The Thin Gray Line

Confederate Veterans in the New South

Unlike their Northern counterparts, the "Boys in Gray" came home to a devastated homeland and focused their energies on different causes.

By Richard K. Kolb
Copyright ©2000, Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States
Reprinted without permission


The South's losses in human wealth were pathetic. It was forced to skip almost a generation of young men, dead of disease, killed in battle, or wounded into economic incompetency...The wounded came back generally with the loss of an arm or leg. In some communities, at least a third of the veterans lacked a limb. Mississippi spent, in 1866, a fifth of her revenues on artificial arms and legs," wrote Coulter E. Merton in The South During Reconstruction.

Mobilizing for War

Yet the antebellum South entered into the [War Between the States] (1861-65) a region confident of swift victory. Even many Union military leaders conceded the martial skills and efficiency of the Confederate Army, three-fourths of it infantry.

John W. Chambers, in To Raise An Army, concluded: "Through a combined system of voluntary enlistment and compelled service, the South obtained nearly a million soldiers, one-sixth of the white population of the region, and was able to keep a much larger percentage of veterans in the field [than the North] until the closing months of the war."

Indeed, nearly half of all white Southern males served in the [War Between the States]. Approximately 21 percent were draftees with 79 percent being volunteers, although many were compelled. The Confederate Conscription Act of 1862, eventually extending to all males 18-50, kept everyone in the military for the war's duration. Even slaves were drafted in the final months of the struggle.

The Confederacy's manpower pool reflected accurately its population makeup. Some 95 percent of the army was made up of native-born Americans. Of the 5 percent immigrants who served in the South's army, 10,000 were formed into three European brigades.

Perhaps tens of thousands of blacks served the Confederacy in some capacity, too, according to Professor Ed Smith, director of American Studies at American University. Moreover, 12,000 Indians, mostly from Oklahoma, fought on the Southern side.

Most men came from the "humbler ranks of manual labor." More than half were farmers, but most were landless tenants. Close to 90 percent of those who served were under age 30.

Altogether, perhaps 1,082,119 Southern men wore a gray uniform sometime between 1861 and 1865.

Fighting for a 'Lost Cause'

Reasons for risking life and limb varied, but they usually came down to four fundamentals: uphold state sovereignty, regional duty, group solidarity and protection of home and family.

The notion that the average Confederate waged war to preserve slavery is a tenuous one at best. Only 6 percent of Southerners owned slaves, and 3 percent of those owned the majority. Recruits themselves referred to the war as "a rich man's war and a poor man's fight."

"Just as most Northerners did not fight to end slavery, most Southerners did not fight to preserve it," wrote James I. Robertson, Jr. in Tenting Tonight.

"By and large, owning slaves was the privilege of the well-to-do. The rank and file of the Southern armies was composed of farmers and laborers who volunteered to protect home and everything dear from Northern invaders, to keep their traditions and be left alone."

To preserve those traditions, they paid a severe price: Confederate soldiers suffered up to 12 percent killed versus 5 percent of the Union Army. Killed in action totalled 74,542 plus another 59,297 dead from disease (this figure is generally considered underestimated). Of the 214,000 Confederates imprisoned in the North, 26,000 (12 percent) died.

The Confederacy kept no records on the wounded, but it is estimated that about 10 percent, or 100,000 men, were wounded in action. Of those, 25,000 suffered amputations of arms and legs.

Confederate Army hospitals -- 150 were in service during the war -- were often transformed into houses of horror. Pvt. Alexander Hunter of the 17th Virginia Infantry recalled a night in a hospital ward at Petersburg:

"Like the dim caverns of the catacombs, where, instead of the dead in their final rest, there were wasted figures burning with fever and raving from the agony of splintered bones, tossing restlessly from side to side, with every ill, it seemed, which human flesh was heir to. From the rafters the flickering oil lamp swung mournfully, casting a ghastly light upon the scene beneath."

'Lee's Miserables"

Wounded and physically whole veterans may have been demoralized, disheartened, discouraged, disconsolate and in a state of despair when the war ended, but few doubted the worthiness of the cause for which they had sacrificed.

