Handwritten letters were the primary source of communication during the American Civil War
I still like to write and receive hand-written letters. I know, it’s very old-fashion, but emails, texting, and private messaging (despite their convenience) just don’t compare to words shaped by friend’s hand. However, I have a rule – I do not write letters when I am upset. (No, Pen-Pals, I haven’t been upset – just up to my eyeballs in work…sorry!) Why? Because my attitude will come through my writing.
Are we talking about letter writing on the last Friday of “The Forgotten: Civilians In War”? No. But letters play a key role in what we are discussing – the effects of civilian attitude on military morale. Again, there are so many positive and negative examples from history, but we’re going to use the American Civil War as our era of study today.
The North (Union) had its fair share of wives and mothers begging their soldiers to come home, but it appears that their appeals are mostly to get their loved ones out of harm’s way. An understandable motive, but not one that can be particularly effective for studying civilian morale…unless all the underlying themes are considered and we are not doing that today.
Instead, we will take the more obvious example and look South, to the Confederacy.
An Very Generalized Overview of the Southern Homefront
The Civil War started in April 1861. Though Southern states had been seceding throughout the previous winter and there were plenty of mixed feelings about that, by the time the military conflict began, the civilians generally supported the troops. The women sewed uniforms and flags, and though there were the sad good-bye scenes, on the whole a feeling of excitement prevailed outwardly.
A first victory pleased the fledging Southern nation, until the casualty lists appeared. The next months passed rather quietly, but with military defeats in the winter. However, the rest of 1862 had quite a few Confederate victories and civilian morale rose again.
In 1863, things started getting rough on the home front. Supplies were starting to run scarce, inflation began, the farm work was getting harder. And military defeats and longer casualty lists weren’t helping matters either. The draft was also extreme unpopular.
1864 and 1865 were the lowest points for Confederate morale. Everything seems dark and defeated. In some areas, there was barely enough food for the civilians to survive.
There is a very obvious link between letters from home and desertion rate in the Confederate armies.
Having made that bold statement, let me now explain something. We are talking in board terms; certainly not every Southern family wrote letters begging for their loved ones to come home.
There is another thing we must take into consideration. Argue as much as you, the rank and file soldiers in the Confederate Armies felt they were defending their families and homeland from invasion. These men went to war because 1) they had to because of the draft or 2) they wanted to defend what they valued. (No, I am not talking about slavery – most Southern soldiers didn’t own slaves.)
…put us to jail in place of giveing us aney thing [anything] to eat and I had to come home without anything [anything]…I have 6 little children and my husband in the armey and what am I to do. . . . if you don’t take these yankys [Yankees] a way from greenesborough we wemen [women] will write for our husbands to come . . . home and help us. . . . (Nancy Mangum’s final plea to the North Carolina state governor before writing the decisive letter to her husband, April 1863 – emphasis added by Miss Sarah)
Thus, when a soldier received a letter from his wife saying his children were starving, she did have the strength to harvest the fields, and had no idea how they were going to survive, that letter had a big impact. Was it better to keep fighting (or keep losing, depending on the period of the war) and return home to no family or leave the army and care for his loved ones?
It is not in the power of Yankee armies to cause us to wish ourselves at home—we can face them, and can hear their shot and shell without being moved; but, Sir, we cannot hear the cries of our little ones, and stand. We must say something, must make an effort to relieve them, and would do it through you, believing it to be the best way. . . . But it is not of ourselves that we would complain, it is of our wives and little ones at home… Do something for them and there will be less desertion, and men will go into battle with heartier good will. But it is impossible for us to bear up under our many troubles, the greatest of which is, the suffering of our wives and little ones at home. (Soldiers from North Carolina petition their state governor, January 1865 – emphasis added by Miss Sarah)
Many soldiers chose to desert because the letters they received from home begged them to back and take care of their families. This is an example of the power civilian influence.
Things to Consider
We could fault the Southern Soldier. Was it wrong for him to desert? I say yes. But can you fault him for wanting to save his children from hungry and extreme hardship? That is something to consider.
(Let me be clear – the men who deserted and went bounty hunting or became thieves or general “bad guys” are not the soldiers were talking about.)
We could fault the Southern Civilian. I’m not sure is very fair either. When a woman had worked the fields for months or years and could not get a good crop and her children were crying for their father…or the basic physical need of food, I can understand her plea for his return.
When civilian morale breaks and when they stop supporting the military, the battlefield soldier finds himself with two enemies: the one in front and the one at home. Of course the opposite is also true, when supported he is encouraged by the thought of his loved ones waiting and home and doing what they can to ensure his safety and comfort. (And, let’s be fair, there was plenty of the in the Confederacy too.)
This wasn’t a “pick on Confederate soldiers and civilians” day. But it is a vivid illustration of the importance the civilian spirit can have on the front line soldiers…for better or for worse.
P.S. Is this topic still of importance today with a professional military? Or has it become irrelevant with the passing of the volunteer armies? Your thoughts?