Demobilization, Reconciliation, and Johnny Yuma

About two weeks ago I shared my very rough introduction of my essay on the demobilization of the Army of Northern Virginia. I took on this project with few prior assumptions about what I would find. Problems abound in trying to track down sources from the period immediately following Appomattox. Few soldiers had the time or the interest in cataloging their journeys home. Most surprising of all was the level of violence that pervaded sections of Virginia, specifically along the Blue Ridge Mountains where those Confederates who deserted during the war continued to hide. Others headed for the hills in hopes that elements of the ANV would regroup and continue the struggle. The sudden surrender and dispersment of the ANV taxed an already depleted landscape and placed those civilians living in close proximity to roads in a precarious situation. Competition for limited resources inevitably led to clashes between soldiers, civilians, and the newly-freed slaves. Couple that with the humiliation of defeat and a sense of uncertainty regarding the future and you’ve got yourself a potentially explosive situation. Many of the soldiers learned of Lincoln’s assassination during their travels and this only added to that uncertainty. I was surprised by how many Confederates viewed the president’s death as a loss for the South. A farmer in Nelson County anticipated much harsher punishment for former Confederates under the new president, Andrew Johnson, while others could only speculate as to how they would be treated.

In the course of my research I’ve spent a bit of time examining our popular perceptions of this moment in the war in contrast with the historical sources uncovered. In terms of the former it is safe to assume that our collective memory is structured around images of reconciliation between the two armies followed by an uneventful transition to postwar life. Perhaps the best example of this popular interpretation is R.E. Lee himself. Following his surrender to Grant, Lee made his way to Richmond and shortly thereafter accepted a position as president of Washington College in Lexington where he was able to assist in the rebuilding of a much stronger and unified nation. Such an interpretation can be found in Ken Burns’s The Civil War and in books by historians such as Jay Winik, both of which point to the continuing allure of this peaceful picture of April 1865. Of course, the story is much more complex and biographers, including Elizabeth Brown Pryor, have demonstrated that Lee struggled to accept Confederate defeat and reunion and remained committed to white supremacy in the South.

The image of Lee, Jackson, Stuart, and Forrest as the embodiment of moral Christian warriors functions, in part, as a point of contrast with Northerners who continue to be perceived as ungodly or lacking in moral character. Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman utilized the industrial might of the North against an agrarian society whose foundation was peaceful and founded on the moral code of white southern gentlemen. As the argument goes, their actions in Virginia and Georgia were carried out without any regard to the moral rules governing civilized warfare, and the commitment on the part of white Southerners to defend hearth and home against a morally-bankrupt Union invader only enhanced their stoic resolve to resist modernity.

In thinking about this dichotomy I came across the old television series “The Rebel” which aired on ABC from 1959 to 1961 and starred Nick Adams as Johnny Yuma. It would be interesting to know why the series was canceled just as the Civil War Centennial was beginning. “The Rebel” told the story of a young ex-Confederate soldier at the end of the Civil War whose goal was to find inner peace in a country that he no longer understood. Johnny Yuma roamed the West following the war, still wearing parts of his old uniform. There is a grain of truth in such a story. However, ex-Confederates did not walk off into the sunset simply to find themselves or defend the rights of civilians; rather many of them were unable to imagine an identity apart from the Confederacy. Peter Carmichael has argued that this was especially true for the youngest generation of Confederates from the slave-holding class. While Johnny carried a deep-seated bitterness at having to surrender to the “Yankees”, he never lost sight of his high morals and principles. He had his own brand of law, and sometimes he even had to use his sawed-off, double-barreled shotgun to prove it, but it was always in defense of his moral principles or as a means to protect innocent civilians.

Consider the following clip from the episode titled “The Guard”. In this episode Johnny Yuma runs into a former guard from the military prison from which he escaped. Johnny remains stoic throughout his ordeal while his guard is portrayed as not only vengeful, but even mentally unbalanced. The series seems to have captured the best of the American Western in addition to our popular perceptions of the war. Sadly, Nick Adams committed suicide in 1968. Johnny Cash sang the theme song, which wasn’t released until after the series was cancelled:

The Rebel-Johnny Yuma

Johnny Yuma was a rebel
He roamed through the west
Did Johnny Yuma, the rebel
He wandered alone

He got fightin’ mad
This rebel lad
He packed no star
As he wandered far
Where the only law
Was a hook and a draw
The rebel, Johnny Yuma

[Repeat 1st verse]

He searched the land
This restless lad
He was panther quick
And leather tough
If he figured that
He’d been pushed enough
The rebel, Johnny Yuma

[Repeat 1st verse]

Fightin’ mad
This rebel lad
With a dream he’d hold
‘Til his dyin’ breath
He’d search his soul
And gamble with death
The rebel, Johnny Yuma

1 comment… add one
  • Sir:

    As I recall the TV series “The Rebel” was cancelled because Nick Adams’ made compensation demands that the network refused to meet. I suspect that Adams came to the conclusion that the series (and thus his starring role) was worth more as the Civil War Centennial approached. Regardless his demands were not met and production of new episodes ended with the series going into reruns shortly thereafter. Johnny Yuma proved to be the only really successful characer for Adams. Thereafter, his career went steadily downhill – noted by a truly unmemorable string of screen failures – and ended with his tragic suicide. Truly a sad ending for the boy from the Pennsylvania coalfields whose boyish looks gave the public of the 1960’s an enduring image of the Confederate soldier.

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