Legacy of the Confederacy on military service: Do “Confederates in blue” have influence?

Robert Moore has, as he often does, posted a thought provoking piece today.   Some of the present debates about the Confederate legacy in play in our present day brought Robert to think about how that intersects with notions of military service:

I know how people like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson touched something within me, and inspired a sense of dutyhonor… and, frankly, I knew from an early age that I was going to serve my country. It wasn’t debatable (I can’t help but hearing, right now, some of my old shipmates calling me a “dig’it”. Lol.).

So, when we see the current trend of removing the Confederate flag, discussion of moving/removing monuments, vandalizing monuments, etc. – all because it “inspires hatred”, and therefore, must be removed to eliminate, at least that much “inspiration” (because, certainly, there’s more out there that serves as “inspiration”), I wonder just how many out there find another kind of “inspiration” in Confederate iconography… the positive kind… especially U.S. military veterans. I’m really curious as to how many have been inspired, in some way, by the legacy of Confederate leaders such as these? I’ve mentioned it before… some key people in WW1, like Lejeune; and in WW2, like Patton, Puller, Buckner.. and many others, are just a few examples.

An interesting observation and a point to ponder.

As I mentioned with respect to the Confederate memorials, it is important to consider the subject of those public fixtures.  The surface intent of those memorials was to force the audience to recall the service and sacrifice of individuals who answered the call to war.  Now that war was for, we must agree, a terrible cause.  But it was a call placed by society, none-the-less.  We certainly should discuss that cause.  However, it is important to caveat that discussion with the separation of “causes” and “motivations” in respect to the soldier’s service.  We might enter the same logical start point with respect to the Vietnam War (or maybe the wars in Iraq?).  This changes the foundation of the discussion somewhat.

And thinking to Robert’s observation, can we find inspiration… or at least some redeeming quality … from the service of Confederate veterans?

Robert has a poll on his site that addresses that question.  Please click over there and offer your take.

However, let me take Robert’s point and step to another…. Consider if you will our oral history, and to a degree the ‘pop’ history, with respect to the Confederate veterans.  As Robert and others say, there is a legacy of reconciliation and … in general… “coming to terms.”  Indeed the vast majority of former Confederates reverted to U.S. citizenship, and for all measure there was little to question that loyalty.  (And lets remember… there are a lot of loyal Americans who disagree with Presidents, Congress, or particular laws.  That disagreement is well below the measure of disloyalty.)

Some of this plays out in our collective memory of those post-war years.  Again, the oral and pop history give us plenty of examples to lean on, if we are searching for inspiration of the kind Robert alludes to.  One stereotypical figure is the “Confederate in blue.”  Not talking specifically of the “Galvanized Yankees” who were more so a wartime convention, being recruited from the prisoner camps.  More so the former Confederates who after the war served in the US Army.  As the stereotype works, that was linked to the frontier.  We see that stereotype personified in the westerns of the 20th century.  An ample example is “Trooper John Smith” from that classic “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.”


Here’s a clip of that movie in which “John Smith’s” Confederate service receives notice, at about the 1:40 mark:

Later, as Captain Nathan Brittles lays Smith to rest, he offers this eulogy:

I also commend to your keeping, Sir, the soul of Rome Clay, late Brigadier General, Confederate States Army. Known to his comrades here, Sir, as Trooper John Smith, United States Cavalry… a gallant soldier and a Christian gentleman.

Another dialog occurs in the movie “Fort Apache” as Captain Yorke (John Wayne again) discusses a detail with Lieutenant-Colonel Thursday, with some situational humor laced in:

 Lt. Col. Owen Thursday: I’m for it, Captain. How many men will you need?

Captain Yorke: One, sir. Sergeant Beaufort.

RSM Michael O’Rourke: PRIVATE Beaufort, sir!

Lt. Col. Owen Thursday: Why him?

Captain Yorke: He speaks Spanish – so does Cochise. My Apache has its limits.

Lt. Col. Owen Thursday: Shouldn’t you take another officer instead?

Captain Yorke: Well, Sergeant Beaufort was…

RSM Michael O’Rourke: PRIVATE Beaufort, sir!

Captain Yorke: Private Beaufort was a major in the Confederate army… an aide to Jeb Stuart.

Lt. Col. Owen Thursday: Hmm. I remember “Kaydet” Stuart. He was…

Captain Collingwood: Quite.

Lt. Col. Owen Thursday: Were you saying something, Captain?

Captain Collingwood: I said, “Quite,” sir.

Some will wash this off as just the “reconciliationist” attitudes still persistent in 1949.  Like much of our history, there is more here than a simple explanation.

