred catastrophic casualties with relatively little gain, causing the war to lose popularity in the North. Given the unpopularity of the war at the time, and the persistence of peace democrats in Congress, McClellan's victory was a distinct prospect. If elected, McClellan could have potentially forced a peace with slavery intact and a possibly independent Southern nation. The capture of Atlanta gave Northerners enough renewed hope and support in the conflict that Lincoln won the election and continued the war.

Many Confederate soldiers realized their abysmal chances at victory after the fall of Atlanta and Lincoln's re-election. On September 8th 1864, Private Henry Berkley wrote in his diary that he "heard of the fall of Atlanta" and that "the future looks dark and hopeless for the South" because of it. Many soldiers had similar responses of hopelessness a few months later with the re-election of Abraham Lincoln. South Carolinian Henry Lewis deserted his post after he heard of the election results. He wrote home that he "could not stand the idea of hardship of four more long years of war". After this point, the Confederacy had practically no chance to continue the war long enough to force a peace, and many soldiers knew it.

The desire to preserve a sense of personal honor constituted a main contributing factor for Confederate soldiers to remain tethered to a desperate cause. In the context of the nineteenth-century South, this study defines honor as a code of morals or a set of social norms that society expected men and women to follow. For Confederate soldiers, Southern honor compelled them to fight against the northern invaders and endure in the name of their country, even if defeat was unavoidable. The implications of a soldier breaking the code of honor could be severe personal guilt, for their peers to revile them as lesser men, or for their actions to reflect poorly upon their families. As historian Bertram Wyatt-Brown put it, "Honor or perhaps dread of dishonor was a major factor in keeping soldiers at the front. The threat of ridicule and reprisal... was a powerful incentive against straggling or desertion." This threat of dishonor was very real for Southern soldiers. Private Henry Berkeley wrote in his diary of a group of Confederate soldiers who dishonored themselves by turning themselves over to Union soldiers in order to escape further service. Henry wrote that these men "are utterly scorned and despised by all other Confederate prisoners, and are... men of the very lowest standard and have little or no sense of honor." Just like these soldiers, peers often condemned and alienated Southern men who disgraced themselves.

It was for these reasons of personal, familial, cultural and peer pressure that honor was a significant force behind keeping Confederate soldiers from deserting in the final frantic months of the war. In April of 1865, Alabamian Edmund Pettus knew that the Confederacy was toppling down, that thousands of men were deserting, and that the war would soon be over. Despite this, on April 28th Edmund wrote in a letter, "Though others may desert and disgrace themselves, & their kindred, let us stand together and obey orders! In this way we best contribute to our safety, and comfort; and preserve our characters untarnished." Edmund put great value on preserving his honor, and he refused to desert his cause and shame himself. Lieutenant Thomas J. Key from Arkansas had a similar view on honor and desertion. On November 7th 1864, Thomas wrote bluntly in his diary that "desertion was disgraceful" and he would never consider it. Thomas feared disgrace, which kept him fighting until his regiment surrendered in the final days of the conflict. Many Confederate soldiers stayed faithful to a futile cause and rejected desertion as an option in order to uphold their honor by staunchly fighting for their homeland.

In addition to honor, the other key concept that kept Confederates fighting was their commitment to doing their duty. This study defines duty as the moral obligation to fulfill a commitment to a group, person, or idea. Many Confederates who participated in the final stages of the fighting expressed duty as their explanation for why they did not leave. For instance, the Alabamian James Williams wrote to his wife in December of 1864, "I am so wedded to my pride and my duty, that I would not leave my forts while a fight appeared imminent." It is important to clarify that for Confederate soldiers, duty was a multifaceted commitment. Combatants conveyed that they fought to fulfill their duty to multiple groups, ideas, and people. It is also important to explain that these different commitments often overlapped in some form.

Many soldiers expressed that they fought out of a duty to their country or to their state. Confederates often felt compelled to continue to fight for their country out of a sense of duty, even when defeat appeared inevitable. Private Henry Trueheart wrote in December of 1864, "We are rendering more services to the country than we could possibly do in any other capacity... I have come as near the performance of my duty as men generally do." William Clement from North Carolina conveyed a similar devotion to country. When offered a leave of absence in December of 1864, Clement wrote that he "would not accept that unless I thought my country did not need my services any longer." Duty to country was plainly a significant motivating factor for combatants at the end of the war.

