Reluctant Rebels? Historian Kenneth Noe Talks Late-Enlistees in the Confederate Army

By Ashley Whitehead Luskey

noe
Image courtesy of Auburn University.

Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the speakers from the upcoming 2017 CWI conference about their talks. Today we are speaking with Dr. Kenneth Noe.  Dr. Noe is the Draughon Professor of Southern History at Auburn University, where he teaches classes on the American Civil War and Appalachian history.  He is the author or editor of seven books, including Southwest Virginia’s Railroad: Modernization and the Sectional Crisis (University of Illinois Press, 1994); A Southern Boy in Blue: The Memoir of Marcus Woodcock, 9th Kentucky Infantry (U.S.A.) (University of Tennessee Press, 1996); The Civil War in Appalachia: Collected Essays, (co-edited with Shannon H. Wilson, University of Tennessee Press, 1997); Perryville: This Grand Havoc of Battle (University Press of Kentucky, 2002); Politics and Culture of the Civil War Era: Essays in Honor of Robert W. Johannsen, (co-edited with Daniel J. McDonough, Susquehanna University Press, 2006); Reluctant Rebels: The Confederates Who Joined the Army After 1861 (UNC Press, 2010); and, most recently, The Yellowhammer War: Alabama in the Civil War and Reconstruction (University of Alabama Press, 2014). He also has written many articles and essays for publications in scholarly journals such as Civil War History and The Journal of Military History.  Dr. Noe was a Pulitzer Prize entrant and the winner of the 2003 Kentucky Governor’s Award, the 2002 Peter Seaborg Book Award for Civil War Non-fiction, and the 1997 Tennessee History Book Award.  He currently is writing a book on Civil War weather.  Dr. Noe is a frequent speaker on the Civil War Round Table circuit, a participant in the Organization of American Historians Distinguished Lectureship Program, and served as the 2008-2009 president of the Alabama Historical Association. He currently serves on the Board of Editors of Civil War History, and was a consultant for the NBC series Who Do You Think You Are?

CWI:  Who do you define as a “reluctant rebel,” and why were these individuals “reluctant?”

NOE:  In my study, “reluctant rebels” are men who enlisted in the Confederate Army no earlier than January 1862.  While I also look at a few draftees, my real interest is the men who could have enlisted at the beginning of the war but chose not to do so.  Their reluctance, I concluded, stemmed from many individual reasons, but generally speaking they were less politicized than those who went before them.  Their decisions to not enlist after Fort Sumter and also to sign up later usually reflected more practical concerns, notably the threat of Union troops wrecking their small local worlds.

CWI:  How have “reluctant rebels” often been portrayed in history and memory?  How were these men different from, or similar to, “early enlisters” in their motivations to fight?

NOE:  When I first began the study, other scholars told me that I would find men motivated largely by avoiding conscription.  I found the actual situation to be much more complicated than that.  There are many exceptions, but in general they were older men who paid little attention to politicians’ rhetoric, as compared to the early enlisters.  Instead, they worried more about the survival of their farms and businesses.  Even their support of slavery was more practical and economic than ideological.

CWI:  How effective were “reluctant rebels” as fighters?  How did the long-term impacts of war on “reluctant rebels” compare with those on “early enlisters?”

NOE:  I started out assuming that as a group Reluctant Rebels would be more likely to desert or otherwise shirk duty.  I did not find much evidence to support that assumption.  Most of those men in my sample clearly tried to be good soldiers.  The problem was that they tended to be older and more likely to become ill.  The spirits were willing, but the bodies often were weak.  That absolutely impacted the numbers of quality men the Confederacy could put in the field by 1864.

noe2
1862 Confederate recruitment poster. Image courtesy of UNC Libraries.

If you are interested in hearing more from Kenneth Noe and other distinguished scholars, consider registering for our 2017 summer conference

Leave a Reply