In 1862 the Confederate Congress passed an act to authorize the award of medals and badges of distinction to soldiers as a “reward for courage and good conduct on the field of battle.” The Confederacy did not have the manufacturing capability to make badges, so on October 3, 1863, the Confederate Adjutant and Inspector General’s Office changed the award from a badge to having the soldier’s name read at the head of his regiment at the first dress parade after its receipt and having his name published in at least one newspaper in his home state.
2,053 men were posted to the roll of honor during the war, and of that number, 373 were awarded to Mississippians – the highest number issued to a single state of the Confederacy.
The big difference between the Confederate Roll of Honor and the Union Medal of Honor was that the enlisted men in the southern army got to choose the men placed on the roll. According to the regulations issued by the Adjutant and Inspector General’s Office, “The noncommissioned officers and privates are authorized, at the first dress-parade after each victory the company shall have assisted to achieve, to distinguish, by a majority of their votes, one private or noncommissioned officer most conspicuous for gallantry and good conduct in the battle. Should more than one soldier be hereafter selected by a company, as equal in merit, the name to announced on the roll will be determined by lot. Commissioned officers, distinguished for gallantry on the field, are not to be selected by the vote of the company, battalion or regiment to which they belong, but a statement of their special good conduct should be made by their immediate commander, and forwarded, through the regular channel, to this office.” – The Official Confederate Roll of Honor.
Participation in the roll of honor was voluntary, and many Mississippi units did not choose men for the roll. They felt that with so many men displaying bravery in battle, it was wrong to single out one person for a special honor.
Mississippians distinguished themselves on battlefields throughout the south and in every theater of the conflict. To give just one example, at the battle of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, December 30, 1862 – January 1, 1863, so many Mississippians died trying to take a strong Federal position in a small skirt of woods that afterwards the area was known as the “Mississippian’s Half-Acre or Hell’s Half-Acre”
Private John W. Simmons of the 27th Mississippi Infantry was involved in the fight at the Mississippian’s Half Acre, and after the war he wrote, “I believe I saw as much war as any man in it, never being absent, but I never in all the war saw as many dead men of one single command in so small a place, as I did there on the plains of Murfreesboro. Attala County ought to erect a monument on the spot to mark the place where her gallant sons fell. – The Attala Ledger, May 17, 1897.
The Mississippians who fought so gallantly for their state were well motivated; they were defending their homes and their very way of life from a ruthless invader. Sergeant Major John T. Kern of the 45th Mississippi Infantry wrote of this in his diary saying, “We have passed through some of the prettiest country on this move that I have ever seen, it is hard to give up so much of our Dixie to the vandal hordes of Lincoln. God will surely aid us in driving them back to their bleak north and give us our goodly land in his own good time when he finds we have suffered enough and are worthy.” – Diary of John T. Kern, May 22, 1864. Original diary is at the Old Court House Museum, Vicksburg, MS.
Colonel Winchester B. Shelby of the 39th Mississippi spoke of the motivation his men had to fight when he wrote his report on the siege of Port Hudson, Louisiana: “I trust I may be pardoned for saying a few words with reference to my own regiment. The conduct of officers & men alike meets with my unqualified approbation. They evinced that spirit which ever activates men fighting for the Holiest of Causes Freedom & their homes…” – Report of Colonel Winchester B. Shelby, Tulane University Library, New Orleans, LA.
Very often, the officers of Mississippi troops had to inspire their men with a display of personal bravery, very often at great risk to themselves. One example of this is found in the Official Records: “I cannot speak too highly of the conduct of the troops under my command. Lieutenant Colonel Reed, temporarily commanding the Fifth Mississippi Cavalry, was pre-eminently daring, and fell mortally wounded while standing on the rifle pits and encouraging his men to the charge, and Lieutenant Burton was killed at his side.” – Report of General James R. Chalmers on the capture of Fort Pillow, Tennessee. Official Records, Series 1, Volume 32, Part 1, Page 622.
Sometimes the loss of a relative or friend would bring out an almost suicidal bravery in a soldier. Major Robert Stiles of the Richmond Howitzers witnessed this in Judson Smith of the 21st Mississippi Infantry after his brother William was killed at the battle of Savage Station, Virginia on June 29, 1862. Stiles wrote that Judson was “altogether deranged” by the death of his brother, and when the 21st Mississippi attacked Malvern Hill on July 1, “…when the regiment, on its first charge, stopped ascending that fearful slope of death and turned back, Jud. Smith did not stop. He went right on, never returned and was never seen or heard of again.” To make the story even more tragic, when their father heard of the loss of his only two sons, “…he left home, joined Price’s army as a private soldier, and at Iuka did just as his eldest son had done at Malvern Hill, which was the last ever seen or heard of him, and the family became extinct..” – Four Years Under Marse Robert, pages 116-117.
Not all Mississippians were brave soldiers who gallantly fought the enemy for four years; there were also cowards and deserters to be found in ranks as well. Many of the problems with cowardice and desertion stemmed from the use of conscription by the Confederate army that forced many men to serve against their will.
By the spring of 1862 the Confederacy found itself facing a manpower shortage with not enough men volunteering to join the army. To remedy this situation, on April 16, 1862, the Confederate Congress passed the first conscription law in American History, drafting for three years all white males between 18 and 35 who were not legally exempt. As the war continued and southern losses grew, the conscription age was raised to 45 in September 1862 and by February 1864, the limits were 17 and 50.
Exempted from the draft were certain occupations critical to the war effort and to the home front, such as railroad workers, telegraph operators, and druggists. The most controversial exemption allowed the owner or overseer of a plantation with twenty or more slaves to be free from the draft. Known as the Twenty-Negro Law, this exemption proved to be very unpopular. Another widely disliked exemption was the substitution system, where a man could pay another man not liable to the draft to serve in his stead. These last two exemptions were hated by the common people of the Confederacy who called it “A rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” As the manpower shortage worsened as the war went on, both of these measures were abolished.
Reaction to the Confederate draft was very negative, particularly in regions that were poor and had few slaves. In the end about ½ of those drafted reported for duty, producing about 120,000 soldiers throughout the Confederacy, about 20% of all Rebel soldiers.
Desertion was a problem that plagued the Confederate army from the very earliest days of its existence, and the problem only got worse as the war went on and the conflict began to turn against the south.
Part of the desertion problem stemmed from the fact that southern soldiers were very individualistic and had a hard time accepting the discipline that army life required. Private Joseph Pendleton of the 38th Mississippi Infantry summed up this attitude in a letter to his sister when he wrote, “I am getting tired of being bound when I cannot go when I please I always wanted to be free.” – Pendleton Letters, Confederate Research Center, Hillsboro, TX.
Many southerners felt that the army treated them like slaves, something they were very sensitive about. Many volunteers in the army believed they were no better than slaves when a provision of the conscription act in 1862 extended the terms of volunteers already in the service to an additional three years. In 1864 their enlistments were extended to the duration of the war, and only a crippling wound, chronic disease, or death could release a soldier from the army.
Although the draft brought many men into the Confederate army, the quality of these men was often very poor, and many sought to desert at the first opportunity. One Mississippi regiment that had extensive problems with deserters was the 38th Mississippi Infantry. Organized in the spring of 1862, the regiment contained a number of men who were conscripts or who had joined the unit to avoid the stigma of being labeled a conscript.
The unreliability of these conscripts in the 38th Mississippi was realized during the Corinth campaign, as many of these men slipped away from the regiment and went home. Colonel Preston Brent, commander of the 38th later wrote his wife that the morning of the battle he left camp with 314 men but arrived on the field with only 150. He explained to her the reason for the loss: “This was owing a great deal to the fatiguing march that we had to make the morning of the battle, and a great deal to the cowardice of some of the men, that never had any fight in them or ever will. I have heard from most of them and they were on their way home, no doubt they will tell great tale of what they have seen and what they have gone through with; poor cowardly devils they have not done anything but couch themselves up in some hospital or tent and fraim themselves sick. Studying up all the while to devise some plan to get home, but finding it impossible to get a proper furlough, they openly desert from hospital and regiment, claiming to be badly mistreated. I hope the citizens will treat them with perfect contempt and as far as possible annoy them so that they will have to return to their command. Beneath Torn and Tattered Flags, Pages 50-51.
Many Mississippians deserted as the war turned against the south and the Yankees ravaged large parts of the state. It was very tempting for men serving in the army far from their homes to desert when they had wives, children, and family in Mississippi that were in the path of the invading Union armies.
