Would it not be better to tell the story of the Confederate soldier?

Posted on September 4, 2008 by

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After yesterday’s post, I began to think more about the organization, formed as the male heirs of Confederate veterans, telling a “Southern perspective” of the Civil War. I think it would be more appropriate, as an organization formed of male descendants of Confederate soldiers, to tell the story of the Confederate soldier. However, like telling the “Southern perspective” of the war, the story of the Confederate soldier must not be limited to what equates to the “held-on-high”/”white-washed” version. If someone really expects to do justice to the story, and “honor” the man behind the story, then the complete story must be told. If one does not take the time to try and understand the man that is the soldier, then how can an accurate and complete story be told? For example, “hardships” faced by the soldier are not limited to the general stories of life in camp, on the frontline, and in the pow camps. Nor can it be a story that remains solely persistent in defining the soldier as fighting for his “home and hearth” and that his wife and children are at home, supporting his decision. To tell this one-tracked story is misleading.

What sort of things did the soldier experience that are missing from the common stories being told? What about the definition of fighting for “honor?” In fact, fighting for “honor” could be defined as enlisting before the conscript men came and forced him from his home. The fact that three conscription acts had to be passed by the Confederate government in order to sustain the armies is sorely absent from the “story of the Confederate soldier.” In this case, to “fight for one’s honor” could also be inclusive of the idea that one enlisted just before the conscript act could be enforced. After all, how in the world could a man face his neighbors and family if he did not enlist and the conscript patrols came to take him away? Some men continued to fight for their personal honor by remaining “on the line” and not “going across the line.”

Indeed, if we are to define the Confederate soldier, how can we possibly ignore those who went across the lines? In most cases that I have seen, this was not a decision made alone, by one soldier. In most of the cases, this was a decision made between siblings, messmates, or friends. Not all in those parties had the courage to do it. Some had severe disagreements. Yet, for those friends that did not go across the line, how did this impact their feelings about the war? Some letters and diaries reveal how they felt, and, in some cases, there are stories written by those who crossed the lines.

For the Confederates who crossed the lines… there is no shame or dishonor… it is not ours to give that label; for who are we to sit as armchair judges nearly 150 years after the end of the war? Their story is a part of the overall story and factors into the story of those who remained, and fought until the end… whether that be the end of the war, or their own end in the war. Many of the same men were among the first to rush to enlist. How can we possibly understand what went through the minds of these men? We can read, but do we fully gain an understanding? What made their decisions so difficult and how did they deal with those decisions after the war? This is a part of the story of the Confederate soldier. Understanding these men is a part of understanding the Confederate soldier. It is not simple, but it as complex as defining the war itself.

In all, I have to admit that this is not really a good topic for a blog post because it can be dissected from all angles and there is not nearly enough room in one posting. So, that said, the point is that the story of people in the Civil War should not and cannot be so narrowly defined. We must tell the story in a way that does justice to the people who fought as they were human and were not immune to the mixed emotions that existed because of a very complicated war and time in American history. “Honoring” the memory of the Confederate soldier, or Union soldier for that matter, can only be accomplished by making a more ambitious effort to understanding the man who was the soldier.

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