“I feel very much like starting home,” 57th North Carolina Private James Zimmerman wrote on August 16, 1863, “sometimes when I get about half enough to eat and get to studying how thing is going on there it maeks me feel like some body was to blam[e] and not me[.] I am inocent of having anything to do to bring on this ware and dont feel rite suffering here as I do on account of some bodys misdoings.”
That type of sentiment is not usually associated with Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, one of America’s most storied and revered fighting units, which is often lauded for its “invincible” spirit and ability to carry on against all odds. The reality was, however, that the morale of Lee’s veterans went up and down and their zest for the war effort could wane. Many of Lee’s men experienced a particularly low point once they crossed the Potomac River back into the Old Dominion after Gettysburg. In July and August 1863, straggling and desertion spiraled out of control among the Confederates desperate for clothes, shoes and regular rations.
Lee worried that his officers were losing control of their men, and on July 26 he ordered all soldiers to return to their regiments immediately. “To remain at home in this the hour of our country’s need,” Lee proclaimed, “is unworthy the manhood of a Southern soldier….While you proudly boast that you belong to the Army of Northern Virginia, let it not be said that you deserted your comrades in a contest in which everything you hold dear is at stake.” Even though Lee’s order signified that deserters, if caught, would face stern measures, unauthorized absences continued in large numbers for at least two more months.
Getting to the heart of why Lee’s army nearly collapsed after the Pennsylvania raid is complicated and requires that numerous issues be taken into account. Were Confederate soldiers and civilians despondent after the defeat or resilient? Lee’s rank and file expressed a wide range of reactions, making it impossible to generalize about their feelings. It is imperative, however, to look beyond the attitudes of the officer class and enlisted men from privileged families to discover the “true spirit” of the Army of Northern Virginia. Looking at soldiers who came from limited means, who were minimally educated, and whose actions and words rarely surface in the historical record allows us to understand their daily strategies for survival.
Zimmerman and William Wagner both served as privates in the 57th North Carolina and are excellent examples of soldiers who existed on the margins of the army. Their criticisms of the war stand in sharp contrast to accounts in period newspapers, sermons and other official proclamations that offered cheery views of the Confederate situation after Gettysburg and the fall of Vicksburg.
To understand Wagner’s and Zimmerman’s negativity, it helps to examine how they were living in the field. After Gettysburg, Lee’s logistical network virtually collapsed, and the men of the 57th, like so many other units, incurred crushing hardships when they re-entered Virginia. The physical demands of the Pennsylvania Campaign and the retreat through the Shenandoah Valley had exhausted the survivors. To make matters worse, they participated in a series of punishing forced marches at the end of July across the Blue Ridge Mountains.
During one of those excursions, Zimmerman wrote that “I did not eat anything in four days and marched all the time thowing up all the water I drank[.] I was so weak I could hardly stand.” Zimmerman pleaded with the doctor to excuse him from the ranks, but the physician refused to exempt Zimmerman from carrying his musket and accouterments, leading the North Carolinian to bitterly conclude: “they [are] going as hard as they could go[.] it is no wonder…[that] so many [are] comeing home the way they are treeted here[.] A man can eat all he gets for a days rashens at one meal.”
When the 57th finally settled into a permanent camp, the men were subjected to stern discipline and scanty rations. Most of the soldiers lacked simple tents, and those who did have them shared their shelters with at least one, sometimes two comrades. Those without tents slept on the ground and used blankets for cover against the elements. Officers, on the other hand, enjoyed the comforts of large frame tents. Rations were not especially plentiful, and the men had not been paid for months. Without money, decent food and clothing, many soldiers turned to theft. Stealing, Zimmerman determined, was his only option.
He slipped away from camp and found a chicken house, but the door was padlocked. Zimmerman moved on to a neighboring farm where he spotted a potato patch. He hid in the woods, waiting for darkness to fall, when “heavy thunder cloud” suddenly sent sheets of rain across the field. The North Carolinian knew “my time” had arrived, and he ran into the garden. “I pitched in and I made tops fly,” he wrote. “I got as many as I wanted[.] [Some were] as big as my fist.” He felt some remorse for stealing, since this was the first thing that he had taken since his enlistment, but said, “I am out of money and if I get anything I will have to steel or beg.”