How many former Confederates went west to serve in the US Army?  I don’t think anyone has ever quantified that.  There were without doubt some “Trooper John Smiths” and “Sergeant Beauforts” were out there.  Though I don’t think it was a significant portion of the force.

Hollywood… or specifically, John Ford… looked to bring some positive and inspirational qualities out from the story of individual Confederate veterans. Yes we need to put it in context of an overall “we are Americans and reconciled” theme.  But we also need to consider why the writers and directors chose to pinpoint these particular details.  Is it not to show that individuals are… well… individuals?  And there is something to everyone’s story that is worth consideration?

I dare say that trend, with respect to Confederate veterans, continues in Hollywood today:

I think the study of such characters – Trooper John Smith, Sergeant … er.. Private Beaufort, and Cullen Bohannon – serves a valuable purpose.  These were individuals.  And individuals can be measured both “inside of” and “aside from” what ever causes they might have served.

What do you say?

11 thoughts on “Legacy of the Confederacy on military service: Do “Confederates in blue” have influence?

  1. Craig – Consider this image at the Virginia Historical Society:


    At one time, the VHS also had verbiage which included: “. . . recruiting efforts in Virginia were bolstered by invoking Lee’s memory.”

    So using Lee to get Southern boys to give their lives for the United States is ok, but today, Lee is “evilized” by certain individuals as a traitor. Very classy. And ignorant, in my opinion.

  2. Craig,

    I seem to recall some degree of controversy in Civil War circles when “Hell on Wheels” first appeared, some even jumping to conclusions before watching the show! Cullen is a more complex character than some critics initially thought. On the surface, there are some Lost Cause stereotypes…the Confederate soldier who treated his slaves kindly and whose family was murdered by Sherman’s Damned Yankees. But his character has actually enabled an exploration of race in the post-war West, and has also served to showcase the re-entry of ex-Confederates into American society after the war. Here is a former Confederate Army officer who is helping to transform a reunited nation into an economic giant. And there were many ex-Confederates who did so, in all walks of life, regardless of their reasons for fighting against the Union. Interestingly, in a few of the episodes, Cullen takes on a former Confederate who served with him and who wants anything but to be re-integrated as a lawful citizen. This sets up an interesting dichotomy.

    As to ex-Confederates in the frontier Regular Army after the Civil War, Don Rickey in his classic “Forty Miles a Day on Beans and Hay,” recounts that many veterans of the Confederate Army enlisted for frontier service with the U.S. Army. A lot of these men didn’t have proper homes to go back to. And in fact, some took assumed names, just as in the movies! I will keep searching to see if the number was ever quantified.

    • That’s a good summation.

      I’m not much on TV these days, with a couple of exceptions – HoW being one of them. For those unfamiliar, the hero or perhaps, “anti-hero”, is a former Confederate officer (Colonel, I think), by the name of Cullen Bohannan (gotta love that name) who was a plantation owner in Mississippi prior to the WBTS. His wife and son were murdered by marauding yankees and he’s Josey Wales PO’d over it. Much of the story line is him struggling with the bitterness, hatred and his desire for revenge. (He even murders the wrong person, thinking he was the one who raped and murdered his wife.) He goes west and eventually becomes best friends with a former slave (after they beat the crap out of each other). The slave actually wins the fight.

      It is, without a doubt, the most politically incorrect show I’ve seen in years. I can’t believe it even made it on to TV. The “villians” are crony capitalism (represented by the railroad), and corrupt government officials (represented by corrupt government officials) and evil religious types (represented by evil religious types). Bohannan, at times, seeks for answers in the church, but the corruption always turns him away. He does value honor and his word and is criticized over that. Classic. But he’s certainly not portrayed as a saint.

      The former Confederate to which you refer is another villain and he’s dealt with appropriately, I think. As you note, the dichotomy is quite interesting, especially as Bohannan defends the former slaves against his former comrade (both whom are guilty of murdering Union soldiers – wounded, if I recall correctly.)

      The relationship that evolves between Bohannan and the former slave, along with the other now free blacks working on the railroad, is handled beautifully, I think. No punches pulled. There’s the obvious racism and distrust, but it changes over time into a relationship of mutual respect – even admiration. The series does get a bit raunchy at times for my Christian sensibilities, but the cursing and violence etc. is not what I would characterize as gratuitous.

      It’s gritty, true to life (in many respects) and the acting is superb.

  3. Really you cite two movies that were made in the 1940s, an era when the U.S. armed services were still segregated and Racism was still prevalent. Of course it had to be an ex- confederate soldier. In reality it would most likely have been a Buffalo Soldier or a Black Seminole Scout.

  4. Craig, for years I have been on the trail of a major with Rooney Lee’s Brigade that “went over quietly” after the war. Stay tuned as we are getting close.. You’ll be the first to know. (And there are letters.)

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