There were a number of reasons for this lack of uniform, besides states' rights and individual choice, and even they cannot all be laid at the government's feet. Lack of responsibility among the individual troops and poor company-grade officers who failed to make sure their men had all the necessary kit in good order accounted for much of the problem. If given anything the men felt was momentarily unnecessary, they simply threw it away. One Georgia captain wrote in early 1863: 'The Company begins to look as ragged as ours ever did, the cause of it is that they have to toat [carry] their extra clothing and rather than toat it they won't have it.' McCarthy wrote that when going on a march 'soldiers commonly threw away the most valuable articles they possessed. Blankets, overcoats, shoes, bread and meat all gave way to the necessities of the march. . . .'
Such an irresponsible attitude on the men's part created great problems for them and the entire army. Lee, for example, at Mine Run felt he had the Union army in a position where he could have repeated his magnificent manœuvres of Chancellorsville, only to have to withdraw because his men had thrown away their overcoats and couldn't serve well in the cold November weather.
Even the clothes they did keep were poorly cared for - showing again a failure of company officers to insist on as much neatness as possible. McCarthy reported that 'very little washing was done, as a matter of course. Clothes once given up were parted with forever. There were good reasons for this: cold water would not cleanse them or destroy the vermin, and hot water was not always to be had.' Another 'good' reason was given by another Confederate when he wrote home in 1862 that 'soap seems to have given out entirely in the Confederacy & consequently it is almost impossible to have any clean clothes. I am without drawers today both pairs of mine being so dirty that I can't stand them.'
A Georgian in 1864 noted that some half of his company had gone two months without changing clothcs and a Texan wrote in 1865 that '. . . something near half of the command has not changed shirts for 4 or 5 months'. Uncleaned clothes, sweaty and filthy, actually rotted away and were worthless much sooner than cared-for uniforms would have been.
A Confederate infantry camp. Note the barefoot soldiers
McCarthy expressed the overall attitude: 'It was inconvenient to change the underwear too often, and the disposition not to change grew, as the knapsack was found to gall the back and shoulders and weary the man before half the march was accomplished. The better way was to dress out, and wear that outfit until the enemy's knapsack or the folks at home supplied a change. Certainly it did not pay to carry around clean clothes while waiting for the time to use them.'
Such an attitude is rather amazing for soldiers who served four years in an army which gained such a great reputation. Its reputation, however, is that of a hard-fighting army, and not a well-disciplined one. An English visitor in 1862 reported that 'the soldiers of the Southern army were scrambled together in a few months, and the greater part of them never have gone through any regular course of drill, and are, therefore, wanting in the smartness and precision which distinguish good troops in Europe. Men take off their hats instead of saluting; orders arc given in a loose conversational tone, and the gunner in a battery will suggest an opinion to the captain. But though, for these reasons, the troops might not be presentable on parade, a year's hard service has rendered them efficient for the field.'
Colonel Fremantle was rather taken by the nonconformity of the Confederate soldier:'... The Confederate has no ambition to imitate the regular soldier at all. He looks the genuine Rebel; but in spite of his bare feet, his ragged clothes, his old rug, and a toothbrush stuck like a rose in his buttonhole (this toothbrush in the buttonhole is a very common custom, and has a most quaint effect), he has a sort of devil-may-care, reckless, self-confident look, which is decidedly taking.' The Colonel had been at one dress parade where 'before [the] marching past of the brigade, many of the soldiers had taken off their coats and marched past the general in their shirt sleeves, on account of the warmth'.
The typical Confederate was quite proud of his independence. One of them, when writing about
Wood-soled shoes were commonly issued, due to a leather shortage. (Smithsonian Institution)
the typical private, said: 'He doesn't care whether anyone likes his looks or not. He is the most independent soldier that ever belonged to an organized army. He has respect for authority, and he submits cheerfully to discipline. He is perfectly tractable if properly officered but quick to resent an official incivility.'
Such a lax discipline was thought to be no problem by Confederate authorities at first. As one of them explained to an English visitor in 1862: 'The very high standard of individual intelligence, moreover, supplies the want of order in a great measure. Things which, in other armies, if not done on a strict rule, would be altogether neglected, somehow "get themselves done" in this volunteer army. . .. The great strength and power of the Southern army lies in the individual resolution of the men.'
