The key division in the state before the war was between westerners and
easterners. Residents of the two regions disagreed over taxes, state internal
improvements policy, universal manhood suffrage, slavery, and other issues. During the Civil War, this
divide did not replicate itself perfectly—many westerners fought in Confederate
units—but the trans-Appalachian region held many more Unionists than other parts
of the state. These Virginians opposed the Confederacy and so their morale
generally followed the fortunes of Union armies invading the state. As Union
troops made their way into western Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley in 1861, the hopes of
Virginia's Unionists rose. Union forces retained control of much of Virginia west
of the Valley for the remainder of the war but they exercised loose control and
the result was persistent guerrilla
conflict and violence among residents of the region. As a result, morale
in the West (among both Unionists and Confederates) hardened into a bitterness
that sustained them through the conflict but did little to bring them
Black Virginians expressed strong support for the Union, and their morale, like
that of white Unionists, followed the success of Union armies. As the Union seized
the counties of the
Shore], the peninsula below Richmond, and the area around [Norfolk], black residents welcomed Union troops.
Whenever they fell back, black morale plummeted but many thousands of enslaved
African Americans fled to freedom in Union contraband camps in southeastern
Virginia and northeastern North Carolina. Their strong support for the Union war
effort, and the intelligence they provided Union troops on the march throughout
the state, proved crucial to advancing the Union cause in Virginia.
The attitudes of Confederate civilians fluctuated in opposition to those of
Unionists in the state. For Confederates, Union military advances spurred anger
and soul-searching while each Confederate victory deepened their faith in ultimate
victory and spurred enthusiasm for sustaining the war. The experiences in Winchester illustrate the
dynamic nature of morale in the state. The northern Shenandoah Valley town was
divided between Unionists and Confederates who traded civilian control whenever
military control of the region changed hands. Having suffered under Union
occupation since late in 1861, Confederates in the town were jubilant when
Confederate general Thomas J.
"Stonewall" Jackson's troops liberated the area. "Thanks be to the Lord,
we are free!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" declared one eager young Confederate.
Because Confederate troops had more success in keeping Union troops at bay in the
state, Confederate morale stayed reasonably high into mid-1864. Until that point,
the Rappahannock–Rapidan River line had served as a de facto boundary, in eastern
Virginia, between Union and Confederate control. Ulysses S. Grant's successful
[Overland Campaign] (1864)
against Robert E. Lee pushed
Confederate troops south to Petersburg and demonstrated to Virginia Confederates that their soldiers
were not invincible. After this, the steady advance of Union troops—up the
Peninsula toward Richmond, up the Shenandoah Valley, and into the southwestern
corner of Virginia, all depressed Confederate spirits in the state.
Confederate morale also responded to the policies of the Richmond government. At
the start of the war, Confederate leaders worked hard to inspire a strong sense of
national loyalty to the new government. A national seal, motto, and new flag were
designed, all harkening back to American traditions to which Confederates had long
been attached. As writers and government leaders emphasized the spirit of shared
sacrifice that bound the Confederacy together, cultural elements continued to play
an important role in boosting morale among both civilians and soldiers. Against
this positive force, Confederate policies—especially the
[draft], impressment, and tax-in-kind—often worked to
depress morale. Although citizens understood that these policies were designed to
give the state the tools it needed to repel Union forces, they often resented what
they saw as excessive centralization of authority in Richmond and unwarranted intrusions on
state and personal property. Impressment, which allowed the Confederate government
to seize supplies from citizens with only the increasingly worthless national
currency as compensation, was particularly galling because the high prices of
goods made foodstuffs the most precious commodity.
Angry Confederate civilians complained to their state and national
representatives, including Confederate president Jefferson Davis himself, and while their letters
often reflect dissatisfaction with government policies, they also reflect a faith
that the Confederate government would be able to remedy the problem. Those
letters, and that faith, were running out early in 1865 as Union forces tightened
their hold on Petersburg and Richmond. Confederate morale had clearly dropped from
the early optimism of 1861 and the steely resolve and confidence of early in 1863,
but, in large measure, that drop in morale came because of battlefield losses, not
the other way around.
Blair, William A. Virginia's Private War: Feeding Body and
Soul in the Confederacy, 1861–1865. New York: Oxford University Press,
Crofts, Daniel W. Old Southampton: Politics and Society in a
Virginia County, 1834–1869. Charlottesville: The University Press of
Marvel, William. A Place Called Appomattox. Chapel Hill:
University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
Siegel, Frederick F. The Roots of Southern Distinctiveness:
Tobacco and Society in Danville, Virginia, 1780–1865. Chapel Hill:
University of North Carolina Press, 1987.
Sutherland, Daniel E. Seasons of War: The Ordeal of a
Confederate Community, 1861–1865. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University
Tripp, Steven Elliott. Yankee Town, Southern City: Race and
Class Relations in Civil War Lynchburg. New York: New York University
Wills, Brian Steel. The War Hits Home: The Civil War in
Southeastern Virginia. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia,
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Sheehan-Dean, A. Confederate Morale During the Civil War. (2012, September 19). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Confederate_Morale_during_the_Civil_War.
- MLA Citation:
Sheehan-Dean, Aaron. "Confederate Morale During the Civil War." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities,
19 Sept. 2012. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: March 10, 2010 | Last modified: September 19, 2012
Contributed by Aaron Sheehan-Dean
, an associate professor of history at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville.