Factors Contributing to Both High and Low Morale
Not everything had either a positive or negative effect on morale; sometimes something could have both a negative and positive effect, whether it was caused by military or non-military factors. For example, “letters everything had either a positive or negative effect on morale; sometimes something could have both a negative from home have been of crucial importance in sustaining morale in all literate armies” (McPherson, For Cause and Comrades 1997, 133). Having an efficient mail service played a major role in keeping up morale among troops. For the first part of the war the Confederacy was able to transport mail efficiently, but as the war went on and as the Union occupied more Confederate areas the mail system failed. More often than not, mail call was the highlight of a soldier’s day, but sometimes soldiers did not receive any letters or they received letters containing bad news which could bring down their morale (McPherson, For Cause and Comrades 1997, 132). In a letter written on February 22, 1864, Joseph Hoyle expressed his happiness of receiving a letter from his wife. He stated, “Dear Sarah, I have just received your letter of the 17th and, as you say, it allways makes me feel glad to get a letter from you, and oh how I long for the time when I can hear from you through your own dear lips. How happy could I then live” (Item 695). For those who did not receive letters from home, they did not hesitate to complain about the infrequency of their correspondents in hope that they would soon start to receive them (Dunkelman 2004, 33). Later on in the war, Joseph Hoyle would write to his wife about how he had not received any letters from her lately but that he knew she was writing him, but the mail system was preventing the letter from getting to him. Not receiving letters from Sarah would have put a damper on Joseph Hoyle’s morale, but the thought of knowing that she still wrote him was enough to keep him in good spirits.
A big morale booster during the war was being awarded with a furlough home. A chance to return home for a short period of time and escape camp life was always welcomed by soldiers. Unfortunately for the soldiers, furloughs were not always offered and if they were, it could be difficult to get one. Occasionally when this happened, a family member would be able to visit their soldier while in camp. Some men would send for their whole family to come visit, including their children. Joseph Hoyle’s wife, Sarah, visited him while the 55th North Carolina was in camp near Petersburg, Virginia between December 31, 1862 and January 23, 1863. On December 31, 1862, Joseph Hoyle wrote to Sarah, “You wrote you would come out here this week, and I am anxiously looking for you, and I hope you will be here ere this reaches you” (Item 697). Men also looked for other ways of raising morale. Many men turned to a variety of pastimes in order to pass the long hours of camp life in a more enjoyable way. Many men turned to music to help pass the time or they would play baseball, the men even sought humor wherever they could find it, and seemed to have preferred practical jokes (Dunkelman 2004, 175). In one instance at the end of January 1863, Joseph Davis’s brigade participated in a snowball fight which “soon turned into a full-scale battle as brigade fought brigade. Several units unfurled their battle flags as if in real combat and charged their “enemies”” (Girvan 2006, 85). The soldiers would find just about anything to help them pass their time in camp.
The quality of leadership had a major affect on the morale of troops. If the men believed they had a good leader and liked him, then morale tended to be high because the men respected their leader and had no doubts on his effectiveness. On the other hand, if the men believed they did not have a good leader and did not like him, then morale tended to be low because they did not respect him and thought him to be an ineffective leader. Men also looked to see if their leader took a personal interest in and stood up for his soldiers because “an officer who took such an interest in his men could be expected to induce higher spirits in them than could a more egocentric officer” (Maslowski 1970, 125). In a letter written on October 21, 1863, Joseph Hoyle expressed concern for the fact that their Captain has been absent for five months and that the men were starting to lose faith in him. He wrote, “I had thought that Capt Mull would have been here till now, but I received a letter from him yesturday, stating that he would not be here till the first of next month, and we all are thinking that he is not coming back at all. He has now been absent from the company near five months. The men have lost confidence in him” (Item 694). Another important aspect men looked for in a leader was whether or not he led by example. If a leader followed what he was telling his men to do, such as ‘charge that wall’ and charged with them, then the men would know if he was a good leader or not.
A battle could also strongly influence the morale of a unit, based off of whether the battle was won or lost. If a battle was won there would have been a spike in unit morale, men would have felt more confident in their cause and possibly have been eagerly waiting for the next fight. If a battle was lost, however, there would have been a drop in unit morale resulting in the men feeling defeated and a loss of hope. The battle of Gettysburg would have caused great fluctuation of morale among the 55th because it was three long hard days of fighting with many gains and losses. During the first day of fighting Joseph Hoyle recounted that his brigade fought with the Union soldiers and was forced back because they did not have any reinforcements. Once reinforced his brigade was able to attack again, this time they were able to push the Union army back and gain possession of the town. In a letter written to Sarah, Joseph Hoyle recounted events from June 25-July 19, 1863, where he expressed how he felt after the battle: “The yankee loss was heavy in killed wounded and prisoners, evidently heavier than ours. This days fight was a decided victory for us. But alas! it has been bought with the life-blood of many of our brave boys…. Our Regt went into the fight this morning with about 525 men, and we came out this evening with 123, and our division generally has suffered equally as much” (Item 816). This excerpt shows the fluctuation in morale, even if it is not specifically stated. The fact that the Union loss was greater than Confederate loss on the first day of battle would have given Joseph Hoyle and the men of the 55th hope and confidence in winning the battle and the war overall, thus raising their morale. The fact that these men saw that day as a victory alone would have been enough to raise their morale. On the other hand, the loss of almost their entire regiment would have severely hurt their morale. As Joseph Hoyle’s letter goes on recounting the following days, there was further loss of life as the regiment continued the fight and then retreated back to the Potomac River where they were ambushed by Union Calvary. The continued loss of life and the retreat would have severely lowered morale because this retreat would have been accepting defeat. Once the men accepted defeat they would have started losing hope in the Confederacy and in winning the war.