All well and good for an army quickly assembled, fighting a few sharp and hard fights, winning and returning home. But leave that same undisciplined bunch of men in the field any length of time, when they have to be clothed, fed, drilled and kept well and alert, and discipline is a vital part of winning any war. It was not until too late that such a discovery was made by Confederate authorities. One important general, Jubal Early, wrote in February 1865, with only two months of life left for the Army of Northern Virginia, that too much dependence had been placed on the soldiers' innate merit as individuals and not enough consideration given on moulding them into effective units. 'Many opportunities', he wrote, 'have been lost and hundreds of valuable lives
Wood-soled shoes were commonly issued, due to a leather shortage. (Smithsonian Institution)
have been uselessly sacrificed for the want of a strict observance of discipline.'
How true this was can be seen in Lee's decision at Mine Run, and in an order of September 1864 covering the whole Army of Northern Virginia: 'There is not that spirit of respect for and obedience to general orders which should pervade a military organization. ... If the orders governing this subject [straggling] were rigorously enforced, thousands of muskets would be heard in every fight that are now never fired.'
Even those officers who saw the necessity for firm discipline had their hands full in enforcing even the slightest amount of it. McCarthy wrote: 'The Confederate soldier was peculiar in that he was ever ready to fight, but never ready to submit
to the routine duty and discipline of the camp or march. The soldiers were determined to be soldiers after their own notions, and do their duty, for the love of it, as they thought best. The officers saw the necessity for doing otherwise, and so the conflict was commenced and maintained to the end.'
The story went round how General Wigfall, commanding Texas troops, came across a guard reclining on a pile of boxes, his musket leaning against a nearby tree. 'What are you doing here, my man?' asked the General.
'Nothin' much, jes' kinder takin' care of this hyar stuff,' replied the private without moving from his reclining position.
'Wal, now 'pears like I know your face, but I can't jes' call your name - who is you?'
'I'm General Wigfall.'
Without rising, the soldier stuck out his hand. 'General, I'm pleased to meet you. iMy name's Jones.'
The General did nothing about the inciden Probably there would have been little he real] could have done. Officers were initially electe and although examinations for competency wei set up for them in 1862, popularity meant th most in retaining one's rank. In December i8fi an Act of Congress was passed to encourage r( enlistments, which allowed the men to switch unii and even branches of the service if they wisher Men who had officers who were disciplinariar usually transferred, and those officers, withot any commands, ended up being lost to the arm\ Officers, too, who had the misfortune of bein foreign or somehow 'different' from the ofte small-minded, mostly small farmers serving unde them, found it almost impossible to work wit their troops. One colonel who was Jewish was sen out to command a Texas regiment, but lasted onl a few days, as the men did their best to make lif impossible for him.
The feeling against all officers ran deep witl many troops. A Texan wrote home in 1864 tha 'it is only the ones that wear gray coats and Bras Buttons . . . [who] are living better and wea better clothes than they did before the war. I d< not blame them for keeping the war up as long a possible . . . most of them are in no danger, the] are always in the rear.'
A real cause for this feeling lay in deep-rootec feelings of that mass of people who made up th< Confederacy's other ranks. All too often in theii letters home they said the officers were treating them like Negroes and to the poorer farmer beinj treated like the only class of people they fell superior to slaves was to rob them of a majoi source of necessary ego. Therefore, the strong spirit ofindependence, with which they treated all orders and discipline, was very much a part of their very being.
The amazing thing, perhaps, is that any stayec in the army at all. A colonel commanding an artillery battalion obtained leave for two of his men who had performed particularly heroic acts. 'Going home', he recalled, 'they found their cabins and their families as they had left them, with fish a-plenty and a better market the Union soldiers-than they had [previously] known. They took the oath of allegiance and stayed at home. Their families needed them. There was no glory for them, no cross of a legion of honor. Their duty was to a cause they scarce understood; hardship, suffering, and the danger of death were all they had to return to. The danger and suffering to them and their families were great, their reward invisible. Who can wonder that they stayed home or judge them harshly? I for one cannot. The true wonder is that any held out. Many a morning in camp I have read appeal after appeal for leave to go home from good men, who would attach to their petitions letters from their wives, with appeals for the men to come home to save their families from starvation and cold.' And go home they did, by leave or desertion. In February 1865 the Superintendent of the Bureau of Conscription estimated conservatively that there were 100,000 deserters. The last returns for the Army of Northern Virginia showed 160,198 men present for duty - 198,494 absent.
An Alabama private after the war wrote on their defeat: 'What was the cause of it? Skulkers, Cowards, Extortioners and Deserters not the Yankees that makes it worse.'
The Alabamian was one of those who stayed to the bitter end, and put up a magnificent fight in the process. Despite falling morale, poor discipline and bad uniforms and equipment, those who did see it through have been called some of the best infantrymen ever to fight.
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