The new movie, The Free State of Jones, does a number of things to challenge the Lost Cause narrative of the American Civil War. It not only places slavery at the center of the story, but it also destroys the popular idea that white Southerners were united in their cause for independence. I suspect that for many people who saw the movie the Civil War is best understood as a ‘rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.’ While such a label may capture the class and race dynamics of Jones County, Mississippi it is not at all clear as to the extent to which it explains the rest of the Confederate South.
What follows ought not to be interpreted as a criticism of the movie. I have long stated that it is a mistake to critique movies as works of historical scholarship. I maintain that Free State of Jones does a very good job of portraying life in one small county during the war and into Reconstruction.
Dissatisfaction with the war is captured early on in FSOJ with Newton Knight’s decision to desert from the Confederate army. Knight and others abandon the army in response to the Confederacy’s conscription act and a policy that exempted wealthy slaveowners from having to serve. On the face of it there seems to be no clearer way to demonstrate your frustration with a cause than by risking your life and walking away. And as we now know through a good deal of solid scholarship, tens of thousands of Confederates did just that throughout the war. The interpretation of desertion that has emerged, however, challenges the notion that it can be reduced to anti-Confederate sentiment or a belief among the rank and file that they were fighting a ‘rich man’s war.’
Even before looking at desertion we need to acknowledge that a number of historians, including Joseph Glatthaar, have challenged the assumption that slaveowners were under represented in the Confederate army. In fact, he found just the opposite in the case of the Army of Northern Virginia. Colin Woodward and others have also argued persuasively that non-slaveowners by and large remained united with slaveowners and understood the extent to which their defense of home hinged on protecting slavery. This was certainly magnified in the period following emancipation and the introduction of black soldiers as I argue in my book on the battle of the Crater.
Desertion is a trickier subject to get your head around. First, historians have shown that desertion did not necessarily signal that Confederate soldiers had given up on the cause or that they believed they were fighting a ‘rich man’s war.’ Confederate soldiers were pulled in many different directions during the war. These men believed that they had the right to abandon their posts temporarily to assist their families during difficult times. There was no harm done, they believed, if they could sneak off for a week or two without their officers noticing.
Soldiers were also notorious for straggling, which was often mistaken for desertion. Katy Meier’s new book demonstrates that Confederates embraced straggling to engage in what she calls “self-care,” which may have ultimately contributed to keeping men in the ranks even if they were occasionally deemed to be deserters.
Desertion was certainly a problem for Confederate armies, but it may not have proven fatal to the war effort until the very end. Confederates experienced a great deal of desertion and straggling during the period between the Seven Days and Sharpsburg, but the army recovered in time for the battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville and managed to field a strong and confident force in time for the Gettysburg campaign in the summer of 1863. While the Army of Northern Virginia dealt with a slow stream of deserters beginning in May 1864 it wasn’t until October-November that, according to Tracy Power, the situation became dire.
A closer look at desertion may in the end tell us much more about how the Confederacy managed to last as long as it did rather than why it failed.