Jason Phillips. Diehard Rebels: The Confederate Culture of Invincibility. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007. ix + 257 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8203-2836-2.
Reviewed by Susannah U. Bruce (Department of History, Sam Houston State University)
Published on H-War (May, 2008)
Why They Fought On: New Interpretations of Confederate Soldier Ideology
After the overwhelming Confederate defeats at the battles of Franklin and Nashville in 1864, Union General John Schofield puzzled over the determination exhibited by the Southern forces so late in the war. Years later, he reflected, "'I doubt if any soldiers in the world ever needed so much cumulative evidence to convince them that they were beaten'" (p. 115). It is this astonishing resolve that inspires Jason Phillips's Diehard Rebels. Part of the work is grounded in classic soldier and combat ideology studies, like Gerald Linderman's Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the American Civil War (1987), Reid Mitchell's Civil War Soldiers (1988), and, more recently, James McPherson's For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War (1997). But, Phillips argues that scholars need to approach the subject differently if we are to understand "why thousands of men continued to fight for cause and comrades despite the long odds of 1864 and 1865" (p. 3). Phillips sees the essential question as not "what they fought for" but rather "why they fought on" (p. 3).
In fairness, Linderman, Mitchell, and McPherson recognized the difference between these issues, but Phillips, offers something new. He does this by narrowly focusing his study on the years from 1863 through 1865, and restricting himself to wartime correspondence to avoid any false postwar memories or motivations. Within these tight confines, Phillips packs a wealth of source material. He admits that his study favors literate officers, but Phillips insists that their convictions were quite similar to those of the enlisted men. He clarifies, though, that diehard rebels were not typical Southerners. Rather, "They were often more privileged, more educated, and more attached to slavery than their fellow citizens were" (p. 4). Phillips compensates for these limits by incorporating a broad swath of material from soldiers serving in the Army of Northern Virginia, the Army of the Tennessee, and the Army of the Trans-Mississippi.
Diehard Rebels follows a thematic rather than chronological path with each chapter focusing on a key to Phillips's explanation of Confederate "culture of invincibility." Born during the Second Great Awakening, these soldiers, like the South, Phillips argues, were defined by their Protestant faith and their confidence that God smiled upon them and the Confederacy. That faith sustained the men and clarified the often incomprehensible. As Phillips explains, "triumphs proved God's favor and presence among Confederate legions; defeats confirmed God's love by chastening Rebels for their sins" (p. 187). Through it all, the Confederates' will to fight was sustained by their faith in God and their trust in God's faith in them.
In chapter 2, Phillips contends that the Confederate dehumanization of federal forces and Northerners in general also sustained their fighting spirit. While this tool is not unique to Southern soldiers, Phillips still proves its effectiveness for Confederate troops, and argues that their images of the enemy may have been more extravagant than most. Blending newspaper cartoons and popular songs with poetry from letters and diaries, Phillips shows how "many Confederates considered total war campaigns and the proliferation of black troops' evil portents of the South's future should the rebellion fail" (p. 74). The result, he argues, was a belief that anything, including death, was better than surrendering to such a foe.
Chapter 3 explains how the environments of camp and battlefield sustained the Confederate will to fight. Even in the face of defeat, Phillips's diehard rebels pointed to large numbers of Union dead as evidence of their ability to continue the war. Phillips cites strong combat leadership and close bonds forming in the intensity of conflict as additional factors that led Confederates to misrepresent casualties in letters, and maintain a blind faith in their best officers. Chapter 4 builds on this concept with an analysis of camp rumors that soldiers readily believed. Phillips shows how "during the nadir of Confederate morale, diehards intoxicated each other with gossip of improbable victories, northern disasters, and foreign intervention" (p. 117). This theme of faith and reliance on illogical outcomes continues through chapter 5, which studies Confederate soldiers in the final four months of the war and into the period of Reconstruction. In some ways, the themes of all previous chapters converge here as religious faith, negative caricatures of the enemy, rumors, and the bonds between soldiers sustained Confederates in early 1865. Quotes echo Sergeant Marion Fitzpatrick's pledge to his wife in Georgia that "'Yankees may kill me but will never subjugate me'" (p. 153).
It was this determination, a blend of all of the motivations outlined in Diehard Rebels, that carried Confederates into the period of Reconstruction. Phillips concludes that the Southern soldier "did not come home victorious; he did not come home humbled. Johnny came marching home with a loaded pistol. He came home an unconquered loser, armed with wartime convictions that shaped his postwar identity, ideology, and actions" (p. 179). These values and attitudes guided diehard rebels through the remainder of 1865 and in the years that followed. They helped Southerners to introduce and sustain the myth of the Lost Cause and allowed Confederates to win the peace that defeated Reconstruction, created Jim Crow, and defined the New South.
There are some minor weaknesses to the work. While there is a certain timelessness to the soldier experience, it is dangerous to compare the ideology of American soldiers in World War II with those of Confederates. At one point, Phillips does this to underscore the concept of diehard rebels fighting, at least in part, for their fellow soldiers. More perplexing, though, is Phillips's decision to prove this by quoting a WWII veteran speaking long after that conflict (just as he did General Schofield in the example that opens this review). One could make the case that scholars have tossed out valuable sources in the trendy animosity toward memoirs, but Phillips has already insisted that "postwar accounts cannot answer wartime questions" (p. 4). Clearly opposed to the evidentiary use of postwar memories, he cannot now cite one to support an argument. On a different theme, Phillips argues at several points that readers must resist the temptation to view Confederates' determination as "absurd or a mystery," and he insists that "Diehard Rebels were not insane, delusional, or bombastic" (pp. 189, 4). Phillips may be creating a bit of a straw man here. Surely scholars are well past such warnings about the Confederacy and Confederate ideology.
But these points are minor. Phillips succeeds brilliantly in accomplishing his goal to "tell us more about southern culture and warfare in general than about Confederate defeat," though I think he has done that nicely as well (p. 4). Diehard Rebels will make an outstanding addition to any course on the American South or the U.S. Civil War era.
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Susannah U. Bruce. Review of Phillips, Jason, Diehard Rebels: The Confederate Culture of Invincibility.
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