In her letter of Sept. 13, Diane T. Martin adds to her fervent declaration of her Southernness with an short overview of the Civil War. She states: “Confederates fought a war that politicians created, but Johnny Reb (the farmer, the smithy, the carpenter) fought to honor his homeland — the South — and because he was Southern.” This is history taught in the school of sentimentality and wishful thinking without the slightest basis in fact. Even the most cursory look at studies of the Civil War reveals that the South had huge and never-ending problems with enlisting and retaining troops. After the first burst of enthusiasm over Fort Sumter and the volunteering of the firebrands, war lovers, Lincoln haters and glory hounds, the Confederate ranks were woefully inadequate for waging war. When appeals to honor, manhood and Southernness did not convince the rest of the white male population to enlist, they were drafted.
On April 16, 1862, barely a year into the war, the Confederate government passed a stringent conscription law, ordering all men between 18 and 35 (later expanded to ages 17 to 50) to serve three years in the military. The Confederate government almost simultaneously instituted a law exempting any man who owned 20 slaves or more from military service. The infamous “Twenty Negro Law” infuriated non-slave-owning Southerners. Ms. Martin’s hardy yeomen (“the farmer, the smithy, the carpenter”) saw no reason to sacrifice themselves for the benefit of the wealthy elite and deserted by the thousands. They walked away from their units, refusing to be part of what they called “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” In some Southern states, anti-Confederacy areas seceded from their states to protest the war inflicted upon them. In Virginia, the entire western section of the state withdrew to become West Virginia. In the Deep South, the “Jones Free State” in Mississippi and “the free state of Winston” in Alabama were just two of the anti-war counties.
I do not yield to Ms. Martin in Southernness, as I am a 10th-generation Southerner and count two great-grandfathers and many collateral relatives as Confederate veterans. But we must face up to our history — the real history — and learn from it to create a truly noble South. As Louisiana’s own great wise man, Walker Percy, put it many years ago: “What needs to be discharged is the intolerable tenderness of the past, gone and grieved over and never made sense of.”
historic preservation consultant