Saturday, January 5, 2013

Swallowing the Dog

One of the most frustrating things about playing sports - or even being a sports fan - is admitting when you get beat soundly. Whether the team that beat yours wasn't really that good, or whether your team really never had a chance to win, admitting defeat is tough to do. Similar but much graver consequences come with war.

When the various commanders of Confederate armies capitulated in the spring of 1865, many of the soldiers were left with little other choice than to "swallow the dog," as they called it, which involved taking the oath of allegiance to the United States. To those Southerners who went to war proclaiming that each Confederate soldier would "whip 20 Yankees with a cornstalk" the reality turned out to be about as tasty as eating man's best friend.

In order for former Confederates to return to any sense of normalcy and participate in the basic activities of life such as voting, contracting work, getting released from a prisoner of war camp, receiving government rations, or even getting married, they were required to verbally renounce their support for the Confederacy and pledge to uphold the Constitution of the United States. They were then often provided with documentation of their oath that they could provide to anyone that may question their allegiance.

And, along with the pledge to support the Constitution these documents, like the one above, also made sure the oath taker understood the changes the war had wrought. Included in this document is the statement "and that I will in like manner abide by and faithfully support all laws and proclamations which have been made during the existing rebellion, with reference to the emancipation of slaves."

Some Confederates initially refused to swallow the dog. The taste was just too bad. Honor, being what it was to most Southern men, made it doubly troubling. But often necessity, and as this account shows, the soldier's family's strident persuasion won out. Writing to her brother in a prisoner of war camp and advising to go ahead and take the oath, a sister explained:

"Do not again refuse when the opportunity presents itself. God judge me if I do wrong in writing thus to you. If you have suffered, believe me it has cost your sister no little pain to do that which I would rather have died then done twelve months ago! Let you act as you may, you will command the respect of your friends. Your character is too well established to be assailed after four years of strict adherence to duty, should you deem it advisable to bury all hopes and become a good 'citizen' of the United States of America. A man of sense ought to yield everything for duty's sake, and 'obey the powers that be.' Don't imagine the those who love you so dearly will ever blush for your conforming to unavoidable circumstances. Come home, then, my darling, for home needs you as well as you need it."
From - The Day Dixie Died: Southern Occupation, 1865-1866, by Thomas and Debra Goodrich

Top document courtesy of the National Archives

Bottom image "Grant's Campaign - administering the oath of allegiance to Rebel prisoners near Dutch Gap [Virginia] and taken from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper October 1, 1864. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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