Asking the Difficult Question(s) for My Thesis on Dispelling the Myth of the “Ragged” Rebel

Last week’s readings, along with our class discussions and the readings in and outside of class on the topic of forming a solid research question for our theses have been very enlightening.  I found last week’s XYZ exercise on trying to formulate a good research question quite helpful and I hope that I have been able to tackle this first hurdle with a little more confidence than before.

I am writing my thesis about “Dispelling the Myth of the ‘Ragged Rebel’: A Case Study in Confederate Material Culture.” I wish to explore how the Confederate States government could begin supplying the various Southern armies through a non-existent supply system in the early days of the war, in such a short amount of time. Evidence points to (after the implementation of the Confederate Quartermaster Supply depots,) Confederate forces becoming more well supplied/better equipped, even as the war progressed, not the opposite. It has long been argued that the “ragged” rebels were just plain overwhelmed, overpowered, outnumbered and had they been properly supplied, or had more men, then they would have been victorious. This argument was one of the very tenet arguments upon which the “Lost Cause” myth was built.  that as the Union naval blockade tightened its grip on Southern ports, or as Union armies overran supply depots, supplies to the troops, their uniforms, and equipment, became scarcer and the men became more and more bedraggled, tattered, and worn. Close Examination of original photographs, quartermaster records, veteran’s accounts, paintings, sketches, etc, supports the thesis of the troops being better supplied as the war drug on.

With my thesis, I hope to help others understand how this myth was the very foundation of the “Lost Cause” and that without the “ragged” rebel, then it would have been much harder to explain away the Confederate defeat. This part of the “Lost Cause” has been able to remain a major component of the argument for the last 150 years and I feel that it is a disservice to the fighting men of the Confederacy and their opponents, who according to the myth, were just barely able to win the war facing off against a “ragged”, tattered, starving, worn out, army of defiant Southerners.

So, I believe that my first draft of a research question will be as follows:

Dispelling the Myth of the “Ragged” Rebel: A Case Study in Confederate Material Culture. With the predominant idea of Confederate Armies being comprised of “ragged” rebels during the war, what then took the Union four years to defeat them? Did Confederate Quartermaster Supply Depots actually provide a larger amount of uniforms, weapons, and equipment to make much more well equipped Southern armies , than previously understood?

6 thoughts on “Asking the Difficult Question(s) for My Thesis on Dispelling the Myth of the “Ragged” Rebel”

  1. To me the interesting part of your project seems to have do with why the myth was constructed in the first place. Proving that the army was well-supplied doesn’t make me want to ask why it took so long to defeat it. (and an answer to that question won’t be found in research on Southern supply lines). Instead I want to know where and how the myth originated if those who fought would have had an un-mythlike experience of supply support? How did this particular myth support the Lost Cause mythology? What did the “losers” gain by creating this myth? You can prove that the armies were better equipped than the myth suggested but if that’s the case, why the myth? On the other hand, if you are less interested in mythmaking post-war and more interested in the conduct of the war, perhaps you need a different approach — how well equipped were Southern soldiers and what can that tell us about ….the military supply system of the Confederacy? the source of the supplies? who was producing the supplies? i find the mythmaking component the more compelling research question, but this would be something to discuss more fully with your advisor.

    1. Thanks Dr. Jones, I will talk to Dr. Quigley about a way to restructure my research question to put more focus on the supply aspect of the Confederacy, as the myth portion of the “Lost Cause” has been researched and written on quite heavily in the past few years and I almost feel that this would be like “beating a dead horse.” I hope that I can find a way to do this in such a way that it will create enough interest in my subject of Confederate supply and logistics.

  2. Tiny,

    I like seeing the progress you made in this research project from the start of last semester. It seems to me that you are now more focused on what you will be researching and studying for your thesis. I also like the fact that you are taking a material culture approach. I think this will help you create a highly interesting project that could potentially be turned into a display at a museum or a larger public history project.

  3. Tiny,
    After reading the post and the above comments I find myself a bit torn between the two approaches Dr. Jones described. On the one hand I like the idea of trying to “dispel” the myth of the lost cause. I think you have some solid primary sources available in the supply lines and materials needed to outfit an army, but this will be time consuming and a difficult path. On the other hand I think the myth itself offers some interesting paths for your research and thesis. It reminds me of Picket’s Charge in History and Memory, by Carol Reardon. Her study on memory and myth-making sound similar to something you might be able to take on with this project.

  4. I’m glad to see you thinking about focusing your research question more sharply. I think framing the question as *Why did it take the Union 4 years to beat the Confederacy* is very broad, and doesn’t quite fit what you will actually be able to deliver. The more you can refine your research question to match up with the primary sources you’ll be using, the better. On the subject of primary sources, I’d be tempted to steer clear of veterans’ accounts – presumably they were shaped by the postwar myth? I also think there are limits to what you can prove with the photographs alone. They will provide good additional examples, but I think the only way you can really prove what you want to prove is through sources like quartermasters records and the kind of military correspondence that is available in the 128 volumes of The War of the Rebellion – freely available and searchable online through Cornell.

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