The Confederate Army served a newly created government and consisted mainly of volunteers, but it was not raised from an entirely unprepared population. In 1859, responding to John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, southern states revived their largely dormant militia units. Mississippi appropriated funds and a few companies organized in early 1860, but militia formation lagged until Abraham Lincoln’s election. Mississippians now began preparing in earnest to answer what the state’s adjutant general called the “ignominious taunts of the Black Republican horde.” By the time Mississippi seceded in January 1861, four thousand men had joined sixty-five militia companies.
Militia officers were expected to provide training and supervision, but militiamen were not a battle-ready army. Mississippi officials had trouble finding a reliable weapons contractor, officers had spotty knowledge of tactics, and there were limits to local reaction to the political furor of 1860–61: most companies were undermanned, others disbanded altogether, and voters frequently ignored elections for militia officers.
Apathy vanished, however, when war became a reality. The capture of Fort Sumter in April 1861 led Lincoln to call for seventy-five thousand troops, a move the South viewed as a declaration of war. Military-age men responded immediately, forming companies in villages and towns across the region. Mississippians organized two hundred companies (each of which typically had one hundred soldiers) by mid-May, reversing the state’s dilemma: where finding volunteers had once been the problem, authorities were now confronted with far more enlistees than they could equip and supply. Not until the fall of 1861 did a substantial number of Mississippi units enter regular Confederate service.
A complex combination of motives influenced enlistment in the Confederate Army. Soldiers’ testimony tended to personalize their purposes: Samuel Meek of Lowndes County was fighting for “my wife & child & relatives and friends & country,” while Ben Harris of Copiah County wanted “to defend my helpless Brother & sister.” Volunteers were nonetheless aware of the war’s political issues—Meek declared that he was also fighting “against the brutal violence of a fiendish people.” Newspapers such as the Canton American Citizen had warned about this brutishness: “The North threatens us with subjugation, confiscation, and emancipation; terms that no freeman can think of submitting to, without having lost all honor and traits of character belonging to manhood.”
The editor’s mention of manhood hints at the ways in which the multiple dimensions of masculinity could also stimulate enlistment. Young men often equated masculinity with military obligation: Robert Moore of Holly Springs believed that “our country calls & he that would not respond deserves not the name of man.” Women also had a role in invoking masculinity. As companies prepared to leave for their camps of instruction, “patriotic ladies” customarily held flag-presentation ceremonies, reminding soldiers of their duty to defend community honor. For men unmoved by such demonstrations, women’s reminders could be more pointed. A Natchez woman asked men who had not yet enlisted to “be men once more, and make every woman in the land proud of having you as protectors.” A resident of Jefferson County reported that “the young ladies say they will not marry any of the boys that stay at home. They will wait for them that has gone to fight for their rights.”
In addition to patriotism and manhood, Mississippians’ circumstances also influenced their likelihood of enlisting. Among a sample of military-age Mississippians taken from the 1860 census, men younger than twenty-five were more likely to enlist than were older men. Having a stake in slavery was also a key reason to enlist: men who had been born in slave states or whose families had invested in slaves were considerably more likely to join the army than were other men. Conversely, a sense of geographical vulnerability seems to have discouraged enlistment. Residents along the Mississippi River and the Gulf Coast expressed apprehension about bearing the brunt of a Yankee invasion, and men from these areas were less likely to join the Confederate Army. Indeed, an 1861 military roll from a river county indicates that many military-age men had left the area as the war was beginning.
The rush to enlist that had frustrated Confederate officials in mid-1861 diminished in the fall, and by the spring of 1862 the opposite problem had emerged. Not only had volunteering tapered off, but many of those who had enlisted were nearing the end of their one-year terms (though others had signed on for three years). Faced with these problems, the Confederate Congress enacted a national draft in April 1862. One-year enlistments were extended to three years, and white men between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five were subject to conscription unless they hired substitutes or worked in exempt occupations. The age limit for regular service was later raised to forty-five, substitution was abolished, and exemptions were added for men on large plantations. The army continued to accept volunteers because officials hoped that holdouts would volunteer rather than be drafted. Across the South an estimated two hundred thousand new Confederate soldiers reported for duty in 1862, more than half of them volunteers. Mississippi had an estimated eight thousand draftees over the course of the war: there are no precise figures for men who volunteered instead, but they probably totaled several times the number of draftees.
In 1864 Confederate draft officials, drawing on county reports, estimated that sixty-seven thousand Mississippians had joined the army since the war began. A few more joined over the war’s last year, and some Mississippians crossed state lines to enlist. However, identifying how many men did not serve is considerably more difficult. In 1860 Mississippi had approximately eighty-eight thousand white male residents aged between fifteen and fifty, but some of them left the state (and the South) before the Civil War. According to some reports, men hid out to avoid conscription, and local resistance to Confederate authority occasionally arose, especially in Mississippi’s Piney Woods, though the overall number of evaders is unknown. A good estimate is that at least three-quarters of military-age white men in wartime Mississippi joined the Confederate Army.
- John K. Bettersworth, Confederate Mississippi: The People and Politics of a Cotton State in Wartime (1943)
- Victoria E. Byum, The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War (2001)
- Larry M. Logue, Journal of Social History (Spring 1993)
- Albert B. Moore, Conscription and Conflict in the Confederacy (1924)
- Dunbar Rowland, Military History of Mississippi, 1803–1898 (1978)
- The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (1880–1901)
- Bell Irvin Wiley, The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy (1943)