Were Virginia’s Confederate Reserves a smokescreen of deception?

Posted on March 23, 2011 by

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I’m really jumping the gun here, because I should be holding this story in reserve (sure, why not… pun intended) until 2014… marking the 150th anniversary of the establishment of Virginia’s Confederate reserve units. Still, I brought it up the other day (in “WYSIWYG Confederates?”) , so I figured that I would pick-up from where I left off. Keep in mind, however, the reserves were not the same as the militia… and I’ll be giving some significant info to consider in another post, in April, regarding the activation of Virginia militia (and that is purposeful timing, by the way).

Ultimately, we can thank the third Confederate Conscription Act (though some might, on a technicality, consider it “the fourth”, because of the activation of pre-war militia in the Spring of 1861) for the formation of the reserves. With that Act, all “Southron” males between the ages of 17-50 became subject to service (whether some wanted to or not) in the military. In Virginia, the reserves were organized, as a safe (to some degree) harbor of sorts, for 17 year-old boys and men over the age of 45. Everybody else, between the ages of 18 and 44, were subject to enrollment in regular army units… enlist or face forcible conscription… in order fill the ranks of the forces in the field (unless, of course, they could come up with an exemption).

So, what’s the big deal with Virginia’s Confederate reserves? Where’s this “smokescreen of deception” and why does it matter?

I’ll answer the last question first.

Over the years, I’ve known a fair number of people who have applied for membership in Confederate heritage organizations based on the service of their “gallant” ancestor who served to defend Virginia and the South, in either the militia or reserves. I believe, in some ways, this takes us back to what I mentioned the other day (again, in “WYSIWYG Confederates?”)… is your judgment of the past, and the people in it, based purely on what you see on the surface? Does a man in Confederate gray = gallant Confederate ancestor defending his rights? Truth be known, I’d be more than hesitant to go as far as calling it “gallant”, or an effort to defend anything, really. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a fascinating story to consider… how many Virginians used the reserves as a means to stay out of active service in the field… ahhh, yes, that’s the deception… when, in fact, the Confederacy desperately needed troops in the field to sustain the effort to secure independence?

Consider the 8th Battalion Virginia Reserves (which included companies from Page, Rockbridge, Shenandoah, and Warren counties). Most of my work with this unit, has focused on Company B, because it was organized in my home county, and I wanted to get a better grip on exactly what it meant to be a reservist from my home county, during the Civil War.

On May 28, 1864, in Page County, two reserve companies were formed: Keyser’s Boy Company, and Company B of the 8th Battalion Virginia Reserves. Most of Keyser’s Boy Company ended up being sucked into the Confederate army well before they turned 18.  Keyser’s Boy Company is an interesting study in itself, but for now, I’ll remain focused…in fact, I’ll cut to the chase…

Enrollment in Company B, 8th Battalion Virginia Reserves reveals that more than a dozen men resorted to lying about their ages… that’s roughly 1 out of 8 men in the company.*

Why? What was to be gained by doing this?

As I mentioned earlier, for older men, the reserves meant a way to avoid regular field service, but required that they be over the age of 45. To some, this may mean nothing. Sure, we hear stories about underage young men lying about the ages to get in. But have you ever heard about lying about their ages to stay out? Also, some may say, “so what, it was just a dozen or so men… shirkers perhaps”. Here’s where you have to look at the bigger picture.

Those men who were enrolled as older than they actually were… guess what, those who enrolled them, who who enrolled with them, were their neighbors, family members, and friends. They knew darn well how old they were. In fact, three men tacked on as many as ten years to their ages. Therefore, the lies were made collectively. Go ahead… let’s call it… a conspiracy to undermine the effectiveness of the Confederacy.

Some might ask yet another question… “were they Unionists?” Well, actually, I have found that some who I could identify, without a doubt, as Southern Unionists, but not all. Company B, by the way, had one of the most prominent Unionists in the county, on its muster rolls. You may remember my mentioning him before… Noah Foltz, ironmaster at Chatherine’s Furnace.

Finally, was this the exception, or the rule? I think that’s more difficult to figure out. Still, I do know stories about Augusta County reserves, placed in the Battle at Piedmont, who were also Unionists.

You have to figure, this was late war. How far were the older men, many who may well have been reluctant about secession in the first place, willing to go? I’d be willing to bet that some were Unionists, some were leave-aloners, some were reluctant at the beginning, and some had become disillusioned and disaffected. Most, I would even think, simply saw this as the best way to stay near home, and tend to what mattered most… their interests… family, home, and means to make a living. If there were truly some among them who were so dedicated to the “Cause”, why wouldn’t they have “ratted-out” those who lied about their ages?

*I discovered this little hiccup in numbers by accident. As I’ve mentioned before, for a number of years, I’ve been tracking down the headstones for all of Page’s Confederate veterans. When cross-referencing birth-date info with age at enlistment, I realized that a fair number of men were adding some years to their actual ages… some a good number more years than others.

**Some men in the unit seem likely to have seen a small amount of service in late war. Company B’s Lt. James William Modesitt received four camp skillets and three skillets at Chaffin’s Farm (three months after the battle there), on December 18, 1864. he also requisitioned 16 jackets, 25 pairs of pants, 13 shirts, 42 pairs of drawers, 68 pairs of shoes, 31 blankets, and 21 shirts. During the 4th quarter of 1864, he requisitioned another skillet, seven fly tents, and 24 camp skillets. By February, 1865, the men who had deployed to the Richmond area, had returned to the Valley.

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