I was recently asked to write an essay for an edited volume that will address various themes in Virginia in 1864. My specific assignment is to track civilian morale in Virginia from the beginning of the siege of Petersburg (June 1864) through to the end of the year. Although I have some general ideas that I want to test based on what I’ve read in the secondary literature, I want to think critically about how to measure civilian morale. Certain distinctions will need to be made in terms of class, location, and politics. The general trend in the secondary literature has been to emphasize the extent of civilian morale for the Confederate war effort into and through the summer of 1864.
Gary Gallagher has emphasized the importance of Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia as a driving force that continued to galvanize popular support even through the summer of 1864. The letters written home by Lee’s Virginians in the Petersburg trenches reflect a positive outlook at least up until the fall of Atlanta and even more so following Lincoln’s election in November. I will have to look through Tracy Power’s study of Lee’s army to see where he notices any apparent decline in the ranks. If I remember correctly it is in late 1864. No doubt the letters written home by Peter Carmichael’s “last generation” aided in maintaining support in those households. William Blair and Sarah A. Rubin have emphasized the ways in which nationalism was expressed both on the home front and in the ranks late in the war. I’ve been working on and off on a project which analyzes reactions to Confederate military executions. What I am surprised by is that even late in the war I found a significant amount of approval for this practice even as the military situation continued to deteriorate in 1864. Even among civilians I found examples of strong support for these executions as a way to maintain order and a viable fighting force. I interpret many of these reactions as examples of continued identification with the idea of a Confederate nation.
Part of the question involves thinking through the distinction between what some historians describe as the internal vs. external explanation of Confederate defeat. The former explanation concludes that internal fractures within the South brought about defeat rather than any specific defeat(s) on the battlefield. The above examples reflect the latter interpretion. The Confederacy did suffer from internal weaknesses (as do all societies at war) however they were not sufficient to bring about defeat. The Confederacy maintained a strong sense of nationalism and only succumbed as a result of battlefield defeat. I don’t think that this distinction is an artificial one, though I am going to have to step back as much of my own reading has gravitated to the external side.
In the end I will want the partipants to speak for themselves and not through some preconceived set of assumptions. There must be balance. Thinking about this question of morale sometimes feels like what Peter Novick once described as “nailing jelly to the wall.” I apologize if this reads as if I am just yapping on.