The family war: motivation and commitment in the American Civil War

Sheehan-Dean, Aaron Charles, Department of History, University of Virginia
Gallagher, Gary W., Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Ayers, Edward L., Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Holt, Michael F., Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia

This study explores the reasons why Virginians made themselves Confederates and fought the Civil War. It focuses on soldiers and their families, tracing the evolving motivations that inspired the war and emerged during the fighting to prolong it. Virginians came to secession and war reluctantly but once committed they pursued an independent Confederacy with energy and diligence despite massive human and material losses. My goal has been to understand what drove this commitment to independence at the individual level, how men expressed their understandings of the purpose of the war, and how those understandings changed over time.

I argue that Virginia Confederates entered the war with a host of overlapping motivations, including a defense of home, a belief in state rights, and a desire to protect slavery. An independent Confederacy seemed to promise protection of all that white Virginians found rewarding about their antebellum world. During the war, Virginians refined their explanations of why they fought. Virginia soldiers developed a genuine attachment to the Confederate nation and this inspired service. Likewise, the Union's hard war policy, though it exposed soldiers' families to hardships and occupation, strengthened the commitment to keep fighting.

As the war's toll on both soldiers and civilians rose, men placed increasing importance on their emotional ties with family members, even as the violence of the war alienated them from the values of home. As a result, Virginia soldiers issued clearer and stronger justifications for staying in service in terms of their families and their interests. Confederate Virginians understood that the families for which they fought could not be removed from their social context. Hence, few men considered the option of rejoining the Union. Instead, they fought to preserve the society within which their families existed, vigorously defending slavery and racial hierarchy throughout the war. Because Confederate soldiers participated fully in both the battle front and the home front, they did not distinguish the political nation from the domestic nation. This harmony of interests inspired Virginians to enact a determined pursuit of Confederate independence.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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