Private Robert M. Holmes of the 24th Mississippi Infantry wrote in his diary how bad news from home affected the men in the ranks: “Several of the boys received letters this morning from which we learn the sad news that the Yankees are invading the soil of Mississippi very fast. These letters stated that they were near our homes which causes us to feel very much discontented.” – May 5, 1863. Kemper County Rebel.
The hardships of a soldier’s life caused many Mississippians to desert; besides being killed or wounded in battle, food was poor and often hard to come by at all, pay was slow in coming, and as the war went on soaring inflation in the south meant that soldier’s could buy very little when they were paid. Many soldiers desperately wanted to see their families at home, but furloughs were very hard to obtain.
After 1863 armed bands of deserters acted freely in many parts of the state, and in some areas local officials aided these groups in resisting the enforcement of Confederate conscription laws. The northeast part of the state was one area where there was widespread opposition to conscription and deserters were common. Poor citizens of counties such as Tishomingo, Pontotoc, and Itawamba had opposed the war from the start, and these areas proved a haven to deserters from the Confederate army.
Another area of the state that had serious problems with deserters was Jones County. Deserters became so rampant in Jones and surrounding counties in 1864 that in March Colonel Robert Lowry was sent into the area with the 6th and 20thMississippi Infantry Regiments to clean out the region.
When he entered Smith County, Lowry had the following notice printed in the local paper: “To the CITIZENS OF SMITH COUNTY: I came among you a few days since for the purpose of correcting evils which had well-nigh destroyed your county…You are now free from this curse, and if you will now perform your duties as patriots and freemen you will remain so…When you find in your midst a deserter, secure and send him to his command. If loyal citizens are ordered from their homes by a band of marauders and house burners, treat them as outlaws and common enemies to mankind.” – Official Records, Series 1, Volume LII, Part 2, Page 658.
After rounding up deserters in Smith County, Lowry moved on to Jones County to deal with one of the most notorious deserters in the state; Newt Knight. Knight was the leader of an armed band of deserters in Jones County that had plagued Confederate officials for many months. Lowry pulled no punches in his fight against the Knight and his followers, using dogs to track down the men and torturing them to obtain information about where deserters were hiding. Lowry also executed a number of deserters who were captured after firing on his men. Captain William C. Thompson of the 6th Mississippi described the execution of four of these deserters saying, “In front of a military formation and the townspeople the four young men, with their hands tied behind them, were placed in a wagon bed. Ropes were tied around their necks and fastened to the limb of a large oak tree. After they had been given time for last prayers the wagon was driven from under them. This was one of the most revolting sights I had ever witnessed, and I am glad I had no active part in it.” – Civil War Times Illustrated, February 1965.
Colonel Lowry continued the expedition against deserters until early May 1864 when he was ordered to rejoin the army. During his campaign against the hundreds of men were returned to their commands, nine were hung, two shot, and one wounded at at cost of one of Lowry’s men killed and two wounded.
As the war neared its end in 1865, desertion was rampant in the Confederate armies. In February 1865 John S. Preston, Superintendent of the Bureau of Conscription, estimated that there were over 100,000 deserters scattered throughout the Confederacy.
A tabulation prepared at the very end of the war by the Confederate War Department showed 198,494 officers and men absent and only 160,198 men present in the Rebel armies on the eve of surrender.
Boatner, Mark M. III. The Civil War Dictionary. New York: David McKay Company, 1959.
Dennis, Frank A., Ed. Kemper County Rebel: The Civil War Diary of Robert Masten Holmes, C.S.A. Jackson, MS: University & College Press of Mississippi, 1973.
Holmes, Jack D. L. “The Mississippi County that ‘Seceded’ From the Confederate States of America;” Civil War Times Illustrated, (February, 1965).
Howell, H. Grady. For Dixie Land I’ll Take My Stand. Jackson, MS: Chickasaw Bayou Press, 1998.
Moneyhon, Carl and Bobby Roberts. Portraits of Conflict: A Photographic History of Mississippi In The Civil War. Fayetteville, AK: University of Arkansas Press, 1993.
The Official Confederate Roll of Honor. The Georgia Mint, no date.
Rowland, Dunbar. Military History of Mississippi 1803-1898. Spartanburg, SC: The Reprint Company, 1978.
Stiles, Robert. Four Years Under Marse Robert. New York: Neale, 1903.
United States War Department, Compiler. War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. 73 Volumes, 128 Parts; Washington, DC: 1880-1902.
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