Friday, December 17, 2021

Booknotes: Confederate Conscription and the Struggle for Southern Soldiers

New Arrival:
Confederate Conscription and the Struggle for Southern Soldiers by John M. Sacher (LSU Press, 2021).

During my time running this site, I've come across enough questionable claims about publishing 'firsts' (or firsts in a long, long time) to not always accept them at face value. My initial reaction to reading that John Sacher's Confederate Conscription and the Struggle for Southern Soldiers "serves as the first comprehensive examination of the topic in nearly one hundred years" was a skeptical one. But after wracking my brain and tapping my keyboard for a bit, I couldn't come up with another candidate. I can recall (as Sacher also does in his introduction) Walter Hilderman's They Went into the Fight Cheering!: Confederate Conscription in North Carolina (2005), but it is obviously a study of more limited scope. Given conscription's important and controversial role in the war, the fact that a book the dusty vintage of Albert Burton Moore's Conscription and Conflict in the Confederacy (1924) remains the standard work on the topic is a bit surprising. Moore's book, which was reissued in paperback in 1996 by University of South Carolina Press with a new introduction, is also yet another early twentieth-century classic unread by me.

Accepting the challenge of formulating an up-to-date modern reexamination of Confederate conscription, Sacher work promises "fresh insights" into the South's draft system and "new conclusions." From the description: "Often summarily dismissed as a detested policy that violated states’ rights and forced nonslaveholders to fight for planters, the conscription law elicited strong responses from southerners wanting to devise the best way to guarantee what they perceived as shared sacrifice. Most who bristled at the compulsory draft did so believing it did not align with their vision of the Confederacy. As Sacher reveals, white southerners’ desire to protect their families, support their communities, and ensure the continuation of slavery shaped their reaction to conscription." Popularly regarded as the most "hated" of the Richmond government's war policy measures, Sacher finds that most Confederate supporters recognized that it was necessary to maintain the fighting strength of the army and believes the evidence shows conscription to be rather more accurately described as the most "debated" measure.

More: "For three years, Confederates tried to achieve victory on the battlefield while simultaneously promoting their vision of individual liberty for whites and states’ rights. While they failed in that quest, Sacher demonstrates that southerners’ response to the 1862 conscription law did not determine their commitment to the Confederate cause. Instead, the implementation of the draft spurred a debate about sacrifice―both physical and ideological―as the Confederacy’s insatiable demand for soldiers only grew in the face of a grueling war."

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