Proud Johnny Reb, the true Confederate hero

Many a Southern soldier’s reputation determined his worth in his community and was one of the main reasons he joined the rebel cause.
By Ned Harrison

But Johnny Reb did have advantages, and one of them was the "rebel yell."

In World War II and the Korean War, we called him GI Joe. In the Vietnam War, he was known as a grunt. In the Civil War, he was called Johnny Reb, and he is a true hero of the Confederacy

In "Gone With the Wind" we saw how the Southern upper classes, the plantation aristocracy, rallied to the cause; how they joined their units expecting glory and a short war and got neither; how they expected the "Yankee rabble" to run when they saw Southern gentlemen and cold steel.

The average Southerner shared the feeling. Typically, he was white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant. He was probably illiterate and "made his mark" when he signed up in his hometown. In most cases he was a yeoman farmer, who barely eked out a living. He did not own slaves.

In the South, where a man’s reputation determined his worth in his community, in many cases he joined the Cause because he feared being called a coward by his wife or his sweetheart. Equally important, he wanted to stand tall in the eyes of his own family.

Some joined because they considered the war to be a lark. It had been 48 years since the War of 1812, and thoughts of the horrors of war had faded. In essence, the average teenagers and young adults did not want to miss any of the "fun." They joined local regiments quickly, in order to get in on the fun before it was expected to be all over. (It is amazing in retrospect to read how many on both sides expected the Civil War to be a short war. Many predicted it would all be over in six weeks, two months at the longest.)

Some wanted to get into uniform in order to "see the elephant," the term used in those days for combat. As it turned out, far too many saw "the elephant" and were killed or lost limbs in the process.

As basic as any feeling was the general tenor of the South after President Abraham Lincoln issued a call for volunteers to put down the rebellion. The idea of having soldiers from another state enter the territory of one’s own state was a hateful concept in the South, and many joined the Cause because of a patriotism that stemmed from defending one’s home from an invasion.

During the war, a Southerner was asked by a Union officer why he was fighting and he gave a three-word answer: "Because you’re here." It was the era in our history before the rights of individual states in relation to the federal government had been settled. Few in the South were ready to cede what they considered their "states’ rights" under the Constitution.

So Johnny Reb was born; born to a life of hardship and deprivation; born to a life of generally inferior numbers. In "Gone With the Wind" when Ashley Wilkes comes home on Christmas leave, he mentions how difficult it is for him and his men to compete with Yankee numbers: "The Yankees keep coming and coming. There are always more."

Johnny Reb had to scrounge. He generally had his rifle and enough ammunition, thanks to the capability of another hero of the Confederacy, Gen. Josiah Gorgas, chief of ordnance, who was proud to say, "We make enough to meet the demands of our large armies."

In all else, Johnny Reb had to work for his necessities. Food? Never enough. Reports of a soldier going off to battle with a few grains of corn in his knapsack are legend. Horses and mules — once the Confederacy lost the Mississippi, they lost their supply of horses. It was with good reason that Lincoln hoped that God was on his side, "… but I must have Kentucky." The horses and mules from Kentucky kept the North rather than the South supplied with transportation. To show how important horses were in our Civil War, a new CD "Horses of Gettysburg" notes that 72,000 horses and mules were at the Battle of Gettysburg; 5,000 of them were dead at the end of those three days.

Transportation: The South entered the war with only 9,000 miles of railroad tracks, few of them connected and often were of different gauges. There was no manufacturing ability for steam engines or railroad tracks, which led to shortages and transport difficulties as the war progressed.

But Johnny Reb did have advantages, and one of them was the "rebel yell." Professor James McPherson describes it in his excellent "Battle Cry of Freedom:" "It was as if an eerie scream rent the air. … It struck fear into the heart of the enemy." One Yankee told how he felt about the rebel yell: "There is nothing like it on this side of the infernal region. The peculiar corkscrew sensation that it sends down your backbone … can never be told. You have to feel it."

Any veteran of the Korean War can tell you how strange noises during battle can disorient you. The Chinese Communist Forces used bells, whistles and bugles as preludes to their attacks and quite literally scared American and other United Nations forces during battle. We now know that they used these noises not only to disorient their enemy, but as an army with limited communication abilities, each bugle call was also a signal of where they had broken through or where they had encountered tough resistance and were calling for reserves.

In both cases, the enemy — the Union soldiers or the Americans in Korea — were at a disadvantage because of the fear generated.

The South also had an advantage in developing advances in naval warfare. Witness the ironclad and the submarine, both developed under the brilliant leadership of Stephen Mallory, Confederate secretary of the Navy.

And through it all, Johnny Reb remained loyal to the cause. Even if defeated at Vicksburg and Gettysburg and Chickamauga and Chattanooga and Sherman’s March and the horrors of Grant’s campaign in spring 1864, when attrition cost the Confederacy more than 50,000 casualties, Johnny Reb reported for duty.

And in spring 1865, when it was all but over, he was there with Gen. Robert E. Lee. It took Lee to send Johnny Reb home to rebuild the South. In Lee’s final address to his soldiers, he thanked Southerners for their services when he said, "I need not tell the survivors of so many hard-fought battles, who have remained steadfast to the last, that I have consented to

[this peace] from no distrust of them. … I have determined to avoid the useless sacrifice of those whose past services have endeared them to their countrymen."

Then Lee added, "You will take with you the satisfaction that proceeds from the consciousness of duty faithfully performed … With an increasing admiration for your constancy and devotion to your country … I bid you an affectionate farewell."

So spoke Lee to all the Johnny Rebs, true heroes of the Confederacy.

NOTE: Please write me about any Johnny Reb "hero of the Confederacy" you know about, either as a family ancestor or because you just know about him or her. I’ll print as many of your stories as I can.

Ned Harrison is a Greensboro, N. C., writer who specializes in military history and writes a monthly Civil War column for the Roanoke Times. He wants to hear your list of the most important battles of the Civil War. Write him at News & Record / RT, P. O. Box 20848, Greensboro, NC 27420 or e-mail him at

On The Web: