Many historians have examined the Civil War soldier, but few scholars have explored the racial attitudes and policies of the Confederate army. Although Southern men did not fight for slavery alone, the defense of the peculiar institution, and the racial control they believed it assured, united rebels in their support of the Confederacy and the war effort. Amid the destruction of the Civil War, slavery became more important than ever for men battling Yankee armies.
The war, nevertheless, tested Confederate soldiers’ idealized view of human bondage. Federal armies wrecked havoc on masters’ farms and plantations, seized hundreds of thousands of slaves, and eventually armed African Americans. Rebel troops were not blind to the war’s negative effects on the peculiar institution. They noted black people’s many disloyal actions, and some came to believe that slavery was not worth holding onto if it would undermine the Southern war effort.
But despite occasional worries about rebellious black people, Southern troops understood that slavery was vital to their cause. The Confederate military became the greatest of masters—an institution that rebels believed would assure the survival of human bondage and white supremacy. The army granted exemptions to slaveholders and overseers, invaded the Border States in order to acquire more slave territory, and impressed black workers to build fortifications and perform menial tasks. When rebels confronted black Federal troops—as at Fort Pillow and the Crater—they showed no quarter to men they believed were slaves in rebellion against their white masters.
Only with the Federal government’s triumph did Southerners accept the end of slavery. After Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, former Confederate soldiers lived in a new world. They could not reinstate slavery, but they were still committed to white supremacy and looked with fondness on the Old South.