Hunger forced countless other soldiers to become their own “commissaries,” and the military authorities responded by imposing stricter discipline. By the middle of August, guards surrounded the 57th, demanding a pass from any private who tried to venture from camp. A soldier caught without proper paperwork would be arrested and punished. Guards were also posted at the neighboring farms to protect private property from thievery.
The restrictive measures instituted after Gettysburg must have seemed particularly harsh, but they were essential to protect the countryside from hungry soldiers. Some members of the rank and file, however, saw a hidden agenda to protect officer privileges. Civilians who gave generously to officers received special guards to defend their farms from foragers. “If we get a pass to go out,” Zimmerman wrote, “every house in five miles is garded to keep us away so the officers can get their supply of good things and we must do without [while living] on half rashens and it [is] the meanest kind. Your husband suffers as I am doing now for the want of such things while the officers feast upon such things,” Zimmerman concluded. “They live here better than ever I did at home—ham, chicken fryed, eggs, butter, milk, green snaps, corn, potatoes, and anything you can name they have it and the very best, and we poor privates cant get out of camp without a pass.”
Financial impoverishment was another problem for 57th North Carolina, as the regiment had not been paid for three months. In one company, a soldier reported that the enlisted men could not pool together more than 10 dollars. The lack of funds had some obvious consequences. Private soldiers were used to purchasing food from farmers and sutlers, but inflation and speculation has so diluted their currency that they were essentially penniless. “Dear I will give prises of some things,” William Wagner wrote on August 21, “Irish potaters sells from one to two Dollars a gallen and Milk 50 cents a quart Butter 3 Dollars a pound [and] litle greene aples a 50 cents a dozen [and] Eggs 3 Dollars a dozen.” Infuriated soldiers denounced the government for abandoning them. Federal currency was exceedingly more valuable than Confederate money, exasperating Wagner, who wrote: “what gits me so hard [is] why in Richmond they give from 7 to 10 Dollars Confederate money for one Dollars of yankee money.” It made no sense to struggling Confederates to be fighting for a nation where some people profited off enemy currency when their own meager army diet forced them to spend what little money they had on “a litle some thing” to eat.
A lack of money also served to keep down desertion, as soldiers simply could not afford to run away. Any non-Virginian who wanted to return home would have to travel hundreds of miles, trading all the while with local farmers. Zimmerman captured the financial realities of deserting when he wrote in August: “We are all out of money here….I think as soon as they get money a lot of them will leave [as] that is all that has kept them here this long.”
Factors such poor food, bad leadership, combat fatigue and hard marching figured into the decision to bolt from the army, but the ways soldiers protested their sorry lot were extraordinarily diverse, as every man had his own limits, contended with his own private issues and faced different living conditions and political circumstances.
There was, however, one common concern among all deserters. Would resistance to or evasion of military service be a futile act that could end in even more hardship or possibly death?
Most Southern soldiers usually judged an assault against military authority as akin to suicide, but there were times when they found an opening to exploit to their advantage. Such openings appeared when the army lost the ability to control enlisted men. After Gettysburg, that occurred when profound structural shifts in the Army of Northern Virginia created opportunities that soldiers quickly exploited.
This breakdown in order was made worse in early August, when Jefferson Davis’ Amnesty Proclamation pardoned any absent soldier who returned to the ranks within 20 days of leaving. Although Davis was clear that the amnesty applied to men who were currently absent without permission, scores of soldiers interpreted his words to mean that they could leave their posts immediately as long as they returned within the stipulated 20 days.
Less than two weeks after Davis’ proclamation, Lee sent the president an urgent message, telling him that the amnesty had inspired a new wave of deserters. “The number of desertions from the army is so great and still continues to such an extent,” Lee wrote on August 17, “that unless some cessation of them can be caused I fear success in the field will be seriously endangered.” Two days before writing this dispatch the general was informed that bands of soldiers were leaving their regiments, in some cases as many as 30 from a single unit. Although Lee had favored the amnesty proclamation, he tweaked Davis’ order and instituted a system of furloughs that would grant leave at the rate of one man for every 100 soldiers present for duty.
Lee’s furlough policy did not close the escape hatch that Davis’ amnesty proclamation had unintentionally opened. In fact, the new furlough policy was largely ridiculed by the men, who insisted that there was even less of a chance of securing official permission to go home after Gettysburg. One Confederate calculated that it would take three to four years for all the men in his unit to receive a furlough home.