Virginian Rufus Peck declared: "I hadn't a single regret. I felt I had answered the country's call and discharged my duty, but all the time I was fighting for what my state thought best and against my own convictions." Another ironic twist of the [War Between the States].

Still, none who had experienced the terror of combat doubted its emotional toll. "War is an unmixed evil of blood, butchery, death, desolation, robbery, rapine, selfishness, violence, wrong," confessed one Mississippi cavalryman, "palliated only when waged in self-defense."

Mustering out pay, depending on the army, ranged from zero to $1 to $26. Federal parole was offered, but refused by 270,000 Southern diehards. Some 174,223 men accepted and took the test oath of loyalty, along with 63,442 POWs then still in prison.

"Southern veterans returned singly or in pairs; they straggled into all parts of the South," wrote Paul H. Buck in The Road to Reunion, 1865-1900, meeting "the silence of exhaustion that better harmonized with their own despair. Few who underwent this experience ever erased the memory of the inglorious humiliation it engraved upon their hearts.

"The Southern veteran came back to no such scene of jubilation as brightened the return of his adversary. Wearied in body, exhausted in spirit, he passed through wasted countrysides until he found retreat in a home that had been saddened by loss and impoverished by sacrifice. His was a retreat of a wounded stag seeking nothing better than the peace of solitude where the hounds of his enemy could not follow and the taunting cries of the victorious chase could not penetrate."

What many of these gaunt veterans returned home to was most graphically described by a Northern minister who in 1866 passed through Virginia, which "looked like a desolated country graveyard, and the people not unlike the sad spectres passing among the tombs."

Reconstruction-Style Readjustment

Ex-Confederates reacted in a variety of ways to defeat on the battlefield. After Appomattox Court House, some immediately fled to Canada and England. Later, others made the trek to Mexico, Venezuela, British Honduras and especially Brazil. Only there did a small settlement of the most-determined survive.

Of the 7,500 verified self-exiles, 3,585 ended up in the Portuguese-speaking country. Even today, in Americana, Brazil, 350 members of the Fraternity of American Descendants hold reunions. Perhaps 100,000 Brazilians have Dixie-born ancestors. They are called Confederados.

The plight of Southern veterans during Reconstruction was severe. That era's politicians prevented states from making pension payments, so care fell to families and towns until home rule was restored.

But by the early 1880s, indigent and disabled veterans became too visible, especially in the cities, pricking the New South's conscience. By 1890, half were already dead. The census revealed 428,747 living Confederate veterans. The largest percentage (15.5 percent) lived in Texas, followed by Virginia and Georgia, each of which trailed by more than four percentage points.

Those who survived the war had to be self-sufficient. The 14th Amendment to the Constitution prohibited former Confederates from receiving federal benefits. This was not changed until the congressional pardon of May 23, 1958: Public Law 85-425 symbolically granted the last Confederate survivor a pension.

Returning amputees, not surprisingly, were the primary focus of concern. "All Johnny Reb got immediately, if he had lost an arm or leg," wrote Dixon Wecter in When Johnny Comes Marching Home, "was an order from his state, or charitable group within the state, to provide an artificial one."

Generosity of care depended on the economic well-being of the state. Louisiana initially allocated $20,000 to purchase prostheses for lost limbs. By 1888, one-time, pro rata cash payments were being made for lost sight, hearing, voice or mobility. Georgia and North Carolina had similar laws.

Louisiana and Georgia also empowered each county to provide $100 per year for every resident who had lost a limb in the "defense of the South" and who possessed less than $1,000 worth of taxable property. That latter requirement was dropped 10 years later.

Tennessee granted two modest disability pensions in 1880. Eight years later, the "Volunteer State" provided $10 per month until death for those who lost their vision "while engaged in battle." Eventually, that amount was increased to $25 and extended to limbless veterans.

South Carolina spent millions on artificial limb payments and disability pensions in the three decades after the [War Between the States].

Some states dispensed disability compensation in the form of land grants. Louisiana, by 1886, had granted 226 vets and widows 123,103 acres of public "swamp" lands. Few states could offer even that paltry sum of real estate.

