Jason Phillips. Diehard Rebels: The Confederate Culture of Invincibility. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2007. 257 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $34.95 (Cloth),ISBN 0-8203-2836-7.
By Jared Frederick
In the past decades, Civil War scholars have devoted much time and energy in uncovering the reasons why Federals and Confederates waged a bloody, fratricidal war against each other. Historians such as James McPherson and Chandra Manning point to notions of family, country, Union, and slavery as key motivating factors of enlistment and service. Meanwhile, while not totally straying from these aforementioned motivations, author Jason Phillips focuses his study in a quite different realm of incentive. Diehard Rebels examines not why Confederates fought, but how they continued to fight – even in the face of undeniable and inescapable defeat. The main emphasis of this study is spotlighted on extremely dedicated southern combatants who believed firmly in the righteousness and sure success of their cause up to (and even after) April 1865. “Such men did not stick it out because of peer pressure, military authority, inertia, or even Confederate nationalism,” Phillips argues. “They submitted to unending carnage because they expected to win” (2).
Phillips continually mentions an “ethos” of invincibility which remained strong throughout the war and continued well into Reconstruction (ultimately creating the “Lost Cause”). The author attributes this mentality to three main factors of the conflict: “the environment of the war, the qualities of white southern culture, and the mechanics of group psychology” (187). In other words, troops failed to see the overall picture of the war, notions of southern defiance urged them to soldier on, and the military mentality many Confederates possessed convinced them they were unconquerable. This ethos, however, expands even further beyond these three key tenets. The abstraction and caricaturing of Union troops as barbaric, incompetent Yankee devils led southerners to underestimate the will and power of their enemy. Furthermore, religion and faith played a vital role in maintaining the perseverance of southern fighters. The culture of invincibility was, in part, fostered by the strong belief that the Confederate cause was divinely guided by a God whose will mirrored those of slaveholders and secessionists. As the conflict dragged on into stalemate and trench warfare, Confederates became transfixed to notions of faith and their “ethos.” While men continued to die at an unprecedented rate on the battlefield, the death of comrades was viewed by some to be God’s will. Here, religious belief, coupled with the desire of revenge, proved only to be additional motivating factors in encouraging survivors to fight even harder while “hopes and beliefs gave magnitude and meanings to events” in their lives (126). In this light, wishful fictions could easily be transformed into encouraging reality, especially when one was largely cut off from the outside world.
Phillips encourages his readers to remove modern conceptions of Confederates from their minds and attempt to understand and interpret them in all their dark complexities rather than criticizing them outright for be associated with the wrong cause (4). In the wake of their defeat, southerners’ invincibility transformed defiance and white pride to establish Jim Crow and anti-Reconstruction policy. Phillips concludes his excellent study by stating, “More than any particular victory, the veterans chose resilience as their greatest military achievement” (187). Even 146 after their military defeat, the Lost Cause of the Confederacy remains a highly visible and contested legacy within modern society.
Diehard Rebels proves to be a very insightful and highly recommended book for students of the Civil War.