On a more personal level, numerous Confederates also felt that they had a commitment to continue to fight to defend their home and their family. For almost the entirety of the war, Union armies invaded the South, and fought on Southern soil. Southern men felt that it was their duty to try and hinder northern armies intent on invading and devastating their homeland. This sentiment exacerbated toward the end of the war when Union armies adopted a total war strategy, which called for widespread destruction of civilian supplies, infrastructure and property. These actions by the Union inspired Thomas Key to keep fighting. Key wrote in his diary in November of 1864, "My heart is so much depressed with the sad intelligence from dear home that I have thought of but little save the barbarous treatment that my family received." Henry Berkeley likewise felt a compulsion to defend his home. In October of the same year, large numbers of soldiers in Henry's regiment left either on a temporary furlough or permanently. Henry wrote in his diary, "I told them that I did not think this was a time for men to be going home, that General Early needed every man which he could possibly get and many more than he had, and that if we did [not] stand to our guns, the Yanks might get to our homes before we did." Henry's duty to defending his home is quite apparent. Even if victory proved impossible, many soldiers felt obligated to defend their home and their family from foreign invaders.

Most men who chose not to desert did so out of their personal adherence to honor and duty, and not out of fear of punishment. Punishment for desertion in the Confederate armies rarely ended in execution, even for repeat offenders. Given the numerical superiority of Union forces, the Confederacy could not afford to execute valuable servicemen. Most officers punished deserters with some form of temporary confinement, only to release them quickly back into service.

The already lax punishments became even looser later in the war when Confederate soldiers were in even higher demand. In August of 1864, President Jefferson Davis drafted an official pardon to every Confederate deserter in custody, releasing them from any punishments. This policy arose out of desperation for more men. Five months later, General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee wrote a second pardon, likewise releasing every deserter in custody at that time. The risks for desertion were not high for Confederate soldiers, especially in the final months of the conflict. This is most likely why, in the entire sample size for this study, not a single soldier expressed fear of punishment from deserting, while the majority expressed fear of not fulfilling their duty or dishonoring themselves.

Not only did most Confederate soldiers not express fear of punishment for desertion, but it was not difficult for soldiers to find an opportunity to desert and succeed if they had wished to do so. For instance, the Confederate Army's organizational system for record keeping was inefficient and clumsy. This inefficiency stemmed from the problems that came with the brand-new institutions that Confederate officials had quickly built for the use of their new country. In addition, confusion stemming from invasion and destruction of records also led to problems. Given the state of the country, not only was it difficult for the war department to keep track of soldiers, but to find and capture deserters as well. Another major factor was that Southern soldiers fought on southern soil, often only a few miles from their homes. It was common for soldiers familiar with the local land to just slip away from their post and go home.

Given the motive and opportunity towards the end of the conflict, Confederate soldiers deserted in droves. In a letter to his father in March of 1865, Private Edward Jones sorrowfully wrote, "The Army I am sorry to say is deserting very badly." In the same month, Captain Charles Blackford similarly reported home "our men are deserting quite freely." By war's end, the Confederate War Department estimated that over 100,000 men deserted their posts. Desertion was common, relatively easy, and generally without harsh punishment for Confederate soldiers in the final months of the war. This demonstrates that most soldiers who chose to remain in service did so because of a commitment; most were not forced to remain by their superior officers.

Confederate soldiers expressed other reasons for remaining in service to the end, but for most soldiers they were secondary motivations when compared to duty and honor. Some other motivations for combatants included camaraderie, religion, and vengeance. Though several examples certainly exist of soldiers fighting for these motives, soldiers also professed fighting for notions of duty and honor, and did so in greater numbers and with more intensity. For instance, cavalryman W. W. Heartsill conveyed in the May 17th entry of his diary his great desire to "make one mighty effort to avenge our brothers who so nobly gave their lives for their country." However, in the final nine months of the war Heartsill did not express this desire for vengeance any more than this single instance. Yet, Heartsill wrote in his diary a month earlier his fear for "eternal shame and disgrace...if we do not rise in strength and, at least make one determined effort to retrieve our misfortunes." A month before this, Heartsill wrote that his regiment fought because "we feel that we do but our duty". Examples of Heartsill mentioning duty and honor as a motivation to continue fighting repeatedly occur, unlike vengeance. In this way, Heartsill is representative of the majority of Confederate soldiers in that duty and honor usually trumped other motivating factors.

The belief in inevitable Southern victory as a motivating factor that existed even in the late stages of the war, but over time it declined for most soldiers significantly. Repeated military setbacks made many of even the most stubborn soldiers eventually admit that their cause was lost. Sergeant Edwin Fay was one such soldier who believed that the war was winnable up until the final days. On May 5th 1865, after Union forces took the Confederate capital of Richmond and General Robert E. Lee surrendered the largest Confederate Army, Fey wrote in a letter to his wife, "I firmly believe that the Confederacy will gain its independence." However, Fey could only keep this faith for so long. A few days later, Fey learned of the surrender of the Army of the Tennessee, meaning that there was only a single substantial Confederate Army remaining in the field. After hearing of these events, Fey admitted in a letter home on May 10th, "Truly the Lord has forsaken his people-I fear the subjugation of the South." Given enough time, most Confederate soldiers gave up hope of victory.

Even though repeated defeats caused many soldiers to give up on victory as a motivating factor, most who refused to desert did not renounce their commitments to honor and duty. The majority of soldiers who remained did not necessarily connect duty and honor to victory. Many Confederates believed that they could fulfill their duty and stay honorable by fighting, even if they did not think they were going to achieve independence. Texan Henry Orr explained such thoughts in a letter home, in which he wrote that the Confederacy would probably soon "be broken by the advance of a brutal foe, and if such is the case, it will behoove us as soldiers in defense of out state and our Confederacy and as freemen struggling for independence to confront and if possible defend our country from every attempt of invasion, devastation, and ruin." Even though Henry admitted the Confederacy would probably lose, this only compelled him to keep fighting out of a duty to defend his broken country. When belief in victory faded for soldiers, duty and honor still forced many Confederates forward.

Once the conflict was over, every remaining Southern soldier needed to admit defeat, but even though they had lost, many combatants did not regret that they had fought. Though Confederate soldiers certainly regretted that the Union defeated them, many were satisfied that they had fulfilled their duty and kept their honor. After Union troops captured Private Louis Leon and ended his service, he wrote in his diary, "The four years that I have given to my country I do not regret, nor am I sorry for one day that I have given. My only regret is that we have lost for which we fought." W. W. Heartsill felt quite similarly once the army he belonged to surrendered. On May 20th when he mustered out, Heartsill proudly wrote in his diary that "as a company of Confederate Soldiers, we have to the utmost of our ability DONE OUR DUTY...we have been honorably discharged, we can look back with pride... and we can honestly say that we regret not our action." Duty and honor was so significant for these soldiers that they remained in uniform as long as possible, and they were proud of the actions they took even after they lost their bid for independence.

This study demonstrates that notions of duty and honor motivated a majority of Confederate soldiers who fought in the last nine months of the American Civil War when defeat was inevitable for the Confederacy. Many soldiers feared disgrace in the eyes of their peers and family, and could not dishonor themselves by deserting their post. Combatants also compelled themselves to continue serving out of a duty to fight for their country, and a duty to defend their homeland and their family from invaders. Desertion from the Confederate Army was rampant, easy, and lacked significant punishment. This exemplifies that the majority of troops who stayed when the cause was hopeless did so out of higher commitments, not because they could not desert or because they were afraid to desert. Though other motivating factors certainly existed for Confederates at this stage in the war, they generally remained secondary to duty and honor. The belief in Southern invincibility also existed and motivated soldiers to continue fighting. However, this belief deteriorated over time when Confederate disasters piled up. Commitment to duty and honor usually did not deteriorate over time, and at war's end, many soldiers took solace in the fact that they remained dedicated to these notions.

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Last Updated: 12/19/17