When Confederates Came Marching Home: Jason Phillips on Southern Veterans and Reconstruction

By Ashley Whitehead Luskey

Jason Phillips. Image courtesy of West Virginia University.
Jason Phillips. Image courtesy of West Virginia University.

Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the historians scheduled to speak at the 2016 CWI conference about their upcoming talks and their thoughts about Reconstruction and its legacies. Today, we’re speaking with Jason Phillips, the Eberly Professor of Civil War Studies at West Virginia University. He is the author of Diehard Rebels: The Confederate Culture of Invincibility (University of North Carolina Press, 2007) and the editor of Storytelling, History, and the Postmodern South (University of North Carolina Press, 2013). He is currently at work on a second book, Civil War Looming: A History of the Future, which examines how Americans anticipated the Civil War and how those prophecies ultimately shaped their experiences and memories of the war.

CWI:  What obstacles—physical, emotional, political, social, financial, cultural—did the Confederate veteran face upon returning home, and how did he seek to deal with them? In what ways did Confederate veterans’ expectations of returning home match with the reality of the homecoming experience, and in what ways were they unprepared for or confounded by the realities of their homecoming?

PHILLIPS: As your question suggests, defeat stared Confederate veterans in the face in every facet of their lives. Failure was a physical, emotional, political, social, financial, and cultural fact that confronted and confounded returning rebels. Patrick Gilmore’s song, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” encapsulated how Confederates anticipated their homecoming. Communities would welcome returning heroes with fanfare. Church bells would peal with joy. Reality mocked such dreams. But if Confederates were unprepared for defeat, they were also unprepared for federal leniency. Many rebels expected the government to punish treason. The Confederate rank and file didn’t fear personal imprisonment or execution, as their generals and political leaders did, but they dreaded disfranchisement, confiscation of property, and a prolonged military occupation of the South. What happened was far less severe, and that federal leniency in 1865 emboldened Confederate veterans to resist Radical Reconstruction years later.

Confederate veterans reunion, Little Rock, AR, 1911. Image courtesy of the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.
Confederate veterans reunion, Little Rock, AR, 1911. Image courtesy of the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

CWI: How did variations in region and class shape the return of Confederate veterans?  What accounts for the most significant variations in the homecoming experience of various Confederate veterans?

PHILLIPS: The whole Confederacy experienced defeat but not destruction. Regions that escaped the war without being ruined by campaigning armies faced an easier transition into a peacetime economy and society. Travelers noted that the scars of active campaigning still affected some regions of the South for years after surrender. The stark difference between the Carolinas illustrates this point. South Carolina suffered worse than North Carolina during the war, and its postwar recovery was more difficult. Race was also a critical difference between those two states and across the region. Places with a concentration of black southerners, like South Carolina and Mississippi, presented a very different homecoming for Confederate veterans than places where whites predominated. If wartime destruction and racial majorities shaped how regions faced the future, disabilities influenced how veterans survived the war. Physically and emotional disabled veterans could not return to their prewar lives to the same degree as their comrades who ended military service unscathed. Class also affected how veterans resumed their lives. In the aftermath of defeat, southern aristocrats faced additional punishments and obstacles, because the federal government targeted them as members of the “Slave Power” it deemed responsible for secession and war. However, once elite Confederates received a presidential pardon, which Andrew Johnson liberally granted them, wealthier veterans often resumed economic and social preeminence in the South. Dire southern prophecies that emancipation would upend the social hierarchy of the region did not come true. Confederate veterans of all classes maintained their social position over blacks, and used violence to do it.

CWI: How did the long-term legacies of the war and the return/re-assimilation of Confederate veterans into southern society and the newly reunited nation shape post-war life in the South and in America as a whole?

PHILLIPS: Diehard rebels never accepted defeat. Their faith in southern invincibility survived the war as a defensive conviction that the South was superior and would “rise again.” This intractable belief continues to shape the legacy of the war in many ways, from race relations and Civil War memory to southern culture and national politics. Modern America is a complicated place shaped by many factors, but one of its enduring elements is Confederate pride.

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