For Johnny Reb, The War was not about slavery Motivation: Serious scholarship demonstrates that the soldiers of the Confederacy were fighting for independence, gallantry - and hate.

THE ARGUMENT

November 02, 1997|By Theo Lippman Jr. | Theo Lippman Jr.,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The battle over the Confederate Battle Flag goes on. The latest skirmish is taking place at Oxford, Miss., where the football coach of Ole Miss asked students and alumni to stop waving the flag at football games. It offends many people, he said, and it also makes it difficult to recruit black football players.

Many blacks and not a few whites hate the flag. They say it is a symbol of the slavery the Confederate States of America were created to defend and perpetuate. Many of those critics seem unaware that the men who fought, suffered, died under that flag were fighting for many reasons. The least of these reviews, for most, was slavery.

In the best-selling, critically acclaimed new novel "Cold Mountain" (by Charles Frazier. Atlantic Monthly Press. 356 pages. $24), a Confederate soldier named Inman has had enough late in the war and leaves the battlefields for home. In North Carolina he meets an old mountain woman who asks him: ""Did you own any [slaves]?" ""No. Not hardly anybody I knew did." ""Then what stirred you up enough for fighting and dying?"

"Four years ago I maybe could have told you. Now I don't know. I guess many of us fought to drive off invaders."

Frazier's Inman is not alone in having expressed that thought. In ""The Civil War," the 1990 companion book to Ken Burns' PBS television series, Shelby Foote, the novelist-turned-historian, is asked the question the mountain woman asked Inman. He replies with this anecdote:

"Early on in the war, a Union squad closed in on a single ragged Confederate. He didn't own any slaves, and he obviously didn't have much interest in the Constitution or anything else. And they asked him, What are you fighting for? And he said, 'I'm fighting because you're down here.' ""

Such examples are more than 1990s guesses (or wishes) about Confederate thoughts in the 1860s. The best evidence gathered and studied by the best historians bears out the contention that defense of slavery was not what the war was all about to the Southern yeomanry who actually fought it. That evidence is the letters and diaries of the soldiers. The recently published "For Cause and Comrade: Why Men Fought in the Civil War" by James M. McPherson (Oxford University Press. 327 pages. $25), is based on the reading of some 25,000 letters and 249 diaries written by Union and Confederate soldiers. McPherson found no opposition to slavery in the Southerners' writings, but only 20 percent of them even mention slavery at all. Only 12 percent from non-slave-owning families did.

McPherson found Southern hatred of Northerners was a far stronger motivation to fight. Many young Southerners viewed Yankees in the same light as their ancestors viewed the British of 1776 and 1812. They wanted to be left alone. They wanted to be their own nation, with their own idea of liberty and justice. They considered themselves patriots for fighting back, slavery or no slavery.

Toward the end of the war, when the Confederates considered emancipation in order to draft black soldiers, many soldiers expressed the view in letters and diaries that they preferred a slaveless Confederacy to re-joining the Union with slavery there intact.

Symbol of patriotism

For that matter, as Gary W. Gallagher reminds in his new book, "The Confederate War" (Harvard University Press. 218 pages. $24.95), Gen. Robert E. Lee urged Jefferson Davis to consider emancipation early in the war. To no avail. The Confederate Constitution legitimized slavery, and so did Southern public opinion.

Gallagher also studied his subject through letters and diaries - and the newspapers of the day. He concludes, somewhat tentatively, that while the Confederacy was truly a nation united in purpose and sense of identity, the reason for that was not the elected government and political institutions as much as it was the public perception of Lee and his soldiers.

They were ""the critical agents that engendered unity and hope." They were by mid-war "the preeminent symbol of the Confederate struggle for independence and liberty."

That brings up another reason unrelated to slavery as to why Southerners went into battle. Many young men of that time and place had a very gallant idea of war. As a classic book on the Southern soldier begins: ""The man who was to be Johnny Reb was rarin' for a fight in the spring of 1861." That book is the "The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy" by Bell I. Wiley (Louisiana State University Press. 444 pages. 29.95). It pioneered the use of letters and diaries in studying its subjects. It was first published in 1943.

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