Texas, on the other hand, gave out 1,979,852 acres to veterans between 1881 and 1883. Every permanently disabled and indigent ex-Confederate residing in the state received a certificate granting title to 1,280 acres of available land. The law was repealed in 1883 after the public domain was virtually exhausted.

As time went on and states became more financially solvent, benefits increased. In 1894, Texas created a special tax for the state's disabled and indigent vets. Georgia, belatedly, was the most generous in spending on pensions during the 1890s: $5 million. That expenditure averaged 10 percent of the state's total during the decade.

By the turn of the century, Alabama was appropriating $250,000 annually for pensions. The state constitution mandated that 10 cents out of every $1 in revenue go toward funding pensions.

All told, the former 11 states of the Confederacy spent $400 million from 1865 to 1962 on disability pensions and soldiers' homes for veterans and widows. The total for Confederate vets comes to $500 million if the three border states and Oklahoma are included.

'Havens of Self-Respect"

To many Southerners, the state veterans homes were a monumentum aere perennium -- "a monument more enduring than bronze." R.B. Rosenburg, author of Living Monuments: Confederate Soldiers' Homes in the New South, concluded: "Confederate soldiers' homes served simultaneously as a place of refuge, a museum, a military camp, an artificial city and a shrine...In the public's mind, they served as living monuments from a mythic past to be admired, indeed some would say revered..."

Despite later sentiment surrounding them, the homes did not come easy. In February 1864, Confederate President Jefferson Davis vetoed an act establishing a national Confederate "Veterans Soldiers' Home" as unconstitutional.

The South's first state-supported soldiers' home was chartered in March 1866 in Louisiana. But the Reconstruction Republican legislature rescinded the act two years later.

It would be another 20 years, Feb. 25, 1885, before the first permanent home -- Lee Camp Soldiers Home -- was opened in Richmond, Va. Because Union vets made contributions, it was dubbed a "monument to a reunited country."

Ultimately, 16 homes were founded. The last did not open until Feb. 19, 1929 -- in Los Angeles, Calif. Entry requirements in all of them were stringent: only those with an honorable discharge who had refused a pardon and could prove war-caused indigence or disability were admitted. Up to one-third of residents were wounded in battle.

In many states, drawing a pension while a home resident was prohibited. Even an $8 monthly pension disqualified a veteran in Louisiana.

Yet this restriction was in keeping with the Southern mindset. An overwhelmingly negative attitude toward institutional relief prevailed among Confederate veterans. Residence in a home, like accepting a pension, was deemed humiliating. Charity carried a nasty stigma that repelled many proud veterans.

"They asked for what was considered necessary to care for those in need," wrote one historian, "but otherwise they viewed themselves, not only as veterans but also as common citizens and taxpayers. They tempered their demands with consideration of the welfare of all the people."

Perhaps 20,000 indigent and disabled ex-Confederates entered homes through 1920. The state with the largest number over the years was Virginia. Cost-wise, soldiers' homes were a bargain compared to pensions. The total cost for 15 homes in 1914 alone was $518,000 compared to pension payments by Southern states totalling $7.4 million.

Respect and Recognition

Throughout the history of the veterans movement, two consistent themes emerge: the fight for material benefits and the battle for cultural values. The latter usually meant public respect and recognition in the form of medals, monuments, special days of remembrance and a revered place in recorded history. In terms of recognizing battlefield heroism, the fight was waged and lost internally. Gen. Robert E. Lee was succinct in his rejection of medals: "We have now an army of brave men, reward a few and leave many, equally brave and equally faithful, unnoticed."

Though rolls of honor were drawn up, no medals were ever struck. Not until the United Daughters of the Confederacy created the Cross of Honor in 1899 was any tangible reminder of service available. The Sons of Confederate Veterans began awarding the Confederate Medal of Honor retroactively in 1968. Following the strict 1917 standards of the U.S. MOH, it has been awarded 42 times to date by the hereditary group.

Remembering and honoring the dead was especially sacred in the South. Early on, local women established ladies' memorial associations to create community cemeteries known as "cities of the dead."

