Book review: K.W. Noe, Reluctant Rebels: The Confederates Who Joined the Army after 1861 (Chapel Hill, 2010)

Kenneth Noe’s book examines those Confederate volunteers who were so-called ‘late enlisters’, those who joined the southern army after the rage militare of 1861 had died down.[1] He estimates that 180,000 joined up after 1861 and this group of men are neglected by historians and stereotyped as hesitant non-slave owning farmers. His book aims to correct this omission and examine whom these people were, their motivations for not enlisting during the early months of the war and what finally drove them to don Confederate grey.[2]

He uses the contemporary letters and diaries of 320 men through which he hopes to give an accurate illustration of soldiers’ reasons to join up later and fight.[3] In his cohort, most men enlisted as privates (71%) and remained so through their service (60%).[4] He found that his sample as ‘late enlisters’ tended to be older with a greater proportion married than those who had volunteered before them.[5]

In the first two sections of the book, he considers what motivated men to enlist after 1861. He argues that late enlisters were ideologically less politically motivated than those who enlisted in 1861. While there were exceptions, few were motivated by Confederate nationalism or notions of duty and honour. However, the issue of slavery was as important to the late comer as the early war firebrands.[6] As slavery was the basis of the southern economy; if this went, then people’s economic survival could be threatened. Allied to this, many enlisted to defend their homes; older men joined up to protect their wives and families, younger men to protect ideals of ‘southern womanhood’.[7] The ravaging of southern territory by the invading Union army and their freed African American allies sharpened much of this desire to protect community and livelihood.[8] The final part of the book considers what keep later enlisting men fighting. Noe argues it was the power of home; individual men’s religious connections to kin and home kept them going.[9] Noe concludes that there was no evidence that later enlisting men were more likely to desert, shirk or refused combat than their early enlisting comrades. Ultimately, the older age and greater prevalence of ill health among these men were the major obstacles to their military effectiveness.[10]

Interesting, as with other Civil War historians, Noe refuses to use soldiers’ memoirs published after 1865. He argues ‘it’s human nature to interpret the past with questions raised by the present’ and a ‘memoir written in the 1880s or 1890s not only is a source that may reflect the war from an older man’s perspective but a memory of the war filtered through Reconstruction, Redemption, the rise of veterans groups and, especially, whatever else the author has read or heard in the meantime.’[11] The practice of using only contemporary sources is an interesting perspective and not one that is undertaken by Great War scholars in Britain.

Though the book is academic, it is an easy read. The thematic structure that set out key motivators to enlist and serve works well. It is an important book because it covers a group of people so often neglected in history; those who volunteered after the patriotic fervour had died down. A similar study on men who enlisted in British forces during the Great War from 1915 would produce an interesting read.

[1] K.W. Noe, Reluctant Rebels: The Confederates Who Joined the Army after 1861 (Chapel Hill, 2010), pp.2-3.

[2] Ibid., p.18.

[3] Ibid., pp.12-18.

[4] Ibid., pp.14-15.

[5] Ibid, pp.15-18.

[6] Ibid., pp.21-60.

[7] Ibid., pp.63-86.

[8] Ibid., pp. 87-104.

[9] Ibid., pp.125-170.

[10] Ibid., pp.171-212.

[11] Accessed 21 May 2019.