Myths & Misunderstandings

Myths and Misunderstandings: Slaveholding and the Confederate Soldier

Myths and Misunderstandings

Earlier this summer, comments on one of our Facebook posts sparked a larger conversation about recurring debates about the Civil War. We asked our visitors, social media audiences, and staff to generate a list of the questions or topics about the Civil War that they think are the most misunderstood. 

In providing answers to these, our goal is to do the research for you, consulting with primary sources, leading historians, and the latest scholarship, and distill it into something you can read quickly over a cup of coffee. Join us every other week for the next installment of this new blog series: Myths and Misunderstandings. 

“My great grandfather didn’t own slaves. In fact, most Confederate soldiers did not own slaves; therefore he didn’t fight for slavery and the war couldn’t have been about slavery.”

The logic is simple and compelling—the rates of slave ownership among Confederate soldiers reveals something about the cause of the Confederate nation. The claim continues an effort that began during the postwar era; prioritizing transcendent virtues of military courage and sacrifice as the soul of the Confederate experience. It thus absolves ancestors of charges of moral complicity in human bondage.

The initial fact is true. Most Confederate soldiers did not personally own slaves. It is also misleading because it obscures how deeply slavery—and soldiers’ larger view of race relations—was embedded into most aspects of Southern life and the Confederate military.

Focusing on rates of slaveholding distracts from the ways that antebellum white Southerners understood slavery and participated in the slave economy and culture. Any white southerner could be a temporary master though slave hiring, could evangelize a proslavery Christianity, or imagine a national economy based on bound labor.

One did not need to own slaves to commit to the broad Confederate national vision that was based on slavery, or to fear the outcome of slavery’s destruction. In fact, proslavery ideology had implications for every white Southerner—as theorists consistently and loudly proclaimed that abolition of slavery would unleash a cataclysm of rape and murder. When Confederates rallied to repel “abolition armies” and protect their families, they did so because they anticipated that outcome.

Confederate soldiers rarely expressed a pure proslavery ideology in letters and diaries. (To paraphrase James McPherson, they felt no need to state the obvious.) Most often, they used popular shorthand like Yankee “fanatics,” or “our domestic relations,” hinting at how slavery fit into larger worldviews more readily understood. Few, if any, expressed skepticism about slavery in direct or indirect terms, and consistently defined the enemy as “abolitionists.”

Historian Joseph Glatthaar’s statistical analysis of the 1861 volunteers in what would become the Army of Northern Virginia reveals that one in 10 owned a slave and that one in four lived with parents who were slave-owners. Both exceeded ratios in the general population, in which one in 20 owned a slave and one in five lived in a slaveholding household. “Thus,” Glatthaar notes, “volunteers in 1861 were 42 percent more likely to own slaves themselves or to live with family members who owned slaves than the general population.” In short, Confederate volunteers actually owned more slaves than the general population.

In fact, non-slaveholding soldiers from regions with fewer African Americans likely received greater exposure to slavery for having joined the army. The military regularly used slaves and implemented proslavery policies. The army conscripted slave labor on a massive scale for transportation, and in construction of military defenses. It also captured and returned to slavery thousands of escaped and free black men and women. Soldiers acted on fears of “servile insurrection” when they summarily murdered United States Colored Troops at Fort Pillow and the Battle of the Crater.

The progress of war, including United States General Benjamin Butler’s ad hoc emancipation at Fort Monroe, and eventually the Emancipation Proclamation itself, only confirmed Confederates’ fears and served as a useful provocation to motivate troops. Confederate General James Longstreet understood this when he rallied his troops before the Seven Days Battles in 1862. He told his men that the Yankees were determined to seize Southern land and property; as proof, he cited “one of their great leaders [who has] attempted to make the negro your equal by declaring his freedom. They care not for the blood of babes nor carnage of innocent women which servile insurrection thus stirred up may bring upon their heads.”

Certainly, many soldiers did not fight because they personally enslaved a person, but they did fight for a society predicated on slavery and against an invader they were convinced would destroy it. A soldier could be consistent in thinking his cause the defense of family, and the support of a slaveholding republic against abolitionist fanatics, at the same time.

Causes and motivations for the Confederate soldier cannot be separated into mutually exclusive categories of slavery, and other than slavery. It is likely Confederate soldiers would not have recognized the difference. The challenge is to see the ways that slavery, family, duty, liberty, faith, and nation were inextricably intertwined in the larger, complex worldview that inspired them.

For further reading, see Colin Edward Woodward, Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014)