"The Confederate dead did become important cultural heroes, who were perhaps more important to the South than departed heroes in many other societies, and who could be invoked to sanction values and behavior," wrote Gaines M. Foster in Ghosts of the Confederacy.

In the Deep South, Memorial Day was commemorated April 26, the day of Johnston's surrender. In the Carolina's, May 10, the day of Jackson's death, was chosen. To this day, Confederate Memorial Day is celebrated in the South.

During the 1900s, reconciliation allowed for joint remembrances. The first Confederate Memorial Day service was held in the Confederate Section of Arlington National Cemetery in 1903. Three years later, Congress passed a law to care for Confederate graves in the North.

Monuments also played an essential cultural role in post-war Southern society. "For the veteran, the homage paid to the stone soldier symbolized his community's respect for him," Foster found. "It also signified the South's conviction that it had acted rightly."

Testimony to that conviction was found in the 544 monuments that sprouted in Southern soil from 1865-1912. More than half were erected after 1900. Initially dedicated in cemeteries, they soon gracedcourthouse lawns and city streets where prominence in the public eye was assured.

Unveilings were a social activity of the first order. When the Richmond Soldiers and Sailors Monument was dedicated in 1894, 10,000 vets marched by 100,000 spectators. Things came full circle when a monument to Confederate dead was unveiled in Arlington in 1914.

"Living Inspirations for the Future"

For half a century after the [War Between the States], the thinning gray line of veterans dominated the South's regeneration in economic matters, politics and social affairs. Veterans' roles in rebuilding the region was, as one leader put it, "a fitting climax to their splendid record in war." One group boldly proclaimed ex-Confederates "rebuilt the New South." To many people, they served as "living inspirations for future service..." A 1911 Atlanta Constitution article called them "spirits untouched by time" who molded the New South's destiny. Not only were they leaders in industry and politics (1877-1900 is regarded as the "Confederate Era"), but universities sought them as professors and presidents.

Their contributions were many: They set examples of hard work, provided stable political leadership, secured state veterans benefits, preserved history, shaped the mind of the New South and advocated national reconciliation.

"The Confederate veteran, though he failed to win victory in war, may be said to have won 'a victory of the spirit' in the long peace to follow," wrote William White in The Confederate Veteran. "Indeed, he grappled against many obstacles, but finally lived to see his name honored and respected throughout the land."

Agents of Reconciliation

Southern vets were respected throughout the land to a large degree because they led the charge for unity. On its face, this may seem ironic. But anyone who has been to war understands the emotions at work in coming to terms with a foe who was an admirable adversary.

"Soldiers served as key agents in reconciliation because they had developed respect for one another in war...Veterans of both blue and gray displayed greater regard for the feelings of the other side than the non-combatants of either section," concluded Foster.

The former enemies had appeared together first at Bunker Hill in 1875. Then in 1881, Union vets decorated the graves of Southerners during Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Some 24 major Blue-Gray reunions were held between 1881 and 1887.

Sensing the time was right, Century Magazine published a three-year series on the [War Between the States] lasting from 1884-87. The "Century War Series" was a sensational success, North and South. It was quickly collected and published as a book.

Rebs and Yanks began meeting at Gettysburg as early as 1882. The 50th anniversary of Gettysburg in 1913 drew 8,000 Confederate and 44,000 Union vets. Dedication of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park in September 1895 saw 40,000 veterans from six different vet groups converge.

That same year, Chicago dedicated a monument to Confederate veterans and so did New York two years later. President William McKinley, a seasoned Union vet, while speaking in Atlanta in 1898, declared care of Confederate graves to be a national obligation.

As far back as 1887, United Confederate Veterans (UCV) Commander John B. Gordon had longed "to see one more war, that we might march under the stars and stripes, shoulder to shoulder, against a common foe." That opportunity came in 1898 with the war against Spain. When it did, whole UCV camps as well as many individuals volunteered to fight.

Proclaimed the UCV Historical Committee: "These dead, at least, belong to us all. The last hateful memory that could divide our country is buried with them. About their graves kneels a new nation."

The very same men who had fought for their states so many years ago were the first to reconcile their region to the new nationalism sweeping the land. No group of veterans could claim a greater contribution to their country.