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Book Reviews :: Reluctant Rebels: The Confederates Who Joined the Army after 1861

Book Reviews

Reluctant Rebels: The Confederates Who Joined the Army after 1861. By Kenneth Noe. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010. xiv, 317 pp. $35.00 ISBN 978-0-8078-3377-3.

Kenneth Noe makes an important contribution to our understanding of Civil War soldiers in his well-written and entertaining work Reluctant Rebels: Confederates Who Joined the Army after 1861. Although many previous scholars have studied the combatants of 1861–1865, either as a whole, by side, by branch of service, or even by specific army, none has explored how those who enlisted after the heady first year of the war differed from their comrades-in-arms. Noe fills this gap in relation to Confederates. Moreover, by carefully explaining how his findings relate to other scholarship, he provides a thorough introduction to studies of the common soldier. Reluctant Rebels will make an excellent assignment for graduate or upper-division undergraduate Civil War courses. Because Noe skillfully weaves excerpts from his primary sources into his analysis, what might have been a dull topic comes alive, making it a work that should interest general readers as well as scholars.

Noe’s book shares the same limitation and weakness that characterizes all investigations of Civil War soldiers, namely that the sources available for study do not constitute a representative cross-section of the whole. This is particularly true on the Confederate side, where the surviving material is uneven. Whether one includes postwar memoirs, or limits one’s study as Noe does to wartime journals, diaries, and letters, officers and noncommissioned officers are overrepresented, as are soldiers serving in the Eastern Theater. The lower ranks left much less behind, particularly in the Trans-Mississippi. Moreover, source material is more often than not silent or cryptic in relation to many topics of intense historical interest, such as slavery, emancipation, reasons for enlistment, reaction to combat, and morale. This raises important questions. If in a sample of several hundred letters only ten refer to a specific topic, are any conclusions valid? With such limited data, interpretation can be problematic and it is easy to make extreme assertions. If more soldiers in the Western Theater’s Army of Tennessee praise Robert E. Lee in their letters than their own commanders, should we conclude that Lee was a national symbol for the South? Or given the fact that, regardless of theater, the vast majority of soldier letters never mention any commanding generals, should we conclude that neither Lee nor any other top-level commander meant very much to the men they led?

Noe’s archival research is impressive; that his data set of post-1861 enlistees numbers only 320 soldiers is a testament to how seldom soldiers’ letters address specific questions of interest to historians. A few examples must suffice to suggest the complexity and depth of his research and analysis, which both confirms and challenges previous assumptions regarding the “typical” southern soldier. Noe’s soldiers are older and more likely to be married than those who joined the ranks in 1861, and their reasons for waiting to enlist remain largely elusive. He concludes that later enlistees were less ideologically motivated than early enlistees, for they rarely espoused Confederate nationalism, mentioned state rights or liberty, or referenced the American Revolution. Noe finds little resentment of planter aristocrats among his later enlistees who owned no slaves; all later enlistees were united in their support of slavery and opposition to emancipation. Noe finds that defense of hearth and home were as important to later enlistees as other Confederates. Hatred of the enemy sustained later enlistees, as it did earlier soldiers, but bounties and furloughs were also powerful incentives for remaining in the ranks over the course of the conflict.

Noe sharply questions scholars who assert that large-scale revivals within Confederate armies were important for maintaining morale. He concludes that later enlistees were indeed sustained by faith, but through memories of worship at home rather than a shared Christian brotherhood in gray. Indeed, later enlistees clung much more closely to home, so much so that by resisting the bonds born of shared service they may have undermined unit pride and esprit de corps. They were, nevertheless, as effective soldiers as those who joined earlier.

Noe concludes his book with appendixes providing ample information on his data set. He explains his methodology and assumptions clearly, and expresses proper caution in relation to his findings, presenting them as but one part of a complex picture. While Noe does not consider Alabama troops as a separate group, they are well represented. If the past is indeed a “foreign country,” frustratingly inaccessible in relation to questions that currently absorb us, Reluctant Rebels stands as an example of how that past may nevertheless be explored to our benefit.

William Garrett Piston
Missouri State University

(Copyright 2012, Alabama Historical Association, used by permission. May not be copied for distribution without permission of copyright holder.).



The following is an explanation of the preceding book review.

Dr. Kenneth Noe is one of the Auburn University History Department’s most prolific writers. His newest book, Reluctant Rebels: The Confederates Who Joined the Army after 1861 (Chapel Hill, 2010), has been met with much acclaim by Civil War scholars and the general public alike.

Noe decided to study the motivations of the soldiers who enlisted in the Confederate army months and even a year after the start of the Civil War after realizing that there was very little information about these men and their motivations. The common understanding of the war points to southern men jumping at the chance to enlist, but Noe says that 70,000 soldiers were actually substitutes, hired by other southerners to take their place in the Confederate ranks. Another 120,000 were conscripts, not volunteers. And 180,000 enlisted no earlier than January 1862, at least nine months after the beginning of the conflict.

“I’ve always been interested in the common soldier,” Noe says. “There were a lot of soldiers that we were missing by concentrating on those soldiers who enlisted at the beginning of the war who tended to leave the most letters and who tended to talk most about ideology.”

The book is available on the Chapel Hill website.

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Tags: Alabama Review, Civil War, History, Journal, Soldiers, book review

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