Author Interview--John M. Sacher (Confederate Conscription and the Struggle for Southern Soldiers) Part 2

Niels Eichhorn Discussion

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we continue our conversation with John M. Sacher to talk about his new book, Confederate Conscription and the Struggle for Southern Soldiers, published by the Louisiana State University Press in November 2021.

Part 1

Now, we do have quite a white elephants in the room with conscription. Some claim that the Confederacy was born around the issue of states' rights, but conscription was imposed by Richmond, besides Vance and Brown, how did southerners deal with this dilemma of federalism and centralization?

JMS: One of the many ironies of the Confederacy was that a states’-rights nation enacted more policies favoring a strong central government—conscription, tax in kind, impressment, etc.—than had ever existed in the antebellum United States.  The logical conclusion, most famously articulated by Frank Owsley—but repeated in some form or another by many scholars—was that the Confederacy’s epitaph should read, “died of states’ rights.”

In my study, I find very little evidence of this for several reasons.  First, even prior to the war, the South was hardly consistent in its articulation of states’ rights.  Most famously, the region supported a strongly nationalistic Fugitive Slave Law.  So, many southerners supported a strong national position when it benefited the region.  Conscription could be seen as such a policy.

Second, if states’ rights ideology was intended to prevent the national government from enacting measures not specifically mentioned in the constitution, then it does not necessarily apply to conscription (at least that’s what almost every Confederate judge believed).  The Constitution specifically allowed Congress the power to raise armies.  A true ideologue could maintain that it did not specify conscription, but there were not many true ideologues around.

Third, Confederates, like most people, were pragmatic in their beliefs.  As the saying went, they could argue about states’ rights after they had achieved the rights to have states.  In other words, they could push this debate off until after victory.  But, until victory was achieved, the scales of federalism tipped toward Richmond.

The most surprising discovery I had in this regard was that the fire-eating Charleston Mercury endorsed conscription, only wishing that the government had done it even earlier!  That pretty much sums up the “win first then discuss policy” mentality of most southerners.     

Another aspect that we have to consider, if you conscript more and more men into the army, who stays behind and grows the food to feed those soldiers or produce the weapons they need? How large a percentage of the southern white male population got drafted and how close did the country get to the breaking point of not having anybody left?

JMS: When I embarked on this project, I naively believed that the numbers would provide all the answers.  The numbers, however, proved incomplete, confusing, and contradictory.  So, it’s impossible to answer the total number of drafted men.  The Confederacy’s most complete report lists 81,993 men drafted.  This report is woefully incomplete as it doesn’t account for 12-months men kept in the army, reluctant rebels who “volunteered” because they faced conscription, some regions of the Confederacy, and a few other categories.  In some ways, it’s easier to flip the question and ask how many Confederate soldiers were completely unaffected by conscription.  This would only be the 92,275 men who volunteered for the war in 1861.  If looked upon that way, conscription impacted the enrollment of 80 to 90 percent of Confederate soldiers.

Your question, however, asks more about the balance between home- and battlefront, which shifted more and more towards the army.  Critics continually complained that conscripting all military age men meant the collapse of the Confederacy.  I think that by the end of 1864, the Confederacy had reached the breaking point.  The policy never conscripted all men, but I agree with those scholars who see 80 to 90 percent of military age men in the army.  By 1864, conscription’s age range had expanded to all men ages 17 to 50, substitution had ended, and the number of exemptions had decreased.  The home front could not spare any more (white) men if they army (and civilians) wished to be fed and clothed.  This scenario contributed to Congress deciding to enlist African American slaves in the Confederate army.  It also leads to the closing of the Bureau of Conscription which had nothing more to accomplish.  By the time both of these events occurred in late March 1865, however, the war had effectively ended.  

For this question, I want to go into a minute details because it just stood out to me so much. On page 146 you quote Senator Louis Wigfall, "The army was the country and the country was the army." That just seems like such a profound, dangerous, and jaw-dropping statement, that does not fit into the attitude the United States had with the military, were southerners just willing to sacrifice everything for victory?

JMS: As I assume most historians are aware, Wigfall was simply quoting Gary Gallagher.  Seriously, the more I researched conscription, the more I came to the conclusion that, as Gallagher has argued, particularly in The Confederate War, Confederate nationalism firmly attached itself to the nation’s armies.  I also realized how much Confederates were willing to sacrifice to achieve independence.  This directly relates to your previous question about states’ rights.  Born in South Carolina, Wigfall had moved to Texas in the 1850s where he was elected to the US Senate as a fire eating, states’-rights champion.  Even in the Confederacy, he at times clashed with Davis over centralization.  Yet, when it came to conscription, he would do anything to aid the army.

Would all Confederates agree?  Of course not.  Prominent Confederates from Governor Joe Brown to NC Supreme Court Justice Richmond Pearson to Wigfall’s fellow Texas Senator Williamson Oldham to VP Alexander Stephens all believed that sacrificing a nation’s principles to achieve victory was akin to losing.  But, by 1864, Wigfall was in the majority.  Independence depended upon military victory, and military victory depended on a strong army.  The only way to justify previous suffering and death was to sacrifice more to win the war.  His quote comes just a few months after the 1863 congressional election where I could not find a single candidate arguing against conscription.  Instead, they argued about making conscription more equitable by eliminating loopholes in the policy. 

I concur with your assessment that the quote challenges the way Americans traditionally view the civil-military relationship.  By 1864, many Confederates, however, recognized that their nation’s existence hinged on military victory. Even as early as the 1862 conscription debates, Congressman Ethelbert Barksdale had said he’d “throw aside the Constitution” (p. 67) to win the war.  These quotes are shocking, but they do go a long way to help understand how committed Confederate leaders were to conscription policy.

You are suggesting that we have gotten Confederate conscription quite wrong, how would you suggest we do better in our classes teaching about the Civil War era? 

JMS: My suggestion for improving the teaching of Civil War is to extend the semester about 6 more weeks or make the Civil War era a 2-semester course!  I’ve been teaching Civil War for just over 20 years, and I could add a long list of material I try to cover now that I didn’t cover sufficiently before—environmental history, the west, memory, more on nationalism, connecting the home- and battlefront, etc.  So, I can imagine someone reading my book and thinking that the 0-10 minutes they usually devote to Confederate conscription might not be enough but wondering what they can cut to put this in.

Since I’m guessing that most universities aren’t going to be excited about giving us more weeks to teach the class, my work might better serve as another reminder to try to put ourselves in the shoes of those we are studying.  It quite easy to dismiss things like substitution, the Twenty Slave law, and a states’-rights violating conscription policy as mistaken policies that undermined the Confederacy.  Yet, when we do that, we don’t answer the question of why politicians who were reared in the Jacksonian era of white men’s democracy and who often served as some of the antebellum South’s leading states’-rights spokespeople suddenly forgot all their political acumen and enacted policies detrimental to the Confederacy.

Additionally, looking at the evolution of conscription also serves as yet another reminder that we are not teaching the Civil War backwards from Appomattox.  If we teach the Civil War only looking for explanations of Confederate defeat, we have done our students a disservice.  In short, in teaching conscription, like all policies, we must recognize complexity and contingency. 

None of these ideas are revolutionary, but as I can certainly attest that, given the constraints of a semester, they are more easily articulated than implemented.

As we draw to a close, John, do you have a new project you are working on?

JMS: Great question.  I’ll plead the 5th here.  I recently told a group of UCF students that the most important lesson I learned when writing this book was never, ever tell anyone (particularly anyone not in a History department) you’re writing a book.  It will only make them politely ask you how your book is going every time they see you.  After a few years, it becomes awkward.  After more than five years, it becomes downright embarrassing. 

I can tell you that I am leaning towards something that’s more a synthesis of existing material than something based entirely on archival research.  Historians have added to our understanding of so many fascinating parts of the Civil War era that I’d like to try to craft those parts into a narrative.  Nothing as ambitious as the whole war or the whole Confederacy, but a particular region in a particular timeframe.  This plan connects with the teaching agenda of putting complexity and contingency, home and battle front together in one place. 

Can I pull it off?  Maybe.  How long will it take?  Just ask me each time you see me as I move from awkward to embarrassed.