Frustration among the rank and file must have also increased because Lee stipulated that the new furlough system should give preference to “the most urgent and meritorious cases.” Officers who made such a determination were undoubtedly seen as playing favorites by those refused a pass and stuck in camp. A Virginia soldier spoke to the frustration of his comrades after Lee’s furlough policy when he wrote, “The captain told me that he would let me go home in September but he is so down on me now that I don’t think he will let me (go) then, for I have been tilling him just what I think of him and damn his sole if he don’t mind I will put him through yet…for he is the damest Raskal that ever I had enny thing to doo with in my life.”
In the end, Lee’s furlough system extinguished the hopes of many men who were already outraged by the army’s failure to uphold the legal right to a furlough. After Wagner’s wife asked him to “beg” for a furlough, he replied that “I can say to you a man mite as well beg for peese[.] They would git Jest as soone as a furlow.” Wagner and Zimmerman did not desert, but undoubtedly some did go home, believing that they faced indefinite military service.
Lee searched for an effective policing strategy in the wake of the failed amnesty program, but deep down he must have known that he would have to inflict harsher punishments on his men. “I begin to fear,” the commanding general concluded, “[that] nothing but the death penalty, uniformly, inexorably administered, will stop it.”
Lee’s fears were realized at the beginning of September, when he authorized a series of executions. A month later at least 20 men had been shot to death by their comrades. Reports also surfaced that delinquent solders were receiving prison sentences that ranged between five and 10 years.
Anger over these punitive measures, either from soldiers or civilians, did not receive press coverage. In fact, newspaper editors did not raise a single question about the use of firing squads. They gave critical support to the use of violence against deserters and their collaborators on the home front at a time when Confederate officials were launching a violent campaign to eradicate dissenters.
While scores of men from the 57th North Carolina deserted from the regiment after Gettysburg, most stayed put. Their decision to remain in the army, however, should not be viewed as proof of Confederate loyalty or high morale. The practical challenges of running away, the possibility of having to live the life of a fugitive on the home front and the army’s violent crackdown on desertion kept men like Wagner and Zimmerman tethered to their units. We should not conclude that they had given themselves to the Confederate cause, that they were inspired by the nationalistic rhetoric of politicians, or that they continued to fight out of deep sense of comradeship. They fought out of necessity, but resignation did not mean passivity. Even when they were physically and emotionally worn down, as both men were after Gettysburg, they possessed the mental resolve to question the morality of the war and the suffering that it had caused so many loved ones.
Clear-cut answers to these difficult questions, however, did not magically appear. Zimmerman and Wagner found themselves trapped in a conflict that must at times have seemed incomprehensible, leaving them both frustrated and confused. Zimmerman expressed the mental outlook of countless dissenting Confederates who desired freedom but could not find a realistic way to escape the morass of war. Wagner expressed conflicted sentiments when he wrote in August 1863: “I would go too (desert) for God onleys knows I want this war to End and I hope and pray to God it will End before long some way or a nother so we all can go home to our Dear Wives and children and live in peese as before for God onley knows I am that tired of the war that I don’t hardly know what to doo any more.”
It is hard to determine how many of Wagner’s and Zimmerman’s comrades shared their opinions after Gettysburg, but their words and actions remind us that all soldiers were monitored very closely inside the army. Such policing limited their options to either speak out or to follow their principles. Lee and other Confederate officials realized imploring men to do their duty was not enough. An amnesty program or furlough only bred more discontent. They grimly determined that the men needed to be reminded of the lethal risks of desertion by exercising the ultimate form of government power against its citizens—capital punishment.
Rather than strike out against a Confederate army that was both abusive and negligent and risk the possibility of being brought before a firing squad, Wagner and Zimmerman acknowledged that they occupied the bottom rung of the army, and that there was no escaping their confinement. Furthermore, they refused to delude the people back home that the war was some kind of heroic adventure. They wanted everyone to know that they confronted a world of unpredictable violence and brutal restrictions.
With great honesty and courage, these two soldiers had the resolve to admit to themselves and to their families that they could do nothing to alter their situation except to find a way to survive this horrible ordeal.
Peter S. Carmichael, the Eberly Professor of Civil War Studies, at West Virginia University, has completed numerous studies on Confederate